Sam Cohen's essay engages in a radical experiment in empathy: she reads Elizabeth Ellen's An Open Letter to the Internet with generosity and care--despite being a survivor of rape herself. Though she approaches Ellen and her mother--and Stepen Tully Dierks--with empathy, Cohen hardly agrees with their beliefs or excuses their actions. She interrogates the rapist/scumbag dichotomy set up by Ellen and proceeds to take it apart, piece by piece, in an effort to get at what it will take to bring rape culture to a shuddering collapse. --SBB
What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape Culture: Bridging the Gap with Elizabeth Ellen (and her mom)
Okay. So, I’m going to start and say that when Elizabeth Ellen’s essay first came out, I wanted to tear it apart, to smash it. But responses have rolled in, tearing and smashing, and I’m not going to pretend for a second that I felt anything other than joy at the smashing, joy that what appeared to be a defense of sexual violence felt so obviously wrong to so many people. But because of those early responses, I no longer feel such a need to smash. Instead, I feel a need to bridge—to try to understand Elizabeth Ellen’s point of view and maybe invite her back into the conversation, rather than barring her, rather than censoring. I think it’s important to note that, at least outside the lit community, Ellen’s perspective is so pervasive that it hardly makes sense to censor or bar it—let’s think back to Steubenville & all the media anchors lamenting the fate of the young, promising boys who were so nice and so good except the one time they gang-raped someone—I want to consider this perspective, deal with it somehow. In her essay, Ellen asks us to have empathy, for everyone. I’m going to try.
One crux of Ellen’s essay is this weird, insistent distinction between the terms “scumbag” and “rapist.” Steven Tully Dierks is a scumbag, not a rapist, she says. To get at what Ellen is communicating, I want to talk about both these terms—“scumbag” and “rapist.”
Ellen claims that Dierks is not a rapist. So, then, who IS a rapist? The rapist is not only one who rapes. Because rapist is a signifier, right? The rapist is wearing a ski mask and has, like, a crow bar which he uses to push girls’ shoulders into the outer brick walls of city buildings before he attacks. The rapist does nothing but rape and plot rape and think about rape. The rapist rapes violently, shoves the crowbar up the twat of every lone, scared woman he can find walking down the street.
This is how Elizabeth Ellen’s essay conflates “rapist” with “monster,” a term she also uses a few times. This rapist/monster conflation makes sense. This is how we’ve constructed the signifier of the rapist. The rapist is a monster. Monsters are hardly ever real. So rapists are hardly ever real. Transitive property.
So okay, Elizabeth Ellen, I’m with you. Let’s forget “rapist.” Steven Tully Dierks is not a rapist. Stephen Tully Dierks is a normal boy. The stranger who forcibly fucked me in the lobby of my building was a normal boy, too. (He was wearing those REI canoe pants that zip off into shorts at the knee for godsakes = not a rapist.)
And here I think is the center of Ellen’s argument: Dierks is a normal boy, so it’s unfair to treat him as an aberration—the word “rapist” suggests monster suggests aberrant violent freak. Dierks is not an aberrant violent freak. The boy who raped me is not an aberrant violent freak either.
And this is the problem with using the word “rapist” within Rape Culture. “Rapist” suggests monstrosity and aberrance, but in Rape Culture, normal boys have sex with normal girls without those girls’ full consent.
And here I want to define Rape Culture:
In Rape Culture, we have a system in which bodies are gendered, in which gendered bodies are perceived to have different kinds and levels of desire, in which some bodies’ desires are understood to be more pressing and important than other bodies’ desires, and in which the sexual violation of some bodies by other bodies is naturalized and permitted, if not encouraged.
Ellen doesn’t seem to recognize that Rape Culture exists. For Ellen and her mom, Rape Culture is just Culture, inherent, The Way of Things.
Ellen’s mom says, “We’ve all had sex we don’t want to have.”
The normalcy of this “sex we don’t want to have” is, for Ellen and her mom, a reason to find Sophia Katz’s story of her violation perplexing and unnecessary; for me, it’s a reminder of the pervasiveness of Rape Culture and the silence around casual sexual violation. It’s a reminder of the importance of storytelling to the project of dismantling rape culture. Ellen and I have extreme differences re: the place of narratives of sexual violation in lit, but more on that later.
