Notes on ‘Storying Rape’, video installation, 2012.

Notes on Storying Rape, 2012.

Video installation.

The CUNARD Building,

Liverpool, UK.[1]

keywords: storying, rape, the media, stories of victims, stories as witness, gender power relations, culture of violence, gender violence prevention, the problem of language, de-gendered language, creativity, political agency, the bystander approach.

 Conditions of viewing.

I visited a darkened room in The Cunard Building on 23 11 2012 @ c15 30, to view artist Suzanne Lacy’s video of a roundtable conversation that took place in Chicago, USA.

I could discern a tall man wearing a hat standing halfway along the room to my right as I entered the gloom. There were no seats. He was leaning against the wall. I walked across the room in front of the screen, to position myself opposite him on the other side, at first leaning against the wall, then, after taking my mac off, sitting on the floor, legs outstretched in front of me, my back against the wall, notebook on my lap. I was acutely aware that I was sitting alone in a darkened room in a public building in the presence of a male stranger. I wondered if there were security cameras watching us.

He stood without fidgeting, and I think he remained watching the video until the point where he had come in. From this I deduced that his attention was serious and sustained. During this time, and the remainder of my viewing, several individual men, of different ages and nationalities, came in briefly and left quickly. Several women of different ages and nationalities came in and watched for a short while and left. This bothered me. I wanted to say: ‘Stop! Come back. You need to watch this to its end. It’s really important. You can’t just pop in and out like that.’

Were these tourists? On an art trail through the city, perhaps. Looking for amusement, entertainment, aesthetic daring, beauty, distraction. Just glancing at everything in passing. Cautious about anything that might puzzle, disturb or challenge them. The latter being exactly the experiences I hope to have in an art environment / encounter.

Having watched the three-screen film installation, The Unfinished Conversation, by John Akomfrah, at the Bluecoat, about the life and work of Stuart Hall, four times over a couple of weeks during the Liverpool Bienniale, it occurs to me that The Bluecoat Gallery is a more accessible venue; more central geographically, part of the arts centre, and as such it attracts a lot of passing traffic that is not only tourists, but lots of local people, because it has built up a history and presence in the city centre. It has a certain reputation. I would like to see this video rerun in that space. And as The Bluecoat does outreach work in communities, that might also be possible; perhaps funded as equality work by the City Council or the Chamber of Commerce.

Scribbled in the dark: issues, insights, obstacles.

I want to share some of these that I think could be usefully followed up, via discussion within the LWN (Liverpool Women’s Network), and as a basis for thinking about future process and action beyond the steering group.

the problem of the media:

Dr Francesca Polletta of CODEPINK spoke of “telling a story before it can be heard”. This leapt out at me; I had a powerful sense of recognition, as any activist, artist, writer, poet, storyteller, whistleblower would, who has trod that path: risking incomprehension, derision, disbelief, censure, punishment, even stigma. And any victim of oppression, abuse, injustice, or violence also faces that challenge: whether to tell; who to tell; how to story the experience of violation, terror and fear; or corruption and injustice; first to and for yourself, and then to and for others.

A recurring theme in the roundtable conversation was that / how the story of rape is not told in the media: whether literally, i.e. ignored, not covered as a news story; ‘covered’ but distorted as a news story; always told through the male lens, the heterosexual male life history; the trope of “the hero rapist”;the victim as the ‘accuser’”; and within drama and film, the problem of how, and the ease with which, “rape becomes a plot device”. The example was given of a room full of male writers, including a lone woman writer, asking: ‘What’s the twist?’, when faced with the task of maintaining tension and suspense, keeping the audience interested and watching.

Cinematic language (developed and guarded my men in the industry) itself bears the marks of historical gender power relations, heterosexism, misogyny, racism and disablism. Women as objects of the male gaze become victims to these ideological constraints; and “victims function as fetish”.  Women in representation (we are everywhere and everything), and women’s attempts to represent (speak, write, make, operate as cultural pracitioners / producers / artists) seem at times like two sides of a bad penny. But we must not give up in despair or frustration.

