Defending “Descent”: On Cinematic Rape and Retribution

Disclaimer: One, SPOILER ALERT: The conclusion of Descent starring Rosario Dawson is given away here so if you’d prefer not to have this spoiler you may want look away now, but I encourage you stay for it is that conclusion which paves the way for my broader analysis. Two, TRIGGER ALERT: This post touches on the topic of rape which may be touchy subject for some because of their direct or indirect experience with this form of violence. I encourage you–if you can–to stay and read and add voice to this discussion so that it may be full and not lacking in perspective. Three, this post was from a year and a half ago but my perspective on the matter still remains, for the most part. Thank you for reading.

This weekend I watched a man get raped by another man and I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It was in a film entitled Descent in which Rosario Dawson plays a college woman who gets raped by a man whom she thought was a potential suitor and exacts revenge by planning for the perpetrator to get raped by another man. I watched the film with a close male friend whom, during the rape scene between the two men, turned  to look at me a several times and each time my eyes were glued to the screen. He couldn’t draw my attention away from it. It was 10 minutes of violent thrusting, name-calling, and shaming and I could not be moved to either talk about how excessive it might have been or turn it off all together. After the film was over I sat on my couch in silence with my eyes still hooked on the television screen. My heart was beating quickly and my mind was running a million miles per minute. My friend commented on how excessive he thought the rape scene was and all I could remember saying is that it made sense. He repeated that he felt it was excessive for the film and still I repeated, “It makes sense.”

My logic throughout the 10 minute rape scene and in conversation with my friend was that for decades we have watched women get raped in film and on television. I watched Kristy Swanson’s character Kristen get raped in John Singleton’s college campus drama Higher Learning. In the second season of a Different World Freddie Brooks almost gets raped by her date Garth Parks. I watched Buffy almost get raped by Spike. In Gossip Girl I watched Chuck Bass attempt to rape two women in one episode. In For Colored Girls Only, Yasmine/Yellow gets raped by a man whom she thought was a potential suitor. There is the rape scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange which is edited out in most versions. I also hear that there is a rape scene in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in which the main female character gets raped through sodomy. When I saw each of these movies or television shows I didn’t anticipate having to sit through a rape scene, but alas I did. And sadly, these movies don’t add up to even half of the movies with rape scenes in them.

Countless are the movies and television shows in which women get raped or are in another way sexually assaulted. As a woman, I am almost too used seeing other women get defiled in the media either through the dramatic portrayal of rape, sexual assault, or through the popular coerced or voluntary objectification of women in music videos. But when I watched the rape revenge in Descent I felt something. Maybe it was redemption for all the years of women being raped in cinema and real life. To be clear, I don’t believe in this type of personal retributive justice, because in the end it most likely will not resolve anything. This is illustrated in Descent‘s final scene as Dawson turns toward the man raping her assailant and, with tears in her eyes, silently conveys that this is no revenge at all. One reviewer of the movie, called it a demagogic feminist exploitation revenge drama, but to do so is to misunderstand the project of feminism which is not employed well in this film. For it to be a true demagogic feminist exploitation revenge, the movie would not end with the man in power but would end with Dawson’s character reclaiming herself. I believe the true feminist revenge is to not let rape define and shape you into anything other than a woman who reclaims herself–but maybe I have just been reading too much Camille Paglia and the movie does indeed represent feminist revenge.

But, lest I get too far away from my original point, I do think watching that scene, unwilling to turn my eyes away from it, made me much more certain that personal retributive justice is not what I believe in. I derived no pleasure from the scene but in refusing to take my eyes off of it, even when my friend tried to divert me, was me implicitly saying, “Sit through this, get comfortable with it,” because I have gotten comfortable with rape over the years. And yes, I admit that is part of this, that I wanted a male to sit through a scene of another male getting raped without averting his gaze, I wanted him to be comfortable with it. The day after I asked my friend if his maleness affected his ability to accept the prolonged rape scene to which he said it didn’t, he just believes that it was excessive in film and not right in reality. We also had a conversation about the possibility of females being a little more open to watching it unhindered because it could serve as cinematic redemption to the pervasive rape culture. We have no answer to the aforementioned query.

