TW: discussion of violence and sexual assault
I’ve had a lot of conversations this week about justice. Justice is a difficult word for women—in the age of #FreeKesha, Jian Ghomeshi, Woody Allen flitting around Cannes, and a known abuser running for the highest public office in the United States, pure justice is a dated concept. “Justice” is too often doled out by the people who deserve it the most. An exhausted realist might argue that for women, for people of color, for the LGBTQ community, there is no justice in the justice system.
Coincidentally, or perhaps it’s not a coincidence at all, pop culture is currently full of female rage. Beyoncé brandishes a baseball bat in LEMONADE and puts her unfaithful husband on blast. Daenerys Targaryen burns the patriarchal leaders of the Dothraki alive. A new generation of female anti-heroes like Luckiest Girl Alive’s Ani FaNelli and Gone Girl’s Amy Elliott Dunne frame their dishonest partners and murder their rapists. Most of these revenge tales are fictional, but even the “real” are produced, edited, and marketed. They are safe for our consumption, cathartic and beautiful. They empower women to get angry, and they provide sorely needed dimensions to the “victim” identity. These works help women choose something other than forgiveness. Hell hath no fury like a twenty-first century feminist.
And then xoJane published an essay.
(No, not that one. It’s been a bad week for xoJane, or perhaps it’s been a normal week and I so rarely read their exploitative personal essay machine that I wouldn’t recognize their rock bottom. The site regularly uses young, inexperienced female writers, eager to get a foot in the door of publishing, to create traffic-driving content at $50-$75 a pop, and in the process these writers are exposed to judgment, scorn and harassment from a notoriously violent comment section and the rest of the Internet. The more controversial, the more personal, the more gruesome, the better. Suffice it to say, I am not a fan.)
“My Friends and I Beat Up My Rapist, And I Will Never Apologize for Getting Revenge” is exactly what it sounds like. The story of the author’s rape is harrowing, the organized attack she describes next equally so. Emily Eveland (yes, this piece ran with the author’s real name, which is a new low in irresponsible editorial choices) argued that this attack was the only form of justice available to her, considering the horrifying process most women experience when reporting sexual assault to the police.
Eveland cites The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Lorena Bobbitt as inspiration. She sounds just like a fictional antihero I would expect to love, a real life Jessica Jones. “I was tired of feeling like a victim and internalizing my pain,” she writes. “Instead of working within a system that repeatedly fails sexual assault victims, I decided I would take justice into my own hands.”
The essay was meant to “empower” rape survivors, to present vicarious satisfaction of revenge and fairness. Although Eveland points out that she is “by no means suggesting that anyone should follow in [her] footsteps,” she stresses that there are “alternatives to slut-shaming, rape kits, and re-traumatization.” Alternatives like assault, I guess.
Many friends I respect shared the essay. It is still making the rounds on Twitter. A common refrain in the comments: “He deserved it.” “Good for her.”
I’d be a liar if I claimed to have never fantasized about revenge. I am not a rape survivor; I do not know what it is to have my body violated, my power stripped away, my sense of self attacked. But I do know what it is to be so hungry for justice that it eats at your morality. I have sat in a burning heap of my own pain and violent anger and analyzed the flimsy paths of justice available to me: a fraternity paralyzed by the fear of ruining its reputation, a school system that wouldn’t see his behavior as violating university policy, a betrayal that has no consequence aside from bad karma. It hurt to know he would get away with all of his little abuses. I wrote a glorious, detailed description in my journal of what it would be like to punch him in the middle of the university cafeteria, how his face would shudder like Jello on impact. My purest fantasy was a classic: the slow-motion cascade of Diet Coke thrown across every inch of his expensive clothing. Gray cashmere, brand name denim, dry-clean only linen, suede shoes, $1,000 snow parka, and his eyes flashing and his mouth breaking into that ugly grimace I used to dread being the cause of.
I never punched him, and I never threw soda in his face. I never reported him either—there was nothing concrete to report him for. Inaction felt like being silenced, but I also knew his true character would reveal itself in time, without my involvement; I’d been one of the last to realize what a jerk he was, repeatedly asked throughout our relationship what I even saw in him. I would have to live with that, to be satisfied with knowing it was inevitable.
This knowledge wasn’t satisfying for a long time. Maybe it still isn’t satisfying. But I also know that I don’t get to decide what justice is. I can’t. It’s not possible for me to determine what is fair when I cannot see him for who he is, only for what he did to me. Any form of off-brand justice that I pursued would color me just as his actions colored him. And when four of my closest friends were sexually assaulted in the last five years, I clung to that thin slice of sanity even harder. More violence wouldn’t undo what had been done to the people I loved.
I am not Emily Eveland, and I cannot say that the beating of her rapist wasn’t justice. That isn’t for me to decide. But writing like hers is intended to evoke a visceral, uncomfortable emotion, which is antithetical to justice to begin with. So here’s my reaction: if you beat the living hell out of your rapist, you take that shit to the grave. You accept that you are a criminal, and you admit that you have made a victim of the man who tried to make a victim of you.
Real life isn’t fiction—we do not walk away from our actions at the end of an episode, at the last page of a book. There are no moral absolutes, no good guys, no perfect victims. This is not just a viral article on xoJane, full of cutesy photos of Eveland clutching a mallet. It is a violent act that really happened. It is a woman confessing to felony assault using her own name on a mainstream publication and being celebrated for it. And I’m not okay with that. That doesn’t make me a bad feminist, or a rape apologist. Would we call her actions a feminist act if someone had miscalculated the strength of their swing and cracked this man’s skull with their lock in a sock? Would xoJane run an essay called “My Friends and I Murdered My Rapist, And I Will Never Apologize for Getting Revenge”?
UNPOPULAR OPINION: Assault is assault. No one deserves to be raped, and the statute of limitations on Eveland’s attack may have passed, but we shouldn’t uncritically celebrate violence in any form, no matter who was involved or why. I take issue with then-teenage Eveland’s choices, sure, but what upset me most this week was the near-universal acceptance and endorsement of her article. In the land of viral media, where hoaxes and personal essays and best selling novels are devoured with the same hunger and faux-feminist marketing, we need to keep fact and fiction separate. What Eveland offers her readers isn’t the empowerment of survivors, it’s a revenge fantasy spilled out into the real world, suspiciously simple and unchallenged. Rapists need to be held accountable, but I fucking hope this isn’t the only way.