Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Book Review: Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture

by Shea Robinson, Fiction Department, Central Library

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture
Edited by Roxane Gay

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture is an anthology of essays written by those who have experienced harassment, violence, or assault of a sexual nature. It opens with the following line:
When I was twelve years old, I was gang-raped in the woods behind my neighborhood by a group of boys with the dangerous intentions of bad men.
It’s an attention-grabbing statement that flings us immediately into the deep end of the pool. A child was raped by several people. This checks all the appropriate boxes for undeniably bad in my assessment. While I believe that most readers would agree, it must be noted that the victim of this crime does not. After listening to numerous accounts given by other victims of sexual violence, she determined that what she experienced was bad, but not that bad.

The insertion of this qualifier and how society classifies the bad vs. the not that bad is the issue this anthology tackles head on. Since there is no universal definition as to the criteria that constitutes a particular label, individuals must assign a designation informed by their own moral relativism.

Given that each person’s moral relativism is shaped by the culture, beliefs, and specific experiences that are unique to each individual, it follows that a society could easily have a diverse spectrum of viewpoints. While the law may inform us as to which acts constitute a crime, it cannot tell us how we should classify them or more importantly—feel about them.

The writers featured within the anthology are as varied as their experiences. Some names are well-known—such as Ally Sheedy and Gabrielle Union—while others are first-person accounts from unknown writers chronicling a myriad of subjects including child molestation, rape, and sexual harassment.

Though the accounts may vastly differ, the underlying message is clear. While all experiences may not be considered equal, continually raising the bar on what is classified as bad will lead to the development of a numbing effect within society. The minimization and trivialization of certain acts serves to nurture an environment where sexual violence is excused and victims are marginalized. This environment is commonly known as rape culture.

Sexual violence is an uncomfortable topic, but this anthology has the potential to make us uncomfortable in the best of ways. It can challenge our beliefs that are deeply ingrained, some of which we may be unaware. As I read each essay, I considered which experiences I would qualify as bad vs. not that bad and upon what criteria I used to make such designations. Some of my thought process was cringe-inducing.

I think it’s imperative that we question ourselves regarding the application of these labels even if it causes discomfort. Perhaps then we can begin to have a dialogue unimpeded by minimizing qualifiers that downplay the gravity of sexual violence. Society can only benefit from further progress of this important conversation.

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