For now, in the interest of storytelling, and to help define rape culture, I want to talk about my own rape:
I was 20. This boy I had just met at a club walked me home from the club and then pushed me into the lobby of the building where I lived. He held me up, against a wall, and fucked me. I said the word stop. And no. And please. I was wearing a knee-length denim Marc Jacobs skirt and brown calf-length leather boots, since I hear people like to ask. I remember the skirt because it was pushed up around my hips and also the boots because I could see them behind this boy’s zip-at-the-knee REI canoe pants, which were still on. After he pulled out and released my legs to the ground, this boy apologized. He said, “I’m sorry,” and then he said, “Do you want a cigarette?” I said, “Yes.” I stood outside with this boy, after he raped me, and smoked a cigarette.
I smoked a cigarette with this boy in part because I was unable to use the word rape for what had just happened. It took me about three years to use the word rape for what just happened, and here’s why, I think: the feelings I felt after this episode were the same feelings I had after a lot of the “sex” I’d been having in college—“sex” that happened in frat houses, where boys would tell me I looked like I needed some water, show me the water cooler in their room, and be suddenly touching me while I went limp on their beds and tried hard to leave my body.
These boys, obviously, were taught this water cooler trick. It was a culture. And because it was a culture, I accepted it as The Way of Things. This is Rape Culture.
This boy who raped me apologized for raping me because he didn’t want to be a rapist. Because, for a second, maybe he thought that word in his head and it felt horrible and he wanted it to go away. He hadn’t wanted to rape me. He had suggested we go back to his hotel several times during the walk home, and after my several rejections, he suggested he come up to my place. He wanted me to consent, wanted to hear yes or if not yes, sure, or okay, or at least, well come up for just a minute. But my consent wasn’t mandatory. Probably he didn’t even realize this until he was fucking me. This boy was not a rapist, not an aberrant freak; just a normal boy product of Rape Culture.
It’s not that Ellen doesn’t want Rape Culture to end; it’s just that she doesn’t want normal boys, normal boys who sometimes violate girls’ consent, to get hurt in its collapse.
So then how do we deal with boys who have raped? Boys who are normal boys?
I think Ellen is asking us to ask this question and I think it is a good question. I think it’s a generous question. Ellen comes down on the side of not hurting the normal boys who thought they were playing by the rules. But I say we must dismantle Rape Culture as a first priority. In the collapse of any culture, some will be wounded, and I say let the boys who rape be the wounded ones.1
But collapsing Rape Culture requires pointing to specific incidents, specific people, in order to say, this is what our culture has permitted but will no longer permit. Discussing Dierks publicly is useful because, based on his public reaction, it seems Dierks is in the midst of a personal crisis stemming from the realization that he’s raped people, which is likely to stop him from raping people. Because of this public internet explosion, Dierks is forced to think about the word rapist in connection with himself and possibly begin to understand how his actions have affected others, which seems, to me, a productive form of justice. I can see why Ellen feels sad for Dierks that this example has been made of him and that it is causing him pain. But I say, it’s an example that will ultimately cause a reduction in pain, by preventing future sexual violations. I say, too, that Dierks’ pain is useful for him—it is helping him become someone who doesn’t rape.
This public conversation is also useful, unfortunately, in making an example of Dierks, of letting boys (and also girls) know what constitutes sexual violation—steeped in Rape Culture, we feel confused about what constitutes rape. The word “rapist” causes reactionary responses because the faces of the ones who rape so rarely match up with the signifier of the rapist—maybe we need something like the This Is What A Feminist Looks Like campaign, which is supposed to show people that only some feminists have unshaven bodies and shorn heads. We need more examples of This Is What A Rapist Looks Like, in order to move beyond ski masks and crow bars and restore meaning to the word “rapist” as one who rapes rather than conflating it with monstrosity (or criminality).
But I’m curious, does Ellen have other ideas for stopping the commonplace boy practice of not respecting girls’ consent? How can we stop rape culture without telling these stories, without naming names? I’m open to suggestions.
Now I want to turn to this word “scumbag.” I don’t like it. Saying “scumbag” makes me feel like I’m throwing my handbag at someone’s chest as a fake weapon, and pouting. What’s weird about “scumbag” is it gives me the idea that what’s lacking is decency. Like if decent people had the chance to do this thing the scumbag is doing, they would enjoy doing it, would profit. The scumbag steals bottles of rosé from the open bar table at an event. The scumbag steals the idea you had for a brilliant invention and never credits you or gives you any of the proceeds. The scumbag takes what he wants without concern for how it will affect anyone else.
