The term ‘rape culture’ was first used by feminists in the 1970s to highlight the ways in which society systematically blames victims of sexual assault and normalises sexual violence. The personal testimonies in Not That Bad span the full continuum of aggressive sexual behaviour, from inappropriate comments to harrowing accounts of rape and child abuse, highlighting how we have consistently failed to reckon with the problem and the trauma it leaves.
Despite what the cover says, these pieces are not essays so much as a communal, simultaneous outpouring of trauma. Many are beautifully written, brimming with intelligence and allusions, but their most important function is as a document of truth. As a history of the forces still at play in our society, from classroom to courtroom, that teach girls it’s better to tolerate unwanted sexual contact than risk upsetting a man, and that so frequently fail to teach boys that they do not have a right to a girl’s attention.
While many themes and thoughts recur, this happens across a diverse perspective: not all of the victims are female or cisgender, and not all of the rapists are men. It helps to remind us that rape culture can cross all boundaries.
In one particularly awful and awe-inspiring account, Nora Salem recalls the closing words of Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “It was not a story to pass on. This is not a story to pass on”. Many of the writers in Not That Bad are deeply concerned with the conflict between the trauma of reliving the abuse, and the need for the comfort that comes with their pain being shared, acknowledged and therefore made real.
Because of the culture we live in, a lot of people – especially women – will read this book and see their barely acknowledged experiences and unarticulated thoughts staring back at them. Like the experience of truth-telling set down in these accounts, reading this book is harrowing and liberating at the same time. It’s a place where you can be angry in a world that wants you to think it’s not that bad.
These accounts feel important because there are still so few places where survivors can express their pain and anger without facing doubt and scorn. In the wake of #MeToo some might think this is no longer the case, but you only have to look at the heaps of online vitriol directed at those who speak out to see how far there is to go.
But the book also shows that progress is happening, albeit gradually. More attention is being paid to education about consent, more women are coming forward, and more men are facing the consequences. As Gay writes in the foreword, “This is a moment that will, hopefully, be a movement. These essays will, hopefully, contribute to that movement in a meaningful way”.
Not That Bad is a relentless, troubling read, but the solidarity and understanding at the heart of the project can’t fail to uplift.
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