From Persephone to Tara Reade, Rape Victims Are Relegated to Everyday Hells

protest sign that reads, "silence encourages rapists"

I’m glad English speakers took the word schadenfreude from the Germans. Adopting it was an emotionally intelligent move. The affective vocabulary English speakers rely on is slim and I look forward to the day that we develop a language abundant enough to articulate our internal hellscapes with precision.

Until then, we’re left fumbling, unable to name so many crappy states, including one that’s been on my mind since watching a TikTok video by anti-rape activist Wagatwe Wanjuki.

As Wanjuki lip syncs, “Actual goals, AF!” her TikTok performance unfolds to the tune and lyrics of Eva Gutowski’sLiterally My Life. Clad in athleisure, Wanjuki flashes a grin and a thumb’s up sign. Glitter splashes across the screen and she imitates a victory dance while this message hovers overhead: “Me finding out my rapist graduated law school and became a lawyer.”

Wanjuki’s video spoofs the inverted schadenfreude to which rape culture subjects sexual assault victims. I’ve experienced variations of this state. It’s an absurd horror, well-suited for satirical or parodic interpretations given that rape victims living in the United States navigate a two-faced society. This duality comes into focus when the supposed illegality of sexual assault is juxtaposed against criminal justice data.

According to the nation’s penal code, rape ranks among the worst of crimes, a felony whose perpetrators deserve to be locked in cages. Criminal justice statistics, however, tell a much different story. According to RAINN, “perpetrators of sexual violence are less likely to go to jail or prison than other criminals.” In fact, “out of 1000 sexual assaults, 995 perpetrators will walk free.” These numbers underscore that rape is more accurately described as a theoretical crime. The volume of perpetrators walking among us shows that the ability to commit sexual assault free of repercussions is anything but rare. Instead, rape is a commonly exercised privilege.

Those of us who are the victims of rapists experience the ramifications of sexual assault across our lifespans. One of the ugliest and most painful dimensions of rape’s aftermath is exactly what Wanjuki so brilliantly communicated through TikTok. Rape culture requires the majority of sexual assault victims to co-exist in a society where our rapists do more than move freely. In a rape culture, our attackers thrive.

Some of these perpetrators become physicians, like the doctor who assaulted Connie Chung. Others, like the former attorney general of New York, become lawyers. I know one who is employed as a teacher and yet another who draws a teacher’s pension.

An elite few, including the author of the Declaration of Independence, have sworn the oath of office and assumed the US presidency.

All of this is to say that with the election of Joe Biden, life probably sucks for former Senate staffer Tara Reade right now.

In March, Reade told journalist Katie Harper that Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993. Instead of being met with the groundswell of feminist support given to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the professor who reported Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh for attempted gang rape, an array of influential feminists strategically abandoned their commitment to the principle “believe survivors.”

Biden supporters, like Alyssa Milano, worked to create a state of exception around Reade’s account. This artificial distinction allowed them to dismiss Reade’s statements under the guise of “pragmatic” decision-making, thus obscuring the implications that Reade’s revelations could have had on Biden’s candidacy. Consequently, Biden’s defenders also communicated to rape victims that we live in a rape-tolerant society.

Rape culture serves as a constant reminder of our disposability. So does witnessing a rapist luxuriate in his freedom. It stings when you happen upon your perpetrator giddily pedaling down a city street on his bicycle, soaking up the sunshine. I’ve experienced this coincidence and I admit that the fantasy of aiming my car in his direction held significant appeal. Though it may have been gratifying to introduce his face to my windshield, I decided to remain a free bitch instead of indulging in old-fashioned vigilantism.

For Reade, constant reminders of Biden “winning” are unavoidable. He’s the president-elect for fuck’s sake. I have a difficult enough time psyching myself up to go to the grocery store, a place where I might run into my rapist whistling to himself as he thumps melons, so it’s excruciating to imagine Reade’s reality, one where Biden will saturate the news for the next four years.

Much is made of the flashbacks that sexual assault victims experience in the aftermath of rape. Worse yet is that many of us continue to encounter our rapists as we move through the world. Acknowledging that reality would push society to reckon with just how many perpetrators circulate among us. It would require us to affirm that we eat lunch with rapists, work beside rapists, share our homes with rapists, split child custody with rapists, attend class with rapists and listen to rapists read the State of the Union Address from teleprompters.

Seldom do I find elements of mainstream culture that acknowledge the lifelong impact of rape. When I do, I relish them. One artifact that validates this impact is taught as part of the high school English curriculum. It is the rape of Persephone.

According to this ancient Greek tale, Hades, Lord of the Underworld, observes Persephone picking flowers in a meadow. Ever the entitled asshole, he kidnaps her, holding her captive in hell. Like many rape victims seeking to reestablish bodily autonomy, Persephone starves herself. Eventually, she accepts several pomegranate seeds that her rapist tricks her into eating. In her anguish, Persephone’s bereft mother, the Goddess Demeter, threatens to destroy the earth by subjecting it to permanent winter. With the future of the planet hanging in the balance, Zeus, God of gods, finally intervenes. As if brokering the return of a stolen toy, Zeus orders Hades to deliver Persephone back to her mom. Divine law, however, makes a return to normal impossible. After tasting the fruit of the Underworld, Persephone is required to be a part-time resident of hell. Supernatural rules mandate that she cyclically spend time with her rapist. Life for rape victims continues in the same infernal vein.

a photograph of Gloria Anzaldúa with a hat with the sea behind her

In the heart of the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, a beacon of hope and resilience was born. On September 26, 1942, Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa came into a world that wasn't quite ready for her. As a Chicana, a lesbian, and a feminist, Anzaldúa was set to challenge a predominantly Anglo-American and heteronormative society in a way that would forever change the discourse surrounding queer and Chicano identities.

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