Roxane Gay is a writer and editor, a teacher and a publisher. She is the first to participate in this ongoing series, Talking with Women. She has a lot to say about sexual violence and language, and it’s all worth hearing. We hope to continue this series for as long as we can. We want to talk candidly with women about matters of sexual violence, gender, sexuality, courage, strength, healing and more. We want to speak with rape survivors, mothers who have struggled, authors who feel ignored, you. We want to hear your stories. If you want to participate but are uncomfortable talking to us, please feel free to interview with a friend and send it to us, here, or to usedfurnituresubs@ (audio interviews are also acceptable). No issue will be dismissed.
Used Furniture Review: Anyone who’s reading this is probably familiar with your essay that appeared on The Rumpus, The Careless Language of Sexual Violence. It criticizes the way in which the New York Times reported on an eleven-year old girl who was gang raped. Why was writing your essay so necessary?
Roxane Gay: When I read the New York Times article, I had a physical reaction. I am actually surprised by how intensely it knocked me off my feet. It was a straw/camel/back scenario. I read that article, and my first thought was, “This is complete bullshit.” I was at work so I had to close my door and ranted to my computer monitor, and then I just started typing and two hours later, I had written an emotional essay trying to express some of my anger. I was nauseous and furious about what happened to the 11-year old girl. I was angry at the absolutely ass backwards reactions from the community (or at least the reactions that were reflected in the article). I was angry at how irresponsibly and carelessly the incident was reported with vague, passive language and other nonsense.
Writing that essay was necessary because writing is how I deal with almost everything and I needed some way of dealing with the impotence of living in a world where a young girl can be gang raped, where a woman in a small town can suggest the child was dressed like a 20 year old as if that somehow justified what happened, and where a reporter feels no compunction about sharing this information without offering any kind of balance or perspective. And for the record, I do not conflate the reportage with the reporter’s opinions. We don’t know the reporter’s opinions. We do, however, know that the reporter was needlessly careless. As some have pointed out, the town’s reaction is a legitimate news story but unless the town is populated solely by sociopaths, I have to believe there were other perspectives among the citizenry and other reportage on the rape has borne this out.
Frankly, as far as I am concerned, anything that encourages victim blaming, anything that gives voice to victim blaming, is wrong even though I am well aware those attitudes exist and are pervasive and that we should not forget those attitudes exist. You cannot discuss sexual violence in this country, or anywhere really, without a parallel discussion of what a woman was wearing, the time of day or night, how much she drank, her looks, her sexual history, so on and so forth. It is absolutely shameful that we cannot simply say a woman was raped without the interrogation or contextual analysis. Women are not the “problem” where rape is concerned. Rapists are the problem. We need to reframe the discourse in so many ways. That’s why this essay, for me, was necessary.
UFR: You talk about living in a time of “rape culture.” I think you’re right; it’s hard to dispute the evidence, especially when looking at what’s happening on TV, as you suggest. But you implicate yourself. You watch Law & Order: SVU, for example. You have a working knowledge about what’s at stake elsewhere on TV, too. So how do we remember that real life doesn’t “wash away as neatly” as what happens on these TV shows? Can we?
Gay: I do implicate myself. I try to implicate myself in all of the writing I do where I’m discussing issues where I would like to see change. I am human too. When I write these kinds of essays, I am not interrogating others as much as I am interrogating myself, my thinking, my ways of moving through the world. Just the other day I was writing about how I love (and I do mean love) listening to misogynistic thug rap while increasingly writing about race and gender issues. I definitely need to start any interrogation with myself. If only that music wasn’t so catchy. I am helpless in the face of such sophisticated lyrics as, “Make it rain, trick.”
I am not sure how we can remember that real life doesn’t wash away as easily though common sense goes a long way. Most people are, indeed, intelligent and have common sense and are able to separate fact from fiction but it can be very easy to forget, to become desensitized to all manner of wrong because of the “rape culture” we live in. I also believe there are, for whatever reason, simply people who do not know better, who do not understand how pernicious the aftermath of rape can be, and so they assume it’s something you can simply walk off or get over with a shower, some therapy, and a quick reading of A Courage to Heal. (I am dating myself with that last reference but that book was what therapists used to throw at you back in the day to help women heal from sexual violence. I don’t know what the fashionable text is these days.)
People make these assumptions because the way rape is represented often makes rape seem like a neatly contained experience with a narrative trajectory that results in healing and happiness. The camera always pans away. The writer makes allusions instead of truly writing rape. The trauma is resolved. There’s a case to be made for that approach, for not sensationalizing, so I don’t even have the answer for how we get better at this. I don’t know how to negotiate accuracy and art while avoiding exploitation but at the very least we can start to talk about it.