There was much discussion about the significance and impact of the language used within different discourses (legal, criminal/justice, medical, artistic, media, dramatic, feminist, etc.): victims, survivors, a ‘character’, the suspect and predator. And the fact that the victim has no control over how her story is told via/within these different discourses.

The impact of gender power relations was also raised in terms of the post rape experience of the victim: who is asking the questions affects (determines?) how the victim’s story is told. And this in turn is a function of how safe she feels, how believed she feels, which will influence how her story is heard / understood by these others. We know how hard it is in our society for a woman to be considered a credible witness; and how easy it is for her reputation, as a woman / citizen / human being, to be ruined.  The question was raised: “What are the kinds of stories people can tell that are heard?” For activists and policy makers, this is a crucial issue.

The problem of de-gendered language was highlighted. And those who have trawled through Liverpool City Council equality documents will have encountered this in abundance: erecting a blank wall of incomprehension in the face of women’s experiences and actual lives. LWN has started to challenge this.

I think it was the male police officer at the table who drew attention to the prevalence of the passive voice / tense in the reporting of rape, thereby emphasising the woman or girl as done to and hardly there, without foregrounding the active violence of the perpetrator: e.g. ‘A woman was raped by Xman last month in Yplace.’ Instead of saying: ‘A 17 year old / 38 year old man raped an 8 year old girl on Wednesday.’ Or, ‘A man / John Smith raped 20 women last year in the Liverpool area.’ The passive tense/voice has the effect of sanitising the violence, making it matter-of-fact, of only passing interest or concern. It’s a very ‘English’ way (grammatically) of distancing yourself from the action; of not taking responsibility; and avoiding the ‘I’ or ‘we’ subject pronouns.

It was agreed that “we must integrate the stories of victims into every conversation”. (Notice: not ‘the stories of victims should be integrated into every conversation’. See above.) The significance of this shift, this process, is that only by doing this can these voices / experiences truly inform and shape every policy and practice, i.e. be heard at the public and institutional level.

the power of storying

Similarly, perhaps both the culture of violence in society and the dysfunctionality of the media in this respect (or generally) – both discussed at the table – would be displaced by beginning to integrate the stories of victims into every conversation, so that all ‘bystanders’ consciously take over the role of storytelling from the media.

Stories do not just track and trace the past, but “allow you to imagine alternatives”.

In retrospect, this statement (part mine, part from the roundtable) triggers additional insights. First, this is the creative and political leap that is so significant and empowering. And we need to consider the problem of individuals (women and men) and/or organisations (mixed or women only) that deny women this breakthrough, in their preoccupation with maintaining a strict boundary between what they see as ‘therapy’ and what they designate as ‘politics’ and therefore out of bounds for victims.[2] Social class issues and differences of educational experience, cultural background and feminist consciousness may variously contribute to this dynamic.

Therapeutic process is kept separate from political consciousness and action as part of the social coercion of women: to curtail the process by which experience as a victim can fuel creativity and political agency. This stance may also be implicated in the maintaining of differential power relations, whereby women or men in positions of authority in relation to women as victims, un/consciously concentrate on preserving their own comfort zone: defending their own identity, role and territory (at the expense of victims / clients).

I found the suggestion that the effort to find more fruitful ways forward should involve paying more attention to bystanders: witnesses, friends, family, colleagues, peers, neighbours, etc., very pertinent to the situation in Liverpool. The bystander approach could be developed pro-actively via education and training, and more widely in our society, effecting a culture change, replacing the exclusive focus on the victim/perpetrator relation, as suggested.

We are all bystanders, potential witnesses; even as we watch this video / conversation. The bystander process could engender alternatives: unfixing stereotypes, destabilising established narratives, i.e. narratives rooted in and functioning to perpetuate historical gender power relations and heterosexist discourses; and activating us as human beings and citizens. This process “would help change the paradigm”, change the culture that produces, minimizes, normalises and tolerates misogyny / VAWG / rape.

Together, we have to co-create the conditions in which our stories can be heard, understood and acted on.[3] We do this by becoming public storytellers at every opportunity; not by staying silent; not by being polite and compliant. That ‘feminine decorum’ (into which we are variously trained as girls) has proved a divisive and depoliticizing obstacle in itself, and cannot help us out of this cultural hole.