Ellen’s mom describes Dierks’ actions as “capitalizing on his literary position.”
Note: Sophia Katz is not capital.
Inherent to the idea of “scumbag," I think, is taking. Which, 1) If this taking is of a person’s body against that person’s will, I’m not sure where the distinction from rape happens. Like, in using that word, are we just handbag-tossing and pouting in order to temper our reactions to violations with serious consequences? And 2) The term “scumbag,” when applied to a man in a context like this, implies that men, and only men, have choices to take or not take, while women are to be taken, as Dierks did when he “capitalized” on Katz.
“Scumbag” is predicated on the idea that boys want, and can take or not take, while girls do not want. “Scumbag,” even if it’s an undesirable thing to be called, gives boys agency. “Scumbag” sounds like boys are the desiring ones and girls are desire-free people scumbags can do things to. And I think it then suggests that decent boys—boys who are not scumbags—don’t do things to girls unless they’re willing to give those girls the things they ostensibly do want—a baby, money, a declaration of long-term committed love. (Incidentally, my gay male roommate just admitted that until his early twenties he believed that women did not desire sexually at all, but only used sex as a means to obtain these things).
This is a problem, obviously, as people want to have sex, even when they’re not ready or inspired to make such investments. When our culture tells us in ten million ways that girls don’t want to have sex without investments, though, what choice do (normal) boys have but to use some form of coercion? The idea that girls don’t desire is necessary for the existence of Rape Culture, and the term “scumbag” is one of many terms that insinuates this absence of girl desire. If girls don’t desire as much as boys do, boy desire comes first. It’s so obvious to point it out, but this is built into the language: boys get some; girls give it up.
And so both the “scumbag” and its opposite, the “decent boy,” perpetuate Rape Culture by assuming an absence of girl desire, by reaffirming the idea of girls (& women) as capital.
I hold the weirdly radical belief that girls desire sexually as much as boys do. I (along with I think most humans?) had very specific and detailed sexual fantasies from the time I was a child. I was excited for college to be a time of sexual exploration and adventure. This excitement, in part, informed my willingness to kiss boys, to sit on their beds. But then there’d come a point where it didn’t feel like we were exploring or adventuring together—it felt like they were taking. Or it felt like they were tricking me into something, rather than inviting collaboration. I can only understand this as a result of the belief that girls don’t desire, they only allow or disallow, acquiesce or don’t. This is Rape Culture.
Rape Culture says: Since you don’t desire anyway, but are necessary for fulfilling my desire, I kind of just have to do what I want. I think that if girls actually didn’t desire, this wouldn’t feel so violating. We’d be like, okay.
And that’s the thing. Even though we want and want and want, we’re told, in a million ways, that we don’t want, really, or that boys want MORE, want in a way we can’t imagine. And sometimes we believe this. Sometimes we believe this and so we’re like, okay.
Sophia Katz was like, okay. Not out loud, but at some point, she gave in to what was happening.
We can imagine this Amazon warrior Sophia Katz with muscles and, like, a shield who jumps up from the bed with panther-like agility and kicks Dierks in the chest and walks out and finds a magical free hostel for Amazon Warrior Princesses. But Katz didn’t do that, she was like, okay. I, too, could have turned into a video game-type fighter and karate chopped my movie-like REI-clad rapist in the nose, but I didn’t. I was like, okay.
Ellen’s mom thinks “the Sophia female” needs to “take responsibility” for her silent okay. And the thing is, I think Katz doestake responsibility. And I find that heartbreaking. At the end of her essay, Katz writes, “I would like to think I wouldn’t have let him claim my body as his own. But the reality is that I did.
I think part of the reason that those of us who find Ellen’s mom’s call to “take responsibility” for our rapes sickening find it sickening in part because we already do.
But Katz’s responsibility-taking isn’t just misplaced victim-blaming. The questions she raises about her rape are good ones: Why do we let boys claim our bodies as their own? Why couldn’t Katz, or I, say no effectively? How did we come to value our own desire so little, to surrender our agency? These questions are beside the point of the rapist/scumbag distinction, and are essential questions to work on in the project of dismantling rape culture. They are literary questions. And the literariness of these questions is relevant, because Ellen, in her strange instructions to Katz on How To Be A Writer, did not recognize Katz’s piece as literary. Possibly this is because the literary questions surrounding sexual violations have yet to be asked.
