On Rape

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In 2018, Laia Abril published On Abortion, the first chapter of a series entitled A History of Misogyny. For all the right reasons, the book was widely acclaimed. In the years since, though, we have witnessed major set backs for women’s reproductive rights, most notably in the form of abortion bans in both Poland and the United States through the countries’ highest courts. Given that there are no democratic majorities for abortion bans, in both cases conservatives and neofascists had to hijack the countries’ highest courts to achieve their goal.

There is a bitter irony to the fact that two out of the five US Supreme Court judges who voted to reject the legal precedent established by Roe vs. Wade had to face very credible allegations of sexual misconduct during their confirmation hearings. One of the them, a man named Brett Kavanaugh, was nominated by a president who is widely known for his misogyny (there is an extensive Wikipedia page detailing sexual misconduct).

As Ruth Ben-Ghiat outlines in her book Strongmen, misogyny and sexual violence are integral parts of the authoritarian playbook. However, authoritarians merely form the tip of the tip of the iceberg of misogyny present in most contemporary societies. Were the world any different, Abril would hardly be able to find the material for History of Misogyny.

On Rape, the second part of the project, has now been published. “I chose this topic,” Abril writes in the introduction, “when […] this local story triggered me deeply. The group of five Spanish men self-named La Manada (The Wolf Pack) who had gang raped an 18-year-old woman in 2016, were found guilty only of a lesser offense of ‘sexual abuse’ due to ‘the lack of evidence of violence’. The defense argued that 96 seconds of video footage filmed by the perpetrators — during which she was frozen and had her eyes shut — was proof of consent.”

The background of the book is rape culture. “Rape culture,” Amanda Taub wrote in 2014, “is a culture in which sexual violence is treated as the norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults. It’s not just about sexual violence itself, but about cultural norms and institutions that protect rapists, promote impunity, shame victims, and demand that women make unreasonable sacrifices to avoid sexual assault.”

The preceding forms a serious concern for those covering the topic. “In order to avoid feeding the systemic victim-blaming society,” Abril concludes her introduction, “I decided to switch the visual narrative from the victims to the institutions, letting this book serve as an opportunity to address transgenerational trauma and social accountability.”

On Rape closely follows the model and visual/textual strategies set out in On Abortion, combining appropriated imagery and texts with photographs and texts produced by Abril. Apart from the more recent book being considerably larger, the main difference is the absence of portraits and stories of individuals. In On Abortion, a number of women recounted their experiences. This approach would be incredibly difficult in the case of rape, in particular in light of the widely practiced victim blaming just discussed.

As is the case in the earlier book, text plays an extensive role to dive into the many elements of what one might naively assume to be a simple topic. It’s not simple at all, especially give that the institutions in question cover a very wide range. Religion plays a role, of course, as do state institutions but also many private players. Culture itself is shown to be widely enmenshed in misogyny, as was demonstrated during what came to be known as Gamergate.

Unfortunately, some of the book’s production choices don’t necessarily work in its favour. We could have a discussion whether or not the book is too large. I personally prefer the smaller size of On Abortion. More importantly, though, often white text is used on rather glossy black pages. This poses a severe strain for the reader’s eyes. Given how challenging the material at hand is, I feel that these design/production choices are not ideal.

These misgivings aside, On Rape is an essential book. If as a society we want to entertain any hope that we’re striving towards a more just and equal future, then we need to find ways to address the many problems and outrages discussed in its pages. Furthermore, given how deeply embedded misogyny is in the authoritarian and neofascist project that poses a severe threat to democracy in many Western nations, the book has a wider political meaning beyond what some people might think of as a narrow topic.

There is one aspect of rape, or rather its consequences, that has struck me the most. It is incredibly common for victims to be re-victimized multiple times over in their attempt to get justice. For example, I just listened to a podcast episode that covers Shiori Ito and the book she wrote about her experience. In this particular case, the journalist had to re-stage her experience at the police department using a life-size doll in front of only male officers (there were also photos being taken).

“Rape culture didn’t come out of nowhere,” Amanda Taub writes, “it’s the direct continuation of centuries of patriarchal power and the institutions that developed to support it. […] Because rape culture derives some of its power from unconscious biases and hidden assumptions, simply drawing attention to it is a step towards changing it.”

I see On Rape as being geared towards exactly that: it sets out to confront these unconscious biases and hidden assumptions. The institutions that still support rape culture will have to change — or come down. This is on all of us.

On Rape; photographs and text by Laia Abril; essay by Marta Gili; 228 pages; Dewi Lewis; 2022

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