Who Should Have the Body? A Confession About Listening to Rape Testimony

**Trigger warning: contains references to rape and sexual assault**

I recently binge watched the Netflix true crime series Making A Murderer. It’s about a man who is imprisoned for a crime he may not have committed.

As a result I’ve been thinking a lot about wrongful imprisonment—what it means to be confined against your will by a system that is difficult if not impossible to fight. A system in which those in positions of power can re-write your history and your identity so that it tells a story that justifies your imprisonment, a story that you don’t recognise.

Those who are wrongfully imprisoned can fight for their liberty via habeas corpus. The Latin words translate to ‘to have the body’ or ‘you should have the body’.

Via habeas corpus, victims of wrongful imprisonment get to tell an alternative story about what happened to them and contest their detainment: to have a say in who gets to ‘have’ their body—themselves, or the state. Rape testimony is similar in some ways because it is about gaining back the body, saying, ‘no, this is mine, not yours’ and telling your story about what happens when someone wrongly takes possession of your body.

It’s fairly well established that courts of law are not great places to give rape testimony, and even the thought of telling authorities is fraught: according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2014-15 out of the 58,600 Australians aged 18 or over who experienced sexual assault only a quarter of them reported it to police. This is by far the lowest reporting rate of all kinds of personal crime in Australia.

But there are other spaces where we talk about sexual assault. Sometimes survivors’ testimonies are given publically—in memoirs, on talk shows, on blogs, in magazines. More frequently, testimonies of rape are shared personally—during late night conversations, among a close group of friends, or perhaps even over coffee out of nowhere from someone you don’t know all that well. These instances of narrating rape are crucial. Historian and feminist Mary Beard points out that it is ‘through the telling of rape-as-story’ that cultural meanings around sexuality and consent are shaped, transformed and worked out.

The emphasis here is often on telling. But telling requires a listener, ideally an empathetic and supportive one.

I want to confess to you two times that I received rape testimony and was surprised and disappointed by my knee-jerk reaction. I hope in considering these reactions to shift the focus away from telling, to take some of the burden away from the narrator and instead to contemplate critical practices of listening. Ultimately I want to consider the range of possible reactions when someone says ‘I was raped’ and to think about how we can learn to better receive rape testimony because it’s from here, as listeners, that we can intervene in discourses that normalise and accept rape.

I recently read a book, a memoir about a young woman who is raped at college, and was troubled by my reaction to it. I was resistant to the narrator and didn’t like her—and that was stopping me from receiving her story in the way that I thought I should receive a rape testimony. That is, empathetically, unquestioningly, with sympathy and kindness.

The book is called Girl in the Woods and it’s by Aspen Matis. I read this book and realised at one point that I was resisting Matis’s testimony. I wasn’t questioning the truth of her experience: and this is usually what we mean when we talk about questioning rape testimony, right? We mean that the victim isn’t being believed. This wasn’t it, what I was doing was questioning the significance or validity of Aspen Matis as a narrating voice. I was troubled by my reaction and asked myself why I was reacting this way.

One problem for me seemed to be that she was a privileged girl rather than an underdog. She had everything that she could ever want, came from a very wealthy family, and she embodied a kind of spoiled child that I found difficult to identify with. I didn’t like her.

Not long after I read Matis’s book, I was at a literary readings night. I recall vividly the moment one of the readers declared to the audience, ‘Three blocks that way, that’s where I was raped’. The crowd went stone silent. She continued reading, performing assertively and energetically an experimental conceptual piece. But there had been a fracture. When she told us ‘I was raped,’ the air in the room changed.

I had been to this readings night several times before, and this was not a venue where you expected to hear a public confession of a private nature and not many people in the audience seemed to ‘get it.’ Most seemed unsettled and eager to forget about the performance, to brush it under the rug.

In theory, this is the kind of work that I’m supportive of, even interested in. But I was troubled by this young woman’s performance, too, and my being troubled troubled me even more.

This was different to my reaction to Aspen Matis’s book. When I picked up Girl in the Woods, I was expecting a narrative of rape. The problem was that I didn’t recognise the storyteller as a rape ‘victim’ who I could identify with, and could feel sympathetic towards. My problem with this live confession was that I wasn’t expecting it at all: it appeared suddenly and I was caught off-guard. My initial feeling was that it was an inappropriate space for rape testimony.

I hate that I resisted these testimonies, but by reflecting on these moments I’ve learned a little bit about how to be a better listener. Rape happens to all kinds of people—yes, even privileged girls from New England, even people I don’t like. But just because I don’t identify with them, this shouldn’t be a barrier to hearing their testimonies. And although I struggled to identify with the narrator in Girl in the Woods I love that Matis has created a story that lays bare the difficult work of negotiating identity between girlhood and womanhood among conflicting expectations, pressures and desires—her own and those of others.

Ultimately, my baggage shouldn’t interfere with a principle I hold deeply—that survivors of sexual violence deserve a safe space to talk about what happened to them, and that if they choose to do that in public then it is my responsibility as a member of the public to support them.

If giving rape testimony is about taking back the body, I want to be someone that supports others to stake a claim on their own bodies. Because it is moments like these, when a person says, ‘someone raped me’ that we decide in our own minds, as individuals, as a community, who should have the body.

Image: Yaoki Lai

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emma-maguire-headshotEmma Maguire lectures in Literary Studies at Monash University where she researches life narrative, girlhood, and digital media. She also co-directs The Hearth: A Night of Readings with a bunch of rad babes from Adelaide. You can find her at emmamaguire.wordpress.com.

2 Comments

  • Ruth Fensom commented on October 25, 2016 Reply

    I am 73 and believe that most people of my genertion were conceived through rape in marriage. Your response says to me that if we support the story teller then we have to look at the ongoing cultural sanctioning of rape which is overwhelming for most of us. Thanks for your honesty and for keeping the conversation going

  • Elisabeth commented on October 25, 2016 Reply

    I was at a conference once and an audience member spoke out at question time, announcing herself as a survivor. I too had this instant knee jerk reaction of wanting to say, no don’t. ‘Please stop. You’re putting yourself out there as a victim’. And for me in that moment her self declaration seemed cringe worthy, an abomination. I think about it differently now but then I just reacted inside. I resonate so much with what you write here about the degree to which we doubt the veracity of what people tell us in situations of rape and sexual abuse, false imprisonment and the like. Thanks for an inspirational essay.

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