What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape – Sohaila Abdulali

The author considers the difficulty of categorising this book and I agree; it’s a blend of personal experience, other peoples’ experiences and insights. What kept popping into my head as I was reading was that it’s a conversation. I loved Sohaila’s down to earth tone and how she makes this multifaceted and too often silenced experience approachable. Her writing is considered and empathetic. She doesn’t shy away from the gravity of the trauma associated with rape, yet at the same time I came away feeling hopeful and validated.

Discussions about rape are so often irrational, and sometimes outright bizarre. It’s the only crime to which people respond by wanting to lock up the victims. It’s the only crime that is so bad that victims are supposed to be destroyed beyond repair by it, but simultaneously not so bad that the men who do it should be treated like other criminals.

Although titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape this book is also about what we don’t talk about when we talk about rape, like how

it’s the weirdest things that can get you. Like dentophobia.

When I was two thirds of the way through this book I’d already recommended it to a counsellor who works for my state’s rape crisis hotline and would recommend it to anyone who has experienced sexual assault, knows someone who has experienced sexual assault, works with people who have experienced sexual assault or want to read an intelligent, thoughtful book about this truly global issue. While there are stories of people from America in this book there are also those from all of those other places that aren’t America, like India, Australia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East. There’s also a wonderful cross section of peoples’ experiences, from the poorest and most marginalised to well known cases and celebrities.

Although I’ve read a lot, both fiction and non-fiction, about sexual assault and experienced more than my fair share, I still came across a lot in this book that made me pause and reevaluate my own preconceived ideas. I also found some lightbulb moments which have helped me make some sense out of nonsense.

The whole notion of institutional consent, which holds to account both men and women, was surprisingly new to me;

you know you can get away with it because the whole system is set up to help you get away with it.

My favourite lightbulb moment during my first read of this book (I expect it will be the first of many reads) came when I encountered an acronym that has validated my experience so much. Jennifer Freyd, writing about betrayal trauma theory in the nineties,

proposed that abusers frequently respond to accusations with “DARVO” – Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.

This has helped me understand why a rapist overtly threatened me with legal action twice (so far) for reporting him and covertly attacked my credibility. While he had a serious amount of institutional consent behind him and is currently the owner of a Rape Free Card, this new knowledge has helped me in the best possible way … I know I’m not alone and there’s even an acronym to prove it.

There were a few sections that seemed a bit disjointed to me and details of some stories were repeated in a couple of chapters, although the repetition did serve to remind me which person’s experience I was reading about. Absent from this book was any mention of women who rape; while uncommon, it does happen, and I would be interested to hear what this author has to say about it.

This book is sociological, political, personal and contradictory. Now, contradictory may sound like a criticism but it’s not and as Sohaila expresses, rape and the way we talk about it is contradictory, so to highlight these contradictions is vital to an honest discussion. I loved/hated the “Lose-Lose Rape Conundrum”; it is so infuriatingly accurate:

If you talk about it, you’re a helpless victim angling for sympathy. If you’re not a helpless victim, then it wasn’t such a big deal, so why are you talking about it? If you’re surviving and living your life, why are you ruining some poor man’s life? Either it’s a big deal, so you’re ruined, or it’s not a big deal and you should be quiet.

Content warning: Naturally a book with ‘rape’ in its title is going to come with a content warning from me. This book is confronting so I would caution you to be aware of the potentially triggering nature of the content, but it was one of the best I’ve ever read on the topic.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and The New Press for the opportunity to read this book. My current activism level is set to: Need to do something positive immediately!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Thoughtful, provocative and intelligent, this game-changing book looks at sexual assault and the global discourse on rape from the viewpoint of a survivor, writer, counsellor and activist.

Sohaila Abdulali was the first Indian rape survivor to speak out about her experience. Gang-raped as a teenager in Mumbai and indignant at the deafening silence on the issue in India, she wrote an article for a women’s magazine questioning how we perceive rape and rape victims. Thirty years later she saw the story go viral in the wake of the fatal 2012 Delhi rape and the global outcry that followed.

Drawing on three decades of grappling with the issue personally and professionally, and on her work with hundreds of other survivors, she explores what we think about rape and what we say. She also explores what we don’t say, and asks pertinent questions about who gets raped and who rapes, about consent and desire, about redemption and revenge, and about how we raise our sons. Most importantly, she asks: does rape always have to be a life-defining event, or is it possible to recover joy?

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