Ellen writes that stories of abuse are not worthy of publication merely by virtue of their subject matter, but I disagree. I say, if they’re honest and observant, let’s publish as many stories of sexual violation as possible—we need more stories, more kinds of stories, about sexual violation. We need more questions to work on and more thorough exploration of the questions we have. The stories we have right now naturalize Rape Culture, and we need to reveal its construction, to dissect its parts.
Ellen says that she’s invested in publishing “strong women’s voices.” This is a good start. I, too, want to read strong women’s voices. But I also want weak women’s voices and broken women’s voices and women’s voices that can’t figure out where their desire is and women’s voices that are wanting so hard but they don’t know for what. I want women’s voices that are undone and manic and can’t make sentences. I want women’s voices that tic and repeat themselves and wander and loop back and change voices partway through because they’ve become some other woman. I want women’s voices that are broken by this culture that is all the time breaking women, voices that can show the culture what it’s doing. I want women’s voices that desire and desire and desire.
So back to the questions Ellen’s essay raises: Was Katz’s essay literary enough to warrant the damage it did to Stephen Tully Dierks? Is it FAIR or USEFUL to have this big public takedown of Dierks when he’s a boy who’s been playing by what he understood to be the rules? Is there a way to overthrow rape culture without hurting the normal boys who rape?
Like I said—I have no problem hurting Dierks; in fact, think it’s productive. And like I said, I’m open to other suggestions—but I’m not open to a feminism that accepts Rape Culture as The Way of Things.
Ellen’s mom writes: “I’ve been in situations where I’ve had sex and got the hell out and said to myself, thank god that’s as bad as it got.”
I respect Ellen’s mother as the feminist Ellen describes her as: it sounds as though she’s worked for important rights for women—abortion rights, workplace rights, I’m guessing. These rights matter a lot to me. However, I, additionally, want to live in a world where I don’t have to thank god for having nonconsensual sex that is not also violent.
This is generational, I realize. I am able to imagine this world because I have rights that Ellen’s mother and other women in the seventies worked for. I am grateful. I also feel sad that at least some women from that generation are unable to imagine a world in which Rape Culture doesn’t exist.
I am barely able to imagine a world in which Rape Culture doesn’t exist, but it feels crucial to try. I see younger girls imagining this world, and creating it: When I read about new affirmative consent laws, I am shocked and floored and emotional. I can’t believe that actual administrations and governments are discussing passing laws that in some way recognize that sex can be collaborative and not coercive, that coercive sex will no longer be considered normal. When I read stories like Sophia Katz’s, or Emma Sulkowicz’s, or Regina from CalArts’, my eyes well with tears. In some part, they’re tears of sadness that girls on college campuses and within art circles are still being raped, but mostly they’re tears of gratitude and amazement that the world is shifting in such a way that girls are both internally acknowledging and publicly saying WHAT YOU DID TO ME IS NOT OKAY. That these girls—Katz, Sulkowicz, Regina, & others—are making it shift.
We all have a lot more work to do. And there will be casualties. But hopefully, as Ellen suggested, we can treat those casualties with empathy, if not necessarily kindness, and understand that those who rape are not monsters, and that treating them as such is counterproductive to revolutionizing a culture that encourages nonconsensual sex. Hopefully, too, those casualties will resurrect themselves, stronger and kinder and better, with more respect for themselves and other human beings. Maybe we’ll even hear from these resurrected boys, who might have stories and questions of their own that contribute to the project of dismantling or complicating the analysis of Rape Culture—I’d be excited to read.
1 It’s important to note, though, that while Ellen accuses Katz of ruining Dierks’ life, no one is calling upon the fucked up criminal justice system to settle this score. Dierks’ life will not be ruined. Ellen’s concern about the word rapist no doubt is in part about criminality—I realize I’m ignoring the crime of rape in this essay. I think probably something Ellen and I agree on is not wanting to see Dierks go to prison. I also don’t want to see the REI boy go to prison. I’m not a fan of prison as a reparative strategy.↩
Sam Cohen's writing is in Sidebrow, Pank, Black Clock, Joyland, Gaga Stigmata, RECAPS, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Gossip was published by Birds of Lace Press in 2013. She lives in Los Angeles with her friend Zack and her cat and possibly some ghosts.