As I noted in the comments of the essay, one of the representations I thought of quite a bit as this conversation has taken place and as I wrote my essay, is Gaspar Noé’s Irrèversible, which has the most unwatchable rape scene I have ever seen. It’s just unspeakable. As horrifying as that rape scene is, it is an accurate depiction of rape (though not the only accurate depiction as there a wide range of experiences). The unwatchableness of it really speaks to what I’m trying to articulate here. We consume so many representations of rape because they’re palatable, because they’re circumspect, because they are not quite accurate. In Irrèversible, we see the utter repulsion of the rape act and the very real physical aftermath. I am not suggesting every representation go to that extreme but I do think a show like Law & Order SVU would not have been on the air so long if they used that kind of accuracy. People would be more disgusted and less titillated.
UFR: Really, the title of your essay speaks volumes. It all comes down to language, interpretations, misinterpretations. Will there always be a gap in our ability to curtail sexual violence, then? Or can we use language to mend?
Gay: Life is violent so I do believe there will always be a significant distance between violence and our ability to curtail it. Can we use language to begin to close that distance? I’m quite realistic about the limits of language nor do I wish to minimize the issue of sexual violence by suggesting such a thing is possible. I do not mean to suggest we can simply write our way out living in a violent world. What I am calling for in is to, at the very least, first do no harm where language is concerned. We may not be able to curtail sexual violence but let’s try not to do further damage with how we write about sexual violence.
UFR: Have you ever felt violated as a woman? Have you ever been violated as a woman?
Gay: Does violation have to be gendered? I suppose the better question is if I have ever felt violated because I am a woman. I’d also ask what you mean by violated? That word can encompass any number of things great and small. Have I ever been violated as a woman? I’ve been asked that question a shocking number of times since the essay was published. I am curious as to why people want to know. It’s an uncomfortable question. Does someone need to have been violated to appropriately discuss the topic? Yes, I do have a personal stake in this issue and someday I’m sure I will write about it but I have not yet gotten to a place where I can write about it in my essays. I tell stories instead. I need that distance fiction provides.
UFR: So after reading the initial NYT article, did you feel violated? If so, was that it similar to that which occurs on the personal and physical level?
Gay: No, I did not feel violated as a woman when I read the initial NYT article. I felt offended as a human being. I am angry on principle not because I feel a sense of violation. I’m frustrated that reportage about rape hasn’t changed that much in my lifetime. And I definitely don’t think feeling violated by reading something is at all like being physically violated but I’m also not someone who understands things like “trigger” warnings so I might not be the best person to answer that question.
UFR: When it comes to violation, then, can we talk about “women” as we do all “people”?
Gay: I do not think we can talk about women the same way we do all people. While I am well aware men can be violated, there is something complex and deeply historical about the violation of a woman. (This is not to say that the violation of a man is simple. I just can’t speak to that.) A woman’s violation happens because she is a woman, because society, for too long, has positioned women as less than equal, as the object of the male gaze, as the receptacle for male desire whether that desire is welcomed or not.
I am reminded of a difficult and moving essay I recently read by Ashley Ford, The Sins of My Father.
She writes, “There is a very loud voice in this world that tells girls and women there is something about a man and sex that makes it impossible for him to control himself. When we are learning to be women the first thing we’re told to do is cover up. Not for ourselves, our own modesty or comfort, but as not to draw the lingering eyes of men who would seek to hurt us. It is never about us learning about ourselves, only about us protecting ourselves.”
When I first read that, I stopped breathing because it perfectly articulated a reality many women face, where we are at risk by the very nature of being women. We have to do the work of protecting ourselves in the face of men who won’t control themselves. Many women are consistently reminded that life is different for girls.
Reading Ford’s essay reminded me of a stupid incident when I was a kid, skinny, flat as a board, wearing denim overalls and my hair in a ponytail. There was nothing about me to suggest I was sexually desirable. And this is how vicious all this is. Years later, I am trying to explain that I wasn’t “asking for it.” I was minding my business in a TV room of an apartment complex where my family was living temporarily while waiting for our house to finish being built during a move. I was reading a book and daydreaming when an old man, at least 50, came into the room, closed the door, and sat down next to me. He put his hand on my thigh and started telling me how beautiful I was. At first, I was stupidly flattered a man would talk to me that way (I read lots of romance novels and was just silly because I was, you know, a kid).
I knew about stranger danger but he didn’t seem like the criminals in the McGruff the Crime Dog coloring book. Yes, I was a child of the 80s. If you’ve had a certain set of experiences, you kind of just go with that sort of thing because you already know the worst that can happen. I thanked him, politely, tried to leave, but he persisted, practically had me in his lap, wouldn’t let go of me. Nothing terrible happened, it was just stupid and uncomfortable and gross because he was old as hell (to a kid). When I went back to our apartment (I have awesome parents, truly) and told my mom the old man said I was beautiful, she got mad at me for talking to a stranger, for being flattered by a perv. I didn’t tell her about anything else. I understand, now, that she was reacting from a place of fear, trying to get me to pull my head out of my ass in order to recognize the risk I had been in but back then I had to swallow the bitter fact that men were always going to be absolved of their bullshit and that if a man behaved inappropriately, it was my responsibility. It’s different for girls, always has been, so we can (and should) talk about the violation of people but the conversation cannot be the same as when we talk about the violation of women.
