Recently, several survivors/victims of assault in “writing communities” have come forward to speak out against male writers who abused them. This has spawned myriad well-intentioned conversations in which people have given lip service to the idea of “needing to focus on dismantling rape culture” while simultaneously denying—both explicitly and through their non-attention to the issue—that literary subcultures could possibly have anything to do with rape culture and insisting that we need to focus on the bigger picture.
Of course we need to talk about the bigger picture of rape-culture-in-general. Let me say that again so nobody walks away from reading this claiming I said otherwise: In no way should we stop examining the bigger picture of rape-culture-in-general. But if that’s really the goal, then we have to talk about rape subculture and stop trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. No culture, ever, has existed without subcultural manifestations which relate to it both directly and peripherally.
Rape subculture shouldn’t be a revelation. In fact, it’s something we-who-talk-a-good-feminist-game tend to understand pretty naturally when it’s someone else’s subculture. Progressive writer-folk will often be the first to connect rape culture to rape subculture when they see, for example, abuse within a given church community, misogyny in hip hop music, discrimination against women in the sciences, or communities of date-rapists in fraternities. Rape subculture isn’t that complicated to understand. It’s when people use the codes, norms, identities, spaces, behavioral idioms, and other structures of their subculture to allow, apologize for, and perpetuate rape. If rape-culture-in-general is the house, then rape subculture is what we fill up the rooms and paint the walls with.
Rape subculture in “alternative” communities is often doubly insidious because our individual and group identities are molded precisely around an idea that we are not that. We are not dumb jocks; we’re poetry freaks! We’re intellectuals! We know the language of feminism! We voted for Barack Obama! We’re vegans! We’re artists! We’re anti-authoritarians! We’re liberal hippies! We’re Buddhists! We’re alternative! And it is precisely this psychological investment people have in being “different” and “alternative” that makes rape subculture all that much more important to be aware of.
The following are just a few of the many examples of rape subculture manifesting in literary communities. Versions of these things can be seen in rape culture as a whole and in other rape subcultures. At the same time, these things cannot be separated from the literary world. They are very specific manifestations of abuse that will only be seen in, and have precisely to do with, literary spaces and paradigms. In fact, many of these things are examples of how literary subculture has played a major role in creating and maintaining patriarchy and rape-culture-in-general:
-Idol worship of living writers: This manifests in many different ways, such as certain writers getting a free pass to do things that, if they were “normal” people without idol or semi-idol status, would be immediately recognized as creepy. Certain writers get away with doing things because they are considered really cool, tortured geniuses (mental illness has a long history of being romanticized, as well as extremely misunderstood, among the literary), and/or just really kooky or funny.
-Knee-jerk silencing of detractors: When people, in various ways, call out the behavior or texts of rape subculture in the literary community, they’re often battered with a chorus of “stop being so politically correct! This is art for chrissake! Don’t censor [xyz].” This “waa waa political-correctness” whine is usually just a vague, knee-jerk way to silence a critical conversation about an individual or group’s behavior or art, as well as a simplistic method for privileging the voice of the offender over the voice of the offended. The outcome of “stop being so politically correct!” is usually that the offender is allowed to do or write whatever he wants in a public sphere while feeling entitled to others coddling him with positivity. Another way that writers routinely care-take the rape subculture around them is when, in a response to an offensive piece of writing or the offensive behavior of an idol, they say something to the effect of, “But you just don’t get it. You just don’t get what they’re trying to do [with xyz poem, story, statement, behavior, etc.]”
-Abuse of power: The classic example of power allowing people to get away with rape subculture in the literary world is creepy professors abusing or sleeping with students whose grades and/or careers they have the power to determine. Other examples include editors of prominent magazines, successful poets, and successful novelists using their clout to attract and abuse less powerful writers—often “unknowns” who are very young.
-Language: It should go without saying that writers are good at language. Poets, novelists, and other types of writers, when they are abusive, often use language in extremely complicated ways that cover up, erase, and promote literary rape subculture, whether it is in private conversations with the abused, or in public conversations on message boards, Facebook posts, in classrooms, or at conferences. At worst, this manifests as abusers actually making poetry or novels out of the “material” of their abusive exploits.
-Assault: Assaults committed at writing conferences, readings, afterparties, in MFA programs, and in other rooms of the literary world, become a part of the fabric of rape subculture by poisoning and making dangerous the places where literature happens.
-In-group/out dynamics and labels: People want to be a part of a perceived “in” group of poets or other writers, whether online or in a geographic location. The vulnerability and power play that accompany in-group/out-group dynamics and labels of all other cultures and subcultures apply here. People throw themselves and others under the bus for the sake of a larger group identity.
-Publishing disparity among genders: Please see VIDA’s Count and other statistics about how ridiculous the disparity is between men and women in publishing. This is a concrete and statistically verifiable manifestation of a subculture in which women systematically matter less than men. It is incredibly foolish to think that such a culture won’t inevitably lead to abuse.
-Other patriarchal publishing problems: Many publications refuse—either explicitly by declaration, or implicitly through silence and distancing—to publish works that are too “intense” and revolve around issues of assault or violence, works that deal with “women’s issues” and femininity, etc., often while over-representing works that have sexist or masculinist themes.
-Idol worship of dead writers: Many of the world’s most revered writers, from the beginning of the written history, are bastions of misogyny, sexism, and rape-culture-in-general. While it’s true that the talent or cultural worth of a writer is not inherently negated by that writer having been a creep or abuser, it’s also true that people in the literary world often uncritically worship and try to emulate such writers and/or refuse to engage in mature, complicated conversations about the implications of such writers and their works.
-Women as tokens: Women are often less than half (and often none or close to none) of the writers who are represented at readings, in publications, on syllabi, and in general spheres of literary influence and voice. When this is pointed out, a common defensive response is to hold up those individual women who are represented as proof that rape subculture and other systems of misogyny don’t exist, just like Hilary Clinton is often used as proof that discrimination against women in politics is over and Barack Obama is used to “prove” that we live in a post-racism world.
These are just a few examples specific to rape subculture in literary scenes. I invite people who partake in any other “subculture” or “alternative” culture to explore the specific ways in which rape culture trickles down there, too. We can’t insist on looking at the big picture without looking at the parts, and if we do refuse to look at the parts, we’re not going far enough in our commitment to dismantling rape culture. Our only hope at creating a new system is looking this one in the face to try and understand it. Only then can we make conscious decisions to be different.
To deny that rape subculture in the literary world is real, and an issue to be dealt with, is to deny that rape culture itself is real, and to fundamentally misunderstand how rape-culture-in-general works by filtering down through more localized, more specific systems. This denial and misunderstanding, even when well-intentioned, amounts to one more act of patriarchal silencing and erasure.