Stop telling sexual assault survivors 'it's not that bad'

The subconscious ranking of particular assaults into a 'hierarchy of damage' isn't just wrong, but destructive.

The subconscious ranking of particular assaults into a 'hierarchy of damage' isn't just wrong, but destructive. Photo: Stocksy. Posed by model.

When it comes to rape and its parameters - what defines it, who is victimised by it, what punishments should be meted out for it, who gets to decide whether or not it happened - it's astonishing how much air time is still given to the people for whom rape has been and will continue to be a mostly theoretical concept while the experiences of survivors continue to be either silenced or discounted. This is something author, feminist and academic Roxane Gay hopes to challenge in a new book of collected essays. Gay is currently accepting submissions for "Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture".

The broad spectrum of sexual violence manifests in countless different ways, but almost all experiences of it are linked by the tendency for outsiders to claim the right to redefine what they want to believe did or didn't happen. This may be a straight up attempt to erase the experience altogether ('she's lying') or simple minimise it ('she's totally overreacting').

This desire to rewrite the narrative of sexual assault in order to mitigate whatever horror is felt on seeing it's very real and very ordinary face is a cultural move with form. On her website this week, Gay wrote, "Victims and survivors of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse have been taught by this culture that whatever horror they have endured could have been worse. At least you weren't touched. At least you weren't raped. At least you weren't killed. This world effectively silences those who have been violated by demanding their first reaction be gratitude for what did not happen."

'Dispatches' are often thought of in terms of war reportage, and that's precisely what's being fought here - a war. It's one whose existence is regularly erased and whose warriors are almost entirely discounted, but it's a war as strong and dangerous as any other. In this case, the 'not that bad' reference is simply another tool in the arsenal of weapons used by a dominating force trying to maintain power and control.


Most people willing to intellectually explore rape culture would be already familiar with how victim blaming forms one of its foundational structures. But something they may not have considered is the subconscious ranking of particular assaults into some kind of grand hierarchy of damage. There are a number of different ways that this plays out. Before I list a few of them, I'd like to offer a blanket warning to sexual assault survivors that the following postulates may be triggering and/or upsetting. Please know that I believe you, and acknowledge the gravity of your experience as being exactly the way you choose to define it.

Having said that, here are some of the arguments people might find themselves making verbally or even just internally when taking it upon themselves to decide how harmful a sexual assault has been to a person who is not them:

*They've had sex before, so it can't have been that bad.

*He only groped her. I mean, it's not like he raped her.

*It was just his hands? That's not really rape then, is it.

*If it only lasted a few seconds, it's not that bad.

*If it wasn't physically violent, it doesn't really count.

*She consented and then changed her mind halfway through? That just undermines the whole system and is an insult to real rape victims.

I've seen variations of all these arguments pop up too many times to be considered outliers to rape culture mentality. You've probably seen them too, but may not recognise it or the broad impact such a dismissive view takes. Consider the responses to allegations made against Julian Assange in 2010 after it was alleged he had sexually assaulted a woman in Sweden by first refusing to wear a condom and then tearing it off after she insisted. To most people, this reads as a simple case of bad sex. Indeed. this is exactly how British politician George Galloway put it in 2012 when he said, "It might be really sordid and bad sexual etiquette, but whatever else it is, it is not rape or you bankrupt the term rape of all meaning."

In fact, rape is defined simply as an act of unlawful sexual intercourse or sexual penetration of an orifice, with or without force, and without the consent of the victim. As comfortable as it makes people - indeed, as logical as it might even seem - to restrict the concept of rape to a narrative of violence and physical force, it simply isn't the reality.

Even if we take the Assange allegations as a hypothetical, it's still concerning how many people are quick to dismiss that kind of behaviour as something not akin to violation but 'bad manners'. Is it any wonder that incidents of pack sex (particularly when participated in my sports stars) are so routinely written off as 'consensual', even when it's patently obvious that a power disparity has been in play? Because this is a reflection of rape culture too - that sex, once initially consented to, cannot ever be perceived as emotionally violent, abrasive or unexpectedly demeaning. That if one feels it to be these things, that they are not entitled to complain or express a grievance - because to do so is to undermine those few stories of 'real' abuse that have been rigorously tested for every caveat and deemed legitimate by an audience that prides itself on its emotional objectivity.

All of this is why it's so important to welcome a collection of essays which puts the narrative power around sexual violence back into the hands of its survivors. Rape culture is real. The people who have died because of it and survived in spite of it are real. It's well beyond time that the experiences of rape culture be amplified from the place that matters the most - the front line.

For more information about submitting to "Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture", head to Roxane Gay's website.