Rape, Rape Culture, and Betrayal: choosing a different way

The pamphlet Betrayal was recommended by someone as a good reading on something… I don’t remember what: abuse, or rape, or rape culture, so I read it, as I like to keep up with what people are saying about this topic. And as I read, I found myself furiously typing up responses on sticky notes throughout the pdf. Here I formalize and cohere those notes, for all the breathless hordes waiting to read what I think of a pamphlet that I now find came out about ten years ago. Late again.

Some Background:

First, whatever cred I have in my analysis comes from working weekly for almost fifteen years on a battered woman’s hotline (which is what it was called back then, I’m sure there’s better language now); being involved in many, many situations among anarchists and friends and anarchist friends who were being abused or abusing or both; having an affinity group about the topic and from that writing a zine that never got much play (we were mostly older folks, and not active on social media), but that I still think is one of the better readings on the topic for anarchists; reading dozens of books on rape and domestic/intimate violence–between same sex couples as well as het ones–, and thinking critically about what practical solutions there might be to real life problems (which anarchists almost never have the resources to address as we would like, even if/when we know what that is)1.

Second, I am an anarchist. I don’t support laws, I don’t support reified hierarchies, I don’t like it when people try to represent other people, especially for anything like “their own good.” Rape and abuse are deeply personal and subjective experiences. While it can be important and empowering to find commonalities with other people who have lived through hardship, that frequently comes at the cost of hiding or ignoring how our experiences are different from those of the people we’re trying to bond with.

The combination I bring of real world experience, stringently anarchist ideas, and interest in the topic (as well as a willingness to occasionally write about it) seems to be rare. So, I started reading this pamphlet with some skepticism, not because I knew anything about the authors, but because there is a lot of verbiage in general about abuse of various sorts, and most of it seems lethally simplistic, if not manipulative, useless, and/or malign.

Mixed Messages:

What I leave this pamphlet with is a strong sense of how confused the authors seem to be about how to address this topic. This could always be a function of writing skills, or collective writing process, or my own stylistic differences from the authors, but I read the essay as having strong internal conflicts.

The most significant instance of this is probably the overall tone of decisiveness and clarity, which conflicts with the occasional acknowledgment that everyone’s experience will differ, and the lack of any actual suggestions for practically dealing with abuse (I use the word abuse as an umbrella term that includes the more specific rape).

Here are a few examples of the general tone and/or universalizing language:

1. the survivor gets to determine everything, “survivor’s autonomy” (according to the authors, the correct response to a survivor) means that whatever they say goes. (More on this later…)

2. with the possible exception of doing what a survivor wants, everything is or could be a manifestation of rape culture (the definition they use is so broad that it’s hard to imagine any interaction between people as outside of rape culture, which might be fine as far as it goes, but gives no guidance for what or how to do things better than we do them now). If everything can be interpreted as an aspect of oppression, then no one can do anything, we’re all paralyzed, and there is no point to even writing pamphlets like this. The out that the authors give, the one thing that is safe to do, is whatever the survivor wants, which puts a phenomenal weight on survivors, and isolates them as somehow different from non-survivors, putting them on pedestals from which the only direction is down. (Again, more on this in a later section.) I agree with the authors that something I would call rape culture (or sexism, or patriarchy) is involved in every interaction (as are most of the -isms), but their attempt to foist the responsibility for addressing that onto someone else, rather than acknowledging that we all have to make our best choices and decisions all the time, is where we strongly part ways.

3. their definition of apologist: Those who, through action or inaction, seek to uphold either the power of a perpetrator(s) and/or the disempowerment of a survivor(s), thus reproducing Rape Culture. Since there are multiple reasons why someone might uphold the power of a perpetrator or the disempowerment of a survivor, not to mention the extremely common case of it not being clear what is actually going on (in other words, who is what), and/or survivors having conflicting desires and requests, just to start the extensive list of complicating factors, this definition is so broad and takes so much for granted that it is useful only as a justification for treating people badly.

4. Perhaps it is not the silence of survivors, but of those around them, which is truly revealing. With no one to say otherwise, a survivor can only assume that they will be given the same treatment as every other survivor before them. Really? Every other survivor?

In contrast, here is some acknowledgment of specifics:

1. We feel insulted and embarrassed that we have to constantly point out that we aren’t speaking on behalf of all survivors, as though that were even possible.

2. We also wanted to recognize that people of all identities, from all walks of life, can be both survivors or perpetrators, or even both at the same time.

3. There are surely survivors whose experiences will seemingly contradict the arguments made here. But of course the examples cited throughout this text are not meant to be exhaustive or all encompassing. We do not see our own experiences as exemplary of the experiences of all survivors, or even most survivors.

