Rape culture IS that bad: A Review of “Not That Bad”

By Gabrielle Everall | 20 Mar 19
Photo by Maurício Mascaro from Pexels


Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture

ed. Roxane Gay

Harper Collins

When Roxane Gay was twelve years old, she was gang-raped in the woods behind her neighbourhood. She tried to comfort herself by saying what happened “wasn’t that bad” but found this approach only made things worse. I was sexually assaulted in the Northern Territory in Australia when I was nineteen. Similarly, I thought what happened to me was only a “piss in the ocean” compared to what happens to other people.

This approach creates what Gay calls a “low bar” on how you are to be treated in relationships with other people. I would not dream of criticising Not That Bad as everything in the book rings true to me as a survivor of sexual assault.  Not That Bad says that the experience of rape or sexual assault makes the survivor feel that they are worthless and erased.  I too, as a survivor of sexual assault, have grown up to feel this way.

In her essay “Floccinaucinihilipilification,” So Mayer defines rape as “a cultural and political act: it attempts to remove a person with agency, autonomy and belonging from the community, to secrete them and separate them, to depoliticise their body by rendering it detachable, violable, nothing” (140). However, Mayer says that through this erasure she became something (141). Mayer, who was sexually abused by her father, states that she became “something other than the evacuated, erased nobody that my father hoped to produce” (141).

For Nora Salem in “The Life Ruiner”, her sexual abuse as a child and an adult made her feel she was not real. Salem views the worst thing about non-consensual sex is that it makes you feel non-existent (151). Similarly, before I was sexually assaulted, I felt good about my body hence my identity.  In an act of sexual violence all that was changed. In writing about her sexual abuse Salem is writing “to prove” she exists (153), a logic that demonstrates the importance of the publication.

Not That Bad explores all the associated realities of rape culture: getting cat-called sexually in the street; the ageism and sexism associated with the acronym MILF (mother I’d like to fuck); the policing of women’s bodies in Hollywood; fatism; rape stories; male rape; women who rape; rape threats; child rape; shame; victim blaming; frat halls; campus sexual assault; rape of trans people; rape of trans people by cis people; minimisation; self-esteem; worthlessness; anger; the legal system; rape of refugees.

Not That Bad addresses the denial of rape from minimisation to the disbelief that you have raped or been raped. In her essay “Slaughterhouse Island” by Jill Christman she addresses how some men who rape don’t even realise they have raped. However, I found this hard to believe considering the rapist stuffed a pillow in the protagonist’s mouth to stop her from screaming.

Many women don’t even realise they have been raped. Christman writes that only 27 percent of women raped on campus in the U.S in 1988 identified themselves as rape victims (27).

On minimisation Claire Schwartz in “& the Truth Is, I Have No Story” writes how the response of the first person she confided in was “You’re so lucky you weren’t killed”. Similarly, the therapist she saw said the same thing.  Schwartz writes that not only do people say not to talk about rape they also say, “I would rather be dead than be raped.” Schwartz writes about the difficulty of getting therapy about your rape experience; often the survivor becomes triggered and their life falls to pieces while getting therapy.

In the same way the experiences of rape survivors are minimised when people say “at least you were not killed”, Lynn Melnick in “The Luckiest MILF in Brooklyn” feels minimised after being called “MILF tits”. She writes, “It’s not like he touched you. It’s not like he hurt you. It’s not like he raped you” (51). Like rape survivors are supposed to feel grateful that they were not killed, cat call victims are supposed to feel grateful they were not raped. Melnick is also made to feel like it is her fault because she wore a summer dress. With ageism Melnick explains, “I should be honoured to be objectified now that I’m forty-two, I should be grateful” (51).

In “Utmost Resistance” V.L Seek writes about how the legal system minimises rape survivors.  The legal system does not favour women or believe survivors (187).  This leads rape survivors to doubt their experiences.

A.J McKenna in “Sixty-Three Days” writes about the experience of being a trans woman who is sexually assaulted by a cis woman. She found herself making excuses for her rapist. McKenna believed her case would fail in court because she had been drinking at the time, she consented, and she was presenting as male (86). She also writes how legally women are unable to rape only sexually assault.

Vanessa Mártir in “What I Told Myself” writes about the experience of having a mother who had survived rape. Unfortunately, Mártir’s mother abused her. Mártir was abused by other people at six, and two more times as an adult. But people just said what happened to Mártir wasn’t as bad as what happened to her mother.

xTx in “The Ways We Are Taught to Be a Girl” writes of the six times she was molested by boys and men. She sees these experiences as the six lessons of becoming a girl. The lessons make her feel that she is a bad person who will grow into a woman who feels she has little worth. When she was twelve, she considered herself unattractive and was surprised when a handsome counsellor took her sailing. The counsellor took advantage of her and she blamed herself.

Self-blame and victim blaming are big in rape culture. Elisabeth Fairfield Stokes in “Sows: Live from the Killing Fields of Growing up Female in America” blamed herself when she was raped.  She wrote: “I told no one. It wasn’t a stranger in a clown mask, but I knew that time it was rape and that it was my fault, for drinking, for hurting my leg, for being a girl. Reap. Rape” (294).

In “Picture Perfect” Sharisse Tracey, who was raped by her father as a child, writes on victim blaming after her father died: “Somehow the shame was still on me, the victim; my father was to be absolved in death as he had been in life” (269).

The only down side for me about Not That Bad and metoo is that I no longer feel like I can hug people. I found reading Not That Bad as a survivor of sexual abuse a process of self-discovery. A process of reclaiming your self-worth. Everybody should read Not That Bad.