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Book Review of Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay, editor of Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, created an anthology as a space for people “to give voice to their experiences, a place for people to share how bad this all is, a place for people to identify the ways they have been marked by rape culture.”[pg. xxi] Gay reconciled her own past while meeting other people who also believed that their rape was “not that bad.” She argued that “clearly those experiences were indeed that bad” despite seeing what “calloused empathy looked like in people who had every right to wear their wounds openly and hated the site of it.”[pg. xi]

Gay included stories from people “all along the gender spectrum, giving voice to how they have suffered, in one way or another, from sexual violence, or how they have been affected by intimate relationships with people who have experienced sexual violence.”[pg. xi] By sharing real rape stories including her own, Gay highlighted how each person downplayed their rape as “not that bad”. These powerful narratives challenged rape cultural stereotypes by defying racial/ethnic, sexuality and gender norms associated with typical rape scenarios such as white cisgender heterosexual female victims and stranger black male rapists.

As someone who understands first and second wave feminism, queer theory, rape and consent, V.L. Seek articulated how her knowledge should have saved her. Seek used negative self-talk such as “You have only yourself to blame. It was not that bad. You’re okay. You’re alive. At least you don’t remember it all. The bruises are gone. You can forget about it. No one ever has to know.”[pg. 181] She also discussed the unjust rape laws and how women are trapped in a legal system that does not care nor believe survivors. Meanwhile, men who experience rape are often excluded from these laws because they focus mostly on women.

Anthony Frame experienced child rape as an eleven-year-old boy and found himself always saying yes to sexual advances because he was lucky that he does not have a hymen to complicate his virginity status. He convinced himself that he was okay because “it only happened once, because I didn’t die, by my own hand or anyone else’s.”[pg. 226] His denial significantly impacted his adult life with a fragile sexuality and failing marriage. Gay’s inclusion of boys and men acknowledges their suffering despite being seen as either nonexistent or “not that bad.”

So Mayer was one of few stories besides Gay who rejected the detrimental “not that bad” mentality while sharing her trauma. She explained how rape is seen as “not that bad” because it can be called “a crime of passion…a misunderstanding, a Freudian slip, a one-time deal, just between you and me...”[pg. 140] Confronting this toxic mindset, Mayer discussed how sexual violence from the feminist gaze knows that “rape is that bad because it is an ideological weapon. Rape is that bad because it is a structure: not an excess, not monstrous, but the logical conclusion of heteropatriarchal capitalism.”[pg. 141] In other words, feminism views rape as a systemic way to annihilate an entire people and culture by attacking one victim at a time.

As a black feminist who downplayed her own sexual assault, there were valuable lessons learned from people of all walks of life who also described their rape as “not that bad”. Gay, who considers herself a “bad feminist,” effectively integrated feminism as a lens to address rape culture as a system that incorrectly gauges the severity of sexual trauma. Her work provided a comforting yet empowering platform for anyone who has experienced rape regardless of gender, race, sexuality and other social backgrounds.

Gay, Roxane. Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture. New York: Harper Perennial, 2018.

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