John Scalzi And What Men Talk About When They Talk About Rape

Last week, science fiction novelist John Scalzi, who’s written a series of posts about feminism, misogyny, and privilege that have gone into justly wide circulation, published his latest, a thank-you note from a fictional rapist to conservative politicians who have worked to create an environment that gives women less control and rapists more potential access to and power over their victims. It’s not my favorite of this series of posts, but the piece provoked an interesting reaction from Kristin McFarland, a former newspaperwoman working on her first novel. McFarland has a couple of interlinked points here. First, there’s the idea that prominent male genre writers who get credit for their feminism also often subject their female characters to a lot of violence, some of it sexual, a la Joss Whedon. But she spends more time on the idea that male writers should do more to promote the writing and testimony of women on the subject of sexual assault, and that it’s disappointing that posts like Scalzi’s take off while posts by women on similar topics are treated as a dime a dozen. She explains:

Scalzi, Rothfuss, and Whedon are—right now—wealthy(ish) white men writing about problems only women face. They are exhibiting the male control they castigate by fighting our fight. I’m not ungrateful, but I’m frustrated that the strongest plays in the feminist fight are coming from men… and even these men don’t seem interested in what women have to say.

They’re taking away our right to fight the good fight.

When women write these posts, they’re quietly applauded, loudly criticized, or just ignored as regurgitating feminist vitriol. So when men like Scalzi step up to the plate, we praise them high and low, and the merits of their argument ring across the internet.

All because they have the lucky position of being a privileged white man writing on behalf of women.

I agree that it’s frustrating that writing by women on the subject of sexual assault, and the way the impact of being attacked can continue long after a rape is over, can disappear into a chorus of woe and frustration. And I do think that these posts by Scalzi and others go wide both as a result of the audiences they’ve already established, and because it’s still rare to hear prominent men prioritize misogyny and sexual assault on the menu of issues they care about. In some cases, men may need to hear about these issues from other men. I would be delighted to live in a world where men trusted women and didn’t treat our concerns like second-order needs, and we didn’t need prominent male allies to validate that sexual assault, abortion access, and privacy are important issues. But as long as we do, I’d rather have Scalzi and company in the conversation than not. And I’d note that while pregnancy as a result of rape may be a terrible event particular to cis women, I don’t think that rape is an issue that only women face. Men are sexual assault victims, too, and the taboo around discussing those assaults is in some ways even more profound for men than it is for women.

But one thing that I’d be interested to hear more of from Scalzi and others who are speaking up about the impact of sexual assault on women, misogyny, policies that make it more difficult to recover your life after the former, and politicians who exhibit the latter, is how sexual assault has impacted their lives as men who haven’t been direct victims. The primary impact of any sexual assault is, of course, on the person who is the subject of an attack. But assaults on and harassment of women create an environment that affects men of good will, too, whether they’re trying to help survivors in their lives, or simply living and loving in a world where their actions are interpreted by dreadful experiences women have had with other men. Rape culture is precisely that: a prevailing environment that all of us have to navigate. That kind of conversation (separate, of course, from the cringe-inducing idea that rape is bad because it inconveniences men by making women oversensitive and sexually unavailable) is one we’re lacking.

It’s why I’ve always liked Third Eye Blind’s “Wounded,” a strikingly articulate attempt by a narrator to reckon with the shape of his relationship with a good friend and sometime partner after she is assaulted. “The guy who put his hands on you / has got nothing to do with me,” the song starts, but the point is, of course he does. The attitudes and ideas in the song aren’t perfect, but it’s so rare to hear a song written by a man grapple with a sense of responsibility and powerlessness after a woman is assaulted, to hear him want her back, telling her “you never come around and you know we miss you,” but know that the decision to return to his life has to be hers:

More of that kind of conversation, please.