Amy Schumer’s interview with Oprah opened an old can of worms

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By Jane Gilmore

In an interview with Oprah last week Amy Schumer talked about being raped by her boyfriend when she was a teenager. She said she used to describe it as “grape” – grey area rape.

As my colleague Clementine Ford said in an online discussion about the interview, “The grey area in question isn’t whether or not there’s such a thing as not-rape-rape, but the complex emotional space she was left in after being sexually assaulted by a boyfriend she loved.”

It’s an important discussion because rape is rarely what rape myths say it is. The balaclava-clad monster who jumps out of the bushes and grabs an innocent young girl off the street is not the typical rapist. According to the latest Personal Safety Survey, less than 20 per cent of women who’ve been raped were raped by a stranger. An intimate partner is nearly three times more likely to be the perpetrator of rape than any other person.

Rape is always traumatic. When the rapist is a person you love the trauma is not any less, but it is far more complex. Schumer talked about how long it took her to even recognise what happened as rape. Even now, many years later, you could see her struggling to put that label on it in the interview. She was asleep when the rape happened, she did not consent, it’s the very definition of rape but she said, “I felt I wanted to comfort him because he felt so bad and he was so worried.”

She also continued the relationship and later had consensual sex with him. Again, a very common experience because the idea that a man you love would rape you is incomprehensible. A man who holds you, cares for you, shares jokes and friends and affection with you is also the man who had such utter disregard for your humanity that he would rape you. How can anyone hold those two concepts in the same place in their mind? Many women, as Schumer did, push their anger down and cling to the belief that it could not have been rape because that doesn’t happen with someone you love.

Schumer also talked about one of the reasons it’s often so difficult for women react to being raped by a man who claimed to love them – our relationship with anger. “As women we’re really trained not to get angry because that makes people dismiss you right away. There’s no place for that anger.”

Of all the complex emotions humans feel, anger is the most gendered.

Calm down. Don’t get your panties in a twist. Stop being hysterical. Settle down. Be nice. Smile. You’re getting a bit crazy here. These are all things angry women have heard that are never said to angry men.

Anger is masculine, rage even more so. It’s powerful and active and dangerous. An angry man can be frightening but he is also authoritative. Men are too often taught that anger and lust are the only emotions they never need to control or feel ashamed of. Women are taught the opposite. An angry woman is a shrieking harpy, an object of scorn and derision. An angry man is someone to fear but he is also someone to respect.

Toxic femininity is sweet and placatory, it never demands or defends, it has no strength and can only submit without protest or defiance. Toxic masculinity is the opposite and rage is the formative portion of its lexicon. These toxic gender roles can make anger as frightening for women as vulnerability is for men.

This is where the complex emotional space Ford was talking about goes beyond the immediate personal relationship and into social conditioning that tells women it’s not only to continue to love their rapist, but they’re also expected, as Schumer did, to comfort the rapist for the guilt he feels. Sometimes that happens overtly, but more often it is in denial and an unspoken agreement to never define or face the reality of the rape.

Anger is a natural emotional response when a wrong is done to us. When the wrong done is being raped by a man we love anger can, even should, escalate to rage. But if rage is not allowable, what emotions are available to us? Perhaps nothing. Numbness is often something women talk about in the aftermath of rape. It may be a response to rage supressed rather than erased. As Schumer said, “It’s a rage that has stayed with me. I don’t think you lose that.”

Nearly 1.4 million women in Australia have been sexually assaulted by a man known to them. That’s more than the entire population of Adelaide and does not include women who were sexually abused as children. We are well beyond a discussion about whether or not this happens – it indisputably does – but we need to be talking more about how those women deal with the anger they’re not allowed to feel and the rage such a betrayal deserves.

 

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