4. But all we’re talking about are our own experiences, a topic on which we are all experts.

So it seems clear that they’re trying to ground their analysis in their own experience, but that they have fallen into the common trap of universalizing, which is so tempting when we are trying to convince people who we suspect won’t or don’t believe us, a frequent problem with talking about abuse, which, again, is both extremely common and extremely subjective.

Clarity and Definitions:

I appreciate that Betrayal starts out with a glossary, not because the definitions are good, but because they make it scintillatingly clear how broad and therefore almost meaningless their definitions are. There is no better or more important example than the definition for the central premise of the pamphlet: Rape Culture–A culture that seeks to excuse, condone, normalize, and encourage interpersonal violence. Since they use the word culture in the definition, clearly they are trying to define rape. In “Jargon to Watch Out For,” I mentioned the danger of using words like rape (or lynch) to de-mystify and broaden people’s understandings (my most generous reading of the practice), because it also trivializes and devalues the word(s). In other words, if rape is the same as any kind of violence, then there is no reason to have the word rape. While it is totally valid to have differing opinions about what rape means, to be distinguishable from other words for abuse or violence or attack, it has to have some significant characteristics that are historical, cross-cultural, physical, and sexual.

While in today’s culture it’s common for strong words, words with deep emotional content, to get pushed into doing labor for ever-broadening ripples of meaning, unfortunately that ends in essays like Betrayal, in which the words that mean the most become diffused and so confusing that they no longer mean anything. I recognize that I am bucking the modern trend here. Perhaps the current trends in language will result in new words that carry the particular weight that rape has had in the past. But what the shifts mean in this moment is that people are confused, dismissive, and outraged, far more than they need to be, and certainly more than is helpful for people working with the actual experience and ramifications of violent sexual assault.

I appreciated the authors’ frustration with things like “trigger warnings,” which is a tactic that is used against us (and against informed conversations about difficult topics) as often as it actually avoids upsetting someone in the middle of dealing with something. The authors trouble concepts like “safety” (defined in the loaded way that it’s used these days), and “expertise,” and I fully support being critical of, or occasionally rejecting, both or either.

But then they say things like “…we’re not there yet… Our words hold the tremendous potential to do harm… we must take care when we speak, so as to not become inadvertent allies of the forces we mean to oppose.”

The authors express frustration with the concept that information will free us, even if they’re not sure where to go with that. “For instance, the need for good consent practices becomes confused with the belief that informing people about consent will transform our communities, as though rape were the result of ignorance and misinformation, rather than deeply entrenched structures of power. Strategies that anarchists have adopted, such as the accountability process, more often than not fail to address the interpersonal violence in our midst.” It has also been my experience that accountability processes usually aren’t that helpful. I think that’s because people expect too much of them and also have conflicting goals for them (assisted, perhaps, by the high standards implied by pamphlets like Betrayed). On the other hand, accountability processes are a valiant effort to address the problems we have outside of a legal process that anarchists don’t believe in and don’t want to replicate. Not saying that makes them effective, but it does make them worthwhile efforts, something to keep working on (especially if our only other option is going back to the cops, or becoming cops ourselves). The aspect of consent workshops that I do find valuable, however limited, is how they serve to teach people a) some common patterns, b) some words for those patterns, and c) a shared vocabulary, at least for the participants in that workshop.

The survivor gets to define everything…

Really, because this is such a common response for those who feel like they have to make a policy to address really different situations, this stance deserves its own essay. But for here, I will just list a few problems with this response. (And here I am also simplifying the conversation by leaving aside the extremely common situations where abuse is murky, complicated, different from just one person hurting another person.)

First, I absolutely agree that one of the biggest issues with someone who has been in an abusive relationship (including a single instance, but especially multiple and/or long-lasting ones) is the diminished or lacking sense of autonomy, or respect for or trust in one’s own capacity. And renewing or encouraging that sense, respect, trust, is one of the first things that supporters and survivors need. It is also true that survivors are angry, and appropriately so.

However, insisting that survivors get anything they want, that their desires are always valid and should always be catered to, is like insisting that someone who’s been in a hospital with broken legs recover by running a marathon.

It is denying the subjectivity and specificity of every individual’s experience, it is denying that people have mixed motivations, it can even be a way to infantilize the survivor; sometimes people stay in abusive relationships for some sound reasons (in other words, sometimes even abusive relationships have both good and bad aspects to them, and assuming they’re only bad sometimes denies the survivor’s own assessment of their situation).

My second, less-but-still important point, is a tactical one. If we have knee jerk reactions to accusations of abuse, then we are setting ourselves up to be played by hostile actors. The state is fully capable of accusing anyone of anything, in order to destabilize networks and relationships. We can’t stop them from doing that, but we can refuse to be predictable, the kind of predictable encouraged by policies that universalize.

