When asked where we are in terms of sexual violence and our response to it, author Roxane Gay says simply, “Nowhere.” In her eyes, we cannot begin to critique our culture until we listen to its victims and survivors. While working on her book, Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, Gay was struck by our immediate need to hear more victims’ stories before we can digest them. We cannot heal rape culture while we are still suffering from it.
In a conversation with WBUR’s Maria Garcia hosted by Brookline Booksmith, Gay discussed her writing process (she writes to create space for herself and other women), advice for her younger self (leave your eyebrows alone), and what brings her joy (reality television). Gay also talked about agency, consent, and trauma, topics touched on in her newest books — Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, which details Gay’s experience with fatness and her assault as a young girl, and Not That Bad, an anthology of essays about rape from survivors.
The title of Gay’s anthology, Not That Bad, is a reference to the widespread minimization of sexual abuse and violence. Explains Gay, “I think a lot of women, and a lot of survivors, tend to diminish their own experience. ‘Well he didn’t kill me, so it was not that bad.’ And that’s the bar — like, murder. ‘Or it wasn’t a stranger, so it’s not that bad,’ as if [being raped by] a friend or a lover or an acquaintance, somehow that makes it better.” Gay maintains the importance of resisting this minimization. “The things that we diminish really are that bad — no matter what they are.”
“All too often women are told to shut up and look pretty. To be small and to be quiet and to not take up space. And we’re told that suffering is part and parcel of who we are.”
Gay’s anthology comes at a time when people are wondering, questioning, how bad rape culture really is. A time overtaken by the #MeToo movement, its subsequent and inevitable backlash, counter backlash, and think pieces and essays and tweets, poking and prodding and polemicizing a culture in an attempt to understand it.
Gay wondered aloud whether we will be able to “sustain the traction” made with #MeToo — if we will continue to hear the necessary testimonials, and if there will be repercussions for the accused. “Are we going to see measurable justice?” asked Gay. “And what is that justice going to look like, when someone like Harvey Weinstein can turn himself in with an appointment that he made and the bail check in his pocket?”
The questions Gay poses are ones that many have been thinking as the reverberations of the #MeToo movement have diminished slightly. Shouts have subsided to murmurs, dissenters have cropped up, and bickering has hijacked the narrative. There have been cries of “witch hunts” and “McCarthyism.” Some of the accused have started to plan their comebacks. The aforementioned Weinstein just plead not guilty to additional sexual assault charges and wants to go back to making movies. Page Six reported that Charlie Rose has even proposed he host and star in a show interviewing other high-profile men brought down by the movement.
With so much to digest, one wonders along with Gay about how to maintain the progress spurred by the #MeToo movement. The immediate answer is to listen to as many voices as possible, particularly those that have gone unheard — those who are not well known, who are not famous movie stars, who are not worthy of gossip columns or breaking headlines. For the most part, this movement has been one led by powerful women. Wealthy women. White women. For all of the doors that #MeToo has opened in exposing a culture endemic of sexual harassment and abuse, it has so far been a movement for the elite, one unsure of how to broaden its scope. One unsure of how to provide a voice for the average victim.
Said Gay, “All too often women are told to shut up and look pretty. We’re told to be small and to be quiet and to not take up space. And we’re told that suffering is part and parcel of who we are. I disagree — I really think that women should, in whatever way they want, acknowledge their experiences and have those experiences heard.” She explained, “In both Hunger and Not That Bad, I am creating space for that — for myself and for other women [and other victims].”
Sexual harassment is not just a problem in Hollywood, but a problem in every industry, in everyday life. Gay’s anthology brings to light how deeply ingrained in our culture sexual violence really is, and how much we need to make space to talk about it. However, the Not That Bad contributors have not yet had the same recognition as the whistleblowers of the #MeToo movement. These men and women have not yet had the liberty to read headlines about their experiences, or watch their attackers turn themselves in. In Gay’s words, “not all sexual violence and not all domestic violence is created equal.”
Roxane Gay on Twitter.
More from Roxane Gay’s Brookline Booksmith talk.
More on consent and sexual violence — Vanessa Grigoriadis’ talk, “Rape Or Consent: And Who Should Judge The Accused?”
Written by Rebecca Brown, WGBH Forum Network’s intern. Rebecca is a senior at the University of Michigan — Ann Arbor and is from Cohasset, MA.