A second strand prompted by the highlighting of the way stories allow you to imagine alternatives leads to the matter of feminist stories / storying as the imagining of alternatives, not just identifying a problem; something implicit in this whole conversation, that we need to make explicit if we are to understand better what we are up against. For the feminist consciousness that informs and shapes our narratives, our speaking, our imaginary, our relationships, is of course a prime / primary story that has been told before it could be heard: again and again.

It will always be ahead / beyond / outside of any male-dominated, misogynist society. Always to an extent taboo, off limits; even between women, as a function of our different personal, social and political trajectories. But it is now part of the materials with which we work and through which we can make advances. A wider conversation is opening up between women in Liverpool, and between women activists and men in Liverpool.

transparency, responsibility, political will.

Dr Jackson Katz, who works on gender violence prevention in schools, sports and the military, rehearsed his approach with male groups:

“Men and boys rape girls; men and boys rape boys; men rape other men; men and boys rape women. Men are the perpetrators. We have a problem”.

This stark, open statement constitutes his starting point, the trigger for working for change: uncomfortable for many. It attests to a degree of self-knowledge, social responsibility and political will; and indicates willingness to partake in and authorize resourcing the change process, the cultural and social transformation required. This consciousness, understanding and commitment have been reached through at least 30 years of gender and equality activism in Chicago and the US.  Liverpool has failed to build up these social, cultural and political resources in this way.

In the early stages of feminist activism in the 1970s, women did not identify themselves as part of the problem, which was ‘out there’: variously society and its institutions, and/or men. It was later we faced up to the full complexity of the feminist project, including the consequences of our own lack of confidence and courage as women; women’s differential social and economic positioning and its consequences; our training in heterosexual conformity; our capacity for complicity within a heterosexist, class-based culture; and issues of fear, shame, self hatred and competitiveness.

For men to develop a gender politics, they have to start by scrutinising and critiquing normative masculinity and its institutions: and how they themselves are positioned and rendered complicit within these practices, these gender power relations. This is a hard call, and cannot be done individually. Understandably, it has proved a less compelling prospect for most men, than women’s aspirations over the years for ‘liberation’ and ‘equality’: social justice and a fairer, kinder society.

But now, after all the years of denial, resistance and incomprehension, the costs of the status quo are so visibly unjust and brutal, with such severe consequences for a healthy and unsustainable society (and for the planet), that the need to work together, as women and men, has become incontestable: and our only hope at this social and environmental tipping point.

Has Liverpool city region even got as far as owning up to the problem in the way Katz states it? LWN is part of this process of transformation, to be effected by all who believe we have a serious gender-based problem in our city region, and who are willing to join forces in finding and forging new pathways of understanding and collaboration in our efforts to identify and challenge misogyny, patriarchal masculinity, VAWG and rape.

After the march and gathering with speeches on Sunday morning in the city centre, marking our political will to challenge and prevent VAWG, several of us thought that we should use that big screen in future. For example, how fantastic would it be to screen Suzanne’s video on that screen, on a loop, for a day or a week (paid for by the City Council)? Turning bystanders into witnesses, active participants in the process of change, must be our goal.

val walsh / 28 11 2012


[1] This was written as a report back to LWN and in the context of our subsequent collaboration with the artist, Suzanne Lacy, on a double page in the Liverpool Echo focusing on the issues raised by her project.

[2]I have previously touched on these issues in ‘From Tangle to Web; Women’s Life Histories and Feminist Process’ in Cotterill, Pamela, Jackson, Sue & Letherby, Gayle (eds) (2007) Challenges and Negotiations for Women in Higher Education. The Netherlands, Springer: 73-93. And ‘Gender, narrative, (mental) health: “the arduous conversation”’. BSA Auto/biography Study Group conference paper (2005) The Institute of Education, London.

[3] So many black American feminists have contributed to our understanding of the importance of voice and narrative: most obviously, bell hooks, June Jordan, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde; as well as white American poet, essayist and activist, Adrienne Rich. In addition, a host of feminist academics and researchers working in the field of life histories and autobiography have established the theoretical, methodological and political bones of women’ storying. Artists have played their part too.

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