Being flexible, paying attention to the actual situations, personalities, power dynamics, etc that we’re confronted with is hard. It means that we have to take into account our own biases, the specifics of situations that we might not have (or ever get) good information about, and we might only ever be able to be slightly less crappy than we are now. So of course policies that are clear and simple are extremely tempting. And just as dangerous.

Rape Culture:

If I had to define Rape Culture, I would say it is a set of assumptions and expectations that allow, underlie, and strengthen the belief that some groups of people are the sexual prey of a different group of people. This is obviously a foundational concept to our current culture, and I agree with the authors that we are all complicit in it, if to various degrees at different times. And of course that includes survivors, who are not exempt from the culture just because they’re the most obvious or immediate victims of it. The premise that the worst sufferer of oppression has the most valid critique of that oppression, is Maoist, and in this case supposes that any of us are not sufferers of rape culture, which I reject (although of course some experiences are much harder and/or more obvious than others). While as a woman I am more likely to be raped, and to fear being raped, the behaviors that men are socially constrained to are as brutally dehumanizing (arguably sometimes more so). In other words, this culture is bad for all of us, and I most value writings that reflect that. That means that no one is automatically trustworthy on the topic of abuse, which is hard to deal with and increases the complications, but is no less true for that.


My overall take away from this reading is a sense of doom and urgency, with the only suggested recourse of putting way too much authority into the hands of survivors, aka people who have either been through or are in the middle of an extremely difficult experience(s).

Pros: The attempt to grapple with what they call Rape Culture: something that is frequently left undefined, and that is big and amorphous, contradictory and complicated. The acknowledgment–at least in words, if not in spirit–that people’s experiences differ, and that each situation should be judged on its own merits. Their clarity about the emotions they bring to the piece: anger, frustration, and bitterness, which we can surely all empathize with. The fact that the authors are people with different histories of the topic, and they acknowledge that. And again, it’s helpful that they explain what they can of their terms and biases, given that so many people come to the topic of abuse from such different places, and frequently express diametrically opposed things using the same words, which adds more confusion than clarity.


For people who want to write something on this or other important and complicated topics, here are some suggestions that I think would’ve helped this pamphlet:

a. be clear about what you’ve read or experienced that you’re responding to. If readings, list them in a bibliography. Consider referring to specific sentences that are helpful or terrible. If experiences, no need to name names, obviously, but telling actual stories is very clarifying.

b. if you’re involving different perspectives, consider breaking up the piece so that individual voices get the room to say what they think separately, rather than smooshing different perspectives into the same paragraphs.

c. if you’re responding to a really specific place, and/or set of circumstances, consider saying that, with or without details, to be clear that you are not making universal(ist) statements.

d. the broader and more complicated your criticism is, the more significant it is to offer concrete examples, because otherwise it is either impossible to see a way out, or the people who most need the criticism you offer will find it easy to assume you’re not talking about them (or both).

1Anarchist-friendly options could be a crowd of people to follow someone around to make sure that they don’t contact or harass the other person, therapy sessions of various sorts (group and/or individual), support groups for either or both (or all) of the parties concerned, living spaces and/or employment far from each other, and so on. These are usually only partially available, if at all. And using what is available is complicated (almost always, though not always) by conflicting feelings of love and fury and grief and revenge and fear on various sides.

2 thoughts on “Rape, Rape Culture, and Betrayal: choosing a different way”

  1. Inappropriate support attempts, on the other hand, were more common from informal support providers such as family and friends. Inappropriate support attempts included suggestions or behaviors that may have been intended to be helpful but were experienced by survivors as hurtful or simply not what they needed. Herbert and Dunkel-Schetter ( 1992 ) first noted the distinction between intentionally negative reactions (e.g., blame) and unintentional negative reactions resulting from altruistically motivated, but ineffective support attempts. This distinction was further validated by Ullman (Ullman, 19, 19, 19 ) in her survey of rape survivors. In the current study, several of the survivors described interactions with informal support providers that were inadequate for overcoming their own feelings of self-blame. In essence, these survivors internalized many of the cultural narratives about rape that emphasize victim culpability. When support providers were unable to counter these messages, the victims engaged in self-silencing, choosing to censor themselves and remain silent about an experience they considered shameful and stigmatizing (Jack, 1991 ). These survivors did not receive any benefits from disclosure and often felt worse after speaking about the assault. Having lost faith in the efficacy of disclosure, these survivors opted to heal themselves.

  2. The single biggest incubator of true “rape culture” is… the American men’s prison. I’ve even seen this fact acknowledged by ostensibly feminist op-ed writers, while they still endorse extreme carceral penalties for sexual offenders (ironically — or intentionally — the very group most victimized within the prison hierarchy). What hope do we have of actually escaping “rape culture” when supposed leftists come down in favor of *harsher* prison sentences for sex offenses, when it is an openly acknowledged fact that American prisons are environments where the strong mercilessly persecute the weak?

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