UFR: What’s your greatest fear? Why?
Gay: I do not care for being trapped in enclosed spaces with lots of people and I’ve recently developed a healthy fear of massage and I’m terrified of dogs, insects, spiders, lizards and other horrors. Why? I’m a freak. More seriously, my biggest fear is that the radical change we need to create a culture where women (and men) are free from the threat of sexual violence will never come. It seems like the conversation never changes, and never will and that is terrifying.
UFR: Why are conversations about sexual violence and rape important?
Gay: These conversations are important because for too long both women and men have had to stay silent about sexual violence and rape. Society has said that these are matters that should be kept secret because we should be ashamed, because we are at fault, because these experiences are a fact of life. Enough, already. These negatively coded messages are really quite powerful and it’s time to destroy them once and for all by talking about sexual violence and rape, by having the difficult conversations where we talk about our beliefs about these matters, where we talk about our doubts, and all the gray areas, and the entire spectrum of rape and sexual violence and reactions to such experiences. The conversations might be awkward or nearly impossible but I have to believe that if we start the conversations we will be taking a step in the right direction. There’s a great conversation taking place right now over at The Nervous Breakdown with a meditation by Zoe Zolbrod where she articulates a lot of the things people think but are afraid to discuss.
UFR: Elsewhere, you say writing as a woman is political. Why, exactly? Is a woman’s body also political?
Gay: The answer to this question goes back a bit. For quite some time, well through my twenties, I often said I am not a feminist because I feel like that term has so much baggage not to mention that as a woman of color, feminists make it real damn hard to throw in with them. I’ve also wanted to avoid political discussions because I am fairly entrenched in my opinions so I’ve just kept my opinions on these matters to myself.
I am older now and I don’t really care what people assume about my gender politics or other politics or how I identify myself. The older I get, I also feel more responsibility to be a voice — not the only voice, not even the right voice, but a voice for certain kinds of women’s experiences. I have come to believe, for me at least, that writing as a woman is political because for so long, women have had to compromise how their stories are told and women seem to be in a constant battle for equality, for dignity. I have the access and opportunity, recognize this, and so I am trying to do something with this voice, just one small thing. When you look at so many different things going on, the pay gap, the lack of representation in certain circles of power, how poorly our criminal justice system handles sexual violence, and on and on and on, I am overwhelmed and I believe, as I note in my essay, that it is a strange and terrible time to be a woman. (It is also a strange and glorious time. I’m so down with my gender.)
A woman’s body is political because our government makes it political by, for example, trying to legislate what we can or cannot do with our bodies when we are pregnant. Until a woman’s body is taken off the table as a site for legislative intervention, her body will always be political. It’s galling that we’re still debating abortion. It makes me want to give men vaginas.
UFR: Back to the first lines of your essay. You write, “There is a video of the attack too, because this is the future. The unspeakable will be televised.” I think this is a really profound thing to say. I mean, the term “rape” is literally ancient. But history changes; the world changes day-by-day, now more than ever. When talking about the amplification of sexual violence, then, are we victims of our own devices? Or is it more complex than that?
Gay: In some ways yes, we are victims of our own devices in that they can be used against us. They can be used to amplify trauma. That’s fucked up. When I say, “This is the future,” it’s also more complex than that. This is what we have come to. What happened in East Texas has happened elsewhere. There are all kinds of sordid little videos being “shared” with “friends” at the expense of a victim who then has to re-live the trauma over and over. This is the future. The future comes with reminders. The future comes with permanence. We have these devices and networks and we reach out to one another, but sometimes, the ways in which we reach out, are terrible. Not only that, the people who commit these crimes, not only have the capacity to rape or sexually assault, they also have the capacity to document that violence which means they do not have the capacity to be humane. This is what we have come to or this is how we have always been. Both alternatives are fairly depressing.
UFR: The Times has since published a self-critique of their article. Does this work for you? Is it enough?
Gay: The Times self-critique was a step in the right direction but I am not completely satisfied. No one should be. A formal apology would have gone a long way. Truth be told, I don’t know what would satisfy me but what would satisfy me is incredibly irrelevant. The better question would be to find out what the people who are directly affected by this case want. This is not about me at all and when I wrote this essay, I was really using the case as a catalyst for a larger conversation about rape, representation, and the often-careless language of sexual violence in the discourse about rape.
UFR: Do you have hope for the future?
Gay: I hope so.
UFR: What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?
Gay: I have a niece who is the center of my joy and she is without a doubt, the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. She’s the kind of baby you want to steal and knowing she’s going to grow up in this world only motivates me to run my mouth even more.