Roxane Gay’s Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture
Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture
(Harper Perennial, 2018)
I once workshopped a powerful essay by a woman who detailed her experiences of sexual harassment and assault. She had been catcalled, groped, propositioned, followed home, and had some of the most demeaning and degrading things said to her by friends, boyfriends, and men on the street. In early drafts, she deliberately downplayed the effect of these experiences. Vocally, she shared her doubt about the piece: since she had never been raped, she felt her story was somehow less important than those who had experienced “real” sexual assault.
This attitude from sexual violence survivors about the crimes perpetrated against them is woven all throughout the formidable essay collection Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, out this month. Conceived and edited by New York Times-bestselling author Roxane Gay, Not That Bad compiles twenty-nine essays by authors all across the gender and sexuality spectrum who share their own encounters with sexual violence. In almost every one, the writer struggles to come to terms with the fact that what happened to them was, indeed, that bad.
It’s hard to imagine a more fitting editor for a collection like this. Gay has written honestly and openly about her own experience with sexual assault numerous times, most recently in last year’s raw and impactful memoir Hunger. While Hunger is partly about Gay’s struggle with being a woman of size in today’s culture, it’s also a harrowing look at the trauma that sexual assault leaves behind on survivors. Gay has garnered so much attention for her writing that it’s easy to forget she also has extensive talents as an editor; she was essays editor at The Rumpus from 2012 to 2014. The pieces she’s chosen for this collection are extremely well constructed. They vary widely in tone, structure, and voice, yet all underscore the same themes: sexual violence can happen to anyone, and when it does, no one can ever forget what happened.
The vast majority of the essays are first-person accounts of harassment, assault, and rape at the hands of friends, strangers, boyfriends, girlfriends, and family members. Sharisse Tracey’s “Picture Perfect” recounts how, after her father raped her when she was fourteen, she was encouraged to forgive him by members of their community in order to uphold the myth of the perfect Black Family. He tried again just two years later. In “Bodies Against Borders,” journalist Michelle Chen of The Nation writes about “survival sex,” whereby women and children refugees and migrants fleeing their homelands are violated in order to gain safety at detention centers or en route to new countries. In the lone comic in the collection, “What We Didn’t Say,” illustrator Liz Rosema recounts coming to terms with the inappropriate actions of her high school basketball coach.
In her piece, Chen makes the point that it’s easy for statistics, reports, and analytical think pieces on the global epidemic of sexual violence to divorce the personal from the general. Yet sexual trauma leaves its indelible mark on survivors in profoundly personal ways, and the perniciousness of rape culture affects everyone, from marquee Hollywood actors to the immigrants and migrants in Chen’s story whose names we’ll never know. All of their stories are told in this book, which lends faces and voices to the people behind the percentages.
This is a book for the #MeToo and #TimesUp era, an era in which the scales are slowly tipping against rape culture. There’s still a long way to go, but attitudes, behaviors, and language around topics of sexual violence are changing. It’s difficult to read a collection like this and not despair—at the state of our culture, at the horrors that people willfully enact on one another. But everyone should read it, because admitting there’s a problem is always the first step toward recovery. No one is untouched by the attitudes and norms of rape culture. And like that woman from my workshop, whose essay I still think about every time I find myself walking several feet behind a woman on the street, we all need to understand just how bad things really are before we can work to make them better.
MATT GRANT is a Brooklyn-based writer who covers books, film, TV, and pop culture. He is a staff writer at LitHub and a contributor to Book Riot. His work has appeared in Longreads, Tor.com, The Huffington Post, and more. You can find him online at www.mattgrantwriter.com or on Twitter: @mattgrantwriter.