Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Rape narratives on the internet

Internet personae fascinate me.

The other day, I ran across a couple of blogged narratives* by women about being raped (linking to each other). Now, I've been told about individual rapes by numerous women over the years. I'm wondering why internet rape narratives are so detailed compared to the verbal narratives I've heard over the years. Verbally, I've tended to hear things like, "well, I was on a date with X, and I had a few drinks, and he raped me." In every case I can think of at the moment, the woman knew the rapist, and talked a bit about their relationship before the rape. But the details of how, the women haven't told those.

In contrast, the internet narratives tend to be detailed, focusing on minute information about how the woman was raped.

When I think about, say, The Rape of Lucrece (because you knew I'd bring Shakespeare in), Shakespeare spends a lot of lines before the rape giving the reader intimate knowledge of Tarquin's thoughts. And after the rape, he gives us agonizing detail about Lucrece's thoughts and actions. The actions leading to the rape get a fair bit of detail; we learn about Tarquin's threat to kill a groom and put him in bed with her corpse, and then claim that he found them together and killed them. (That would implicitly shame her and Collatine pretty much for eternity.)

The act of penetration, though, takes place between stanzas. It's sort of hard to show the between stanzas, except by putting the stanzas on either side, so here goes.

For with the nightly linen that she wears
He pens her piteous clamors in her head,
Cooling his hot face in the chastest tears
That ever modest eyes with sorrow shed.
O that prone lust should stain so pure a bed!
The spots whereof could weeping purify,
Her tears should drop on them so perpetually.

But she hath lost a dearer thing than life,
And he hath won what he would lose again;
This forced league doth force a further strife,
This momentary joy breeds months of pain,
This hot desire converts to cold disdain;
Pure Chastity is rifled of her store,
And Lust, the thief, far poorer than before.
(The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, 680-693)

The narrator interrupts the description to emote at the end of the first stanza I've quoted, and then immediately he moves to the past tense, and the rape is over.

And thus, in the rape narratives I've heard in person, the rape gets few details, and the focus is on the before (the relationship) and the aftermath, often focusing on the woman's decision to go to legal authorities or not. Thus, the verbal narratives work sort of like The Rape of Lucrece (except I'm only hearing the woman's point of view, and not getting the rapist's mindset).

The blogged narratives work very differently, though, and I wonder why.

Is it because they're written narratives, and in writing, "I was on a date with X, had a few drinks, and then he raped me" seems too minimalist, unsatisfying? Are the narratives driven by the need to write longer stories, the need to blog details? (Or, conversely, are the short verbal narratives driven by discomfort, perceptions that I'm an unsympathetic audience?) (The responses to the blog entries seem to express sympathy and a sense that readers find the narratives emotionally moving; so they're affective--and no, I don't mean effective.)

One of my favorite short stories is Margaret Atwood's "Rape Fantasies" (see also this site for further information on Atwood). In the story, the narrator starts by telling her listener that she was in a work lunchroom when some of her co-workers started talking about a magazine article saying that some women fantasize about being raped. Several of the women then relate their own fantasies, which the narrator says are basically just fantasies of having sex with someone you haven't been properly introduced to, but not really rape fantasies, because rape fantasies involve real fear.

The narrator then relates several fantasies in which various men threaten to rape her, though in each case she prevents the rape, and usually manages to actually help the rapist become a non-rapist, or even befriends him. By the end of the story, the attentive reader realizes that the narrator's talking to a someone in a bar. ("Rape Fantasies" is widely anthologized and an absolutely fantastic story to teach on many levels, not least because that you can talk about how brilliantly Atwood sets up details and how rewarding attentive reading is.)

The point I want to make by bringing in Atwood is that rape fantasies are pretty common for both men and women, and that they're pretty complex. In Atwood's fiction, they involve strangers coming in through windows and such, not known men. There are specific narrative strategies to the fantasies reported in the lunch room, and different strategies for the fantasies told by the narrator in the next section.

The internet, too, is full of rape fantasies and discussions of bdsm activities and fantasies. I think commercial pornography has influenced internet writing, and been, in turn, further influenced by internet writings. There are shared generic features, especially in the level of detail, that are very different from the generic features of the verbal narratives I've heard.

To some extent, the blogged rape narratives seem to reflect those fantasy and bdsm narratives, as narratives (and thus reflect commercial pornographic narrative strategies). I'm not saying that the blogged narratives are fantasies or bdsm narratives (or commercial pornography, though the ones on blogs that sell ads may come close in effect if not purpose), but that as narratives, they seem to use the same strategies, include the same levels and types of detail, the same focus on how the rapist rapes.

On the other hand, of course, all these narratives are about the internet personae set up. Shakespeare sets up the persona of his narrator, a voice that interrupts the flow of narrative at the crucial moment to emote. And bloggers and internet writers set up their personae, some ingeniously.

What does it mean that the internet rape narratives share so much detail? Why do they read so pornographically? Are the narratives driven by perceptions of commercial pornography? Rape and bsdm fantasies? (I'm not saying those perceptions are something the writers are necessarily consciously aware of, of course.) Is there a sense that more detail is more convincing? Will arouse more sympathy?

Or does the detail serve to arouse sexual interests? (At least one blogger complains that her narrative gets google hits for searches she finds really upsetting and disgusting.) Are some of these narratives driven by the urge to create personae with given experiences?

Does the relative anonymity of the internet free bloggers to tell stories they might not verbally? Or do the narrative drives familiar through internet narratives of fantasies and bdsm activities provide a sort of generic demand for detail?

I wonder to what extent the writers of the rape narratives I've read think about their writing, and especially their choices to provide such detail to their narratives?

*I thought about linking the narratives, but decided not to. I think my discussion of their narrative strategies might be seen as unsympathetic or mean spirited by the writers and their readers. And I don't want to be confrontational about narrative strategies in posts which, at least on the surface, reveal apparent vulnerability. On the other hand, I tend to be interested in personae as personae.

You don't get the real me here, folks; you get the persona I try to set up, successfully or not. As with Oakland, there's no there there.


  1. Wow. What an interesting series of questions and issues you raise.

    My off-the-cuff reaction would be to say that verbal narratives are shorter because of discomfort but also because of the credibility that a friend (or at any rate a person known to you) automatically has with another friend. No details are necessary, unless the victim is still trying to straighten those details out for herself, and is enlisting your help in that process to some degree.

    Written narratives, like journal entries, are a way of anatomizing and preserving an event--for oneself, for posterity--and making it credible to those who *weren't* there.

    I can't speak from any real personal experience here, although I've been in a few situations that I realize now would be classified as sexual assault or failed date rape--and the above represents my sense of my reaction to those events: short version to the friend, but excruciatingly detailed version in the journal.

    That being said--I really don't think that I'd go into that kind of detail on a blog, even if I had a more confessional persona than I do.

  2. Kind of following on what Flavia said, I wonder if there's just a different dynamic to speaking vs. writing on rape? I read a wonderful memoir of rape some years ago (called _Telling_, I think? I want to say the author's last name was something like Francisco?) where one of the recurrent themes was the need to be able to tell one's story to be able to recover from the experience. It's really fascinating. (In a sad way, of course.)

    And "Rape Fantasies" is one of my favorite short stories!

  3. Very interesting perspective regarding the posts you referenced. When I read through them, I felt almost voyeuristic -- probably due to the level of detail included. And I agree, when speaking about this topic so much less detail is included, almost thankfully so.

    Thanks for asking the questions you have (and I don't find them mean-spirited at all).