I have recently discovered the boundless joys of watching and listening to Amanda F*cking Palmer and the Dresden Dolls on Youtube. Map of Tasmania featuring the Young Punx is just about the most luxurious video I have had the pleasure to see in a long, long time – colour, light, music, humour, and right in your face an incredibly important and timely message of self-care and self-determination to young women everywhere. The Killing Type is a powerful and moving song which I can rarely get out of my head and Palmer’s performance of it on Women’s Hour on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago was a breathless glory. Imagine my dumbfoundedness when I discovered Palmer has met and married Neil Gaiman – I can scarcely contain my drool any longer.
So what do I do about the deep weirdness of The Oasis Video, with its apparent trivialisation of rape? On first watch, I am spellbound and deeply impressed. Her “shouty cabaret voice” is manna for me, a frustrated might-be-one-day singer-in-the-shower, and her lyrics are to die for. Her inch perfect comedy performance I adore. But: “it’s not my fault the barbarian raped me” followed by a coat hanger abortion; can someone old and wise please tell me how to react?
Well I accepted the song in its weirdness as the pushing-it edge of a stunning artist’s work and assumed the back of my mind would eventually settle on the issue without me. My boyfriend (first fan out of the two of us) told me Palmer had been accused of trivialising rape (and abortion), and this was why the song is banned in the UK. I replied (still devoted fan), “well it does.” He informed me that Palmer is quoted somewhere as having said that people who see the song as trivialising rape and abortion are some kind of stinky small mammal with mental problems. I am hurt.
I think acting a shag with a cheeky bloke while singing the above lyric is not a serious depiction of rape, it’s a comedy depiction of rape. I think, arguably, this is to trivialise the concept of rape. But the reason I now have this upsetting job to do of thinking hard again, is not that any personal experience, or those of my friends, cause me to condemn (or condone) Palmer’s song. The problem is that ‘rape’ in current society still disguises a massive contradiction.
On the one hand, the regular trivialisation of rape by masculine comedians and openly sexist commentators, suggests to the public ear that it is time we all grew up a bit and stopped making a fuss about rape. Is this okay? No, it really pisses me off. I like shock comedy as a form, because it shocks me and I get a kick out of it; that’s why anyone who likes it likes it. Shock-jokes about rape piss me off because they expect us to forget people who are traumatised by rape have a very low chance of getting justice. They have been physically and sexually assaulted and the majority of the time, nothing happens to their attackers.
On the other hand, attempts to strictly police use of the word rape adds to the sense that it is the Worst Thing That Could Possibly Happen. Yes rape is always wrong – if it’s not wrong, then rape is not the word for it. Consensual rape is an oxymoron, therefore rape should be condemned and, as long as we have a criminal justice system that will punish us for speeding, stealing, taking drugs or knocking someone’s teeth out (even if they deserve it), then anyone who rapes someone should be punished by that legal system and made in any way available within the law to relearn either their attitudes or their behaviour or both. Nevertheless, can we stop assuming that every incidence of non-consensual penetration is as bad as every other? Can we consider for one moment that, wrong as it is, someone might not be profoundly traumatised by rape?
Not every rape is the same. Surely it’s never the same. We’ve established that it’s always wrong, by definition. Consent is a cornerstone of decent life and if we defend or trivialise any non-consensual sex we are in serious trouble. We need women (and men) to come forward, those who have survived rape, and are not so damaged by the experience as you might expect, because they are not suffering from deep, long-lasting shame, or fear that being forced to relive the experience in the dock will damage them still further. This is not to distract us from the needs of victims of rape who do experience this shame and fear, but On Their Behalf.
Men who rape are not all the same – there is stupid scum, there is the pitiful, and there is vile scum. Not every single individual rapist will have to be reprimanded before culture swings in favour of the victims of rape. By ‘in favour’ here, I mean that someone who is raped can prosecute their attacker in the way someone who is robbed can prosecute the burglar – okay it might not work, but if you’re really goddamn angry then you can give it a try. Generally if you know WHO committed a burglary you are doing really well already. Vulnerable and broken victims should not have to do this work on behalf of those who have the resources to carry on with their lives. It should be the other way around.
Amanda Palmer’s splendid song is quite blatantly a parody, suggesting that people’s obsession with pop culture can be so intense a distraction from real life it can dwarf the nastiest experiences. Yes I get it now. Why was I confused? Because culturally, we still think ‘rape’ is one big, unspeakably terrible thing, that happens mainly to women and causes them almost irreparable damage. There are lots of different kinds of rape and different kinds of victims. Only victims who are not in shame can change this culture.