On Rape Culture and Sensitivity

Trigger Warning: discussions of fictional sexual assault/rape.

Since I have actively begun calling myself a feminist and reading and writing about feminism, I’ve noticed that my reactions to situations and people’s experiences have changed a lot.

In particular I’ve noticed that I’ve become a lot more sensitive to violence, especially against women, and especially sexual assault and rape. I’ve never liked the way that violence is so present in television and movies and jokes people make, the way it’s trivialised. As a ten-year-old my sister loved watching Tom and Jerry, and I just found that the images of cartoon eyes bulging out of heads and people being squished like cardboard were disturbing and terrifying. And I still don’t watch crime shows or action movies because of their “bam! Just shot this person on the side, no-one cares, moving on” mentality. In part, that’s why I liked The Hunger Games, because when a character has to kill someone else, it’s horrifying, and messy, and there are mental breakdowns and PTSD and people actually care.

Feminism has made me realise how truly horrifying things like sexual assault and rape are. I can’t actually watch rape scenes on TV now, or read about them in books. I have to look away because I can’t handle the sight. It makes me sick how people can watch those sorts of scenes and not be affected.

I noticed this especially the other day when I was proofreading a short story that a feminist friend had written for our women’s collective’s zine. It was a futuristic short story about a woman robot whose identity as a woman is challenged, and when she confronts her maker about her androgynous look and gender identity, he forces her down onto his workbench to re-wire her brain so that she will no longer think of her own accord.

Even though there was a trigger warning at the beginning of the story, my first instinct was “FUCK.” I was horrified that the story had such an effect on me – I wasn’t just angry or horrified, I felt completely freaked out and nauseous, because the parallels were so strong and vivid and almost too much to actually handle. It took me a while to calm down after reading that, and I thought to myself “I really need to pay attention to trigger warnings from now on.”

My reaction to that story gave me a bit of an idea of how rape and abuse survivors must feel when confronted by images of rape and assault and abuse in television and literature day after day. If a short story with rape allusions made me, someone who has never been abused or raped, feel physically scared, then I can only imagine how many times worse it must be for a survivor to be watching TV and suddenly find themselves completely triggered by a rape scene without any warning whatsoever.

It shows me how insiduous rape culture is. How it’s everywhere and how it’s normalised, and how we can never stop fighting against it. No human being should be unaffected by rape or by violence, be able to carry on like normal. For my part, I just can’t watch or read those sorts of scenes anymore.

4 thoughts on “On Rape Culture and Sensitivity

  1. Great piece Jo. Really interesting. It’s a tough part of survivor culture that people are constantly surrounded by material they may find triggering.

    I’ve been struck by how confronting ‘Game of Thrones’ is. I feel like its watching one rape after another, scenes of sexual violence. Yet its so popular. When I questioned some of my friends who are fans they said ‘you forget it after a while’ which I found really confronting. I’m sure that you do but that’s part of the problem.

    1. Thanks Noni! I have heard the same about Game of Thrones- usually I would be very interested, as I like fantasy and historical things. But I have heard so much about rape and brutal violence and incest ant and child brides that I just don’t want to watch it full stop. I don’t see why everything needs to rely on such horrible (and maily uncritical) subject matter and normalised violence. And not thinking of it as a big deal – that’s the worst thing there is about it.

  2. Yes.

    To the extent that I’ve learned to “auto-shield” myself from it while watching something crime and/or horror-oriented. For me, it’s almost easier to deal with storylines that approach assault in the context of being a crime or other bad act — because assault is both a crime and a bad act.

    As a personal response, it’s way more upsetting when I see rape/assault/harassment in something like a comedy — especially a romantic comedy. Because I expect that a comedy will be funny, and rape is not funny. It’s a painful reminder of what “everyone else” thinks is cool to laugh about.

  3. I’m a survivor myself, and while I find some depictions of rape disturbing (The Hills Have Eyes *shudder*) others, well, not so much their depictions, but their context I find almost comforting. I love watching Law and Order: SVU because the shows follow the same cycle: crime is found out, victim referred to services, told it is not their fault etc. and then the crime is resolved and the criminal is caught. The show has (usually) had a very enlightened stance towards rape, (no victim-blaming, it can happen to anyone, it is actually a common crime, etc.) which makes me feel less alone. I totally agree about trigger warnings though, they are life-savers!

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