So maybe my reaction was my own and not representative of what many women might find agreeable, but I am curious to know if there are any women or men out there who may find this type of revenge dramatically portrayed helpful or harmful to rape culture as we know it? If you have seen Descent what might you suggest as an alternative ending? If you are a feminist or a womanist–because I can’t neglect that a part of this film was the power dynamic between this white man and Dawson’s “ethnically ambiguous” self which he insulted during the rape–what is your response to this film? And, generally speaking, what do we make of the rape in cinema, its prevalence, its portrayal of the act, the power dynamic, etc?

Previously published on my mixed topic blog, The Intellectual Wallflower.

Video: How to Stay A Virgin

Things have been fairly heavy on Sex & the Sanctuary so I figured I’d lighten things up a bit on this Humpday. Earlier this week I asked on Facebook how people who have committed to abstinence, either as a premarital principle or for another reason, maintain that commitment. I wanted to know the practical and impractical measures people take to remain chaste. Unfortunately only one person responded with the tip that she stops shaving and waxing “the naughty bits.” I was disappointed because I know I have friends who are practicing abstinence but another friend alerted me to the fact that my question might be a little more complex than I realize–and also that people might not feel comfortable answering that question in a public space. Point taken.

Interestingly enough though, a response to my question landed in my inbox yesterday. Granted this isn’t a direct response–I don’t know this guy in real or virtual life–and he is addressing a young woman who is a virgin, but I do appreciate his advice to her. It isn’t the Evangelical Christian clichés rattled off to young people about remaining chaste–which means it isn’t full of that rhetoric. It’s real, practical advice guided by one person’s experience and a good sense of humor.  So here it is:

What do you think? Are daytime dates and unshaven naughty bits what you would suggest to someone? If you or someone you know is abstinent or celibate, how is that personal commitment maintained? What are the practical measures taken to remain abstinent if such a lifestyle is chosen? (There is no wrong answer, additional I’m not an undercover agent for Purity Culture or Pro-Abstinence, I’m just a writer/researcher interested in the topic and what people really do when they are abstinent.)

Rape Culture, Rape, and the Privileged Voices, Pt. 2

In part one I used Total Sorority Move’s article entitled, “Is It Possible that There is Something Between Consensual Sex and Rape” to discuss what I have observed as something of a trend in rape culture discourse. I explained how race may color one’s interpretation of sexual assault and alluded to the privileged voices that have dominated in the discussion. In this, part two, I will discuss the alluded to privileged voices and the problem with said voices, highlight work being done to give marginalized voices some capital in the discussion, and share my suggestion for another way.

Lena Dunham is Not That Kind of GirlThe second article that was the impetus for this discourse is actually several articles all about Lena Dunham’s account of a sexual assault in college which appears in her memoir “Not that Kind of Girl.” In her retelling Dunham arrives at a party drunk and high and meets a “creepy guy” whom she manages to give her address. She leaves the party and runs into a friend in the parking lot who attempts to dissuade her from going home with the guy but she refuses. According to Dunham, when she gets home she tries to convince herself that she is willingly having sex with the guy and starts to have sex with him until she realizes that the condom that was supposed to be on his penis was instead hanging from a decorative tree. At the sight of this she flees to her couch, tells him to go and that was the end of it. The next morning, when she tells her roommate about the situation, her roommate lets her know that she was raped. Dunham laughs it off but then it settles in for her, changing everything she thought she knew about rape and now it is contributing to the discourse about college campus sexual assault. This account from her memoir has been making its rounds:

“Why It Matters that Lena Dunham Wrote About Being Raped in College”

“Lena Dunham’s Story of Rape is a Must-Read”

“Why Every Feminist Needs to Read Lena Dunham’s Description of Her Rape”

“Lena Dunham: Not All Rapists Are Straight-Forward Villains”

“Lena Dunham: I Was Raped By a Republican”

“Lena Dunham Discovers Ambiguity”

And the list goes on.

I saw Dunham’s story within minutes of reading Total Sorority Move article mentioned in part one, so this may have influenced my reading. But here I was again reading about a young white women caught in a precarious situation with a man, trying to convince herself that she was either comfortable or willingly having sex with him. Unlike the Total Sorority Move story Dunham took action and told the man to get off her as soon as she realized that he wasn’t wearing a condom. Dunham also stated that the man was sexually aggressive toward her–although I will be honest that I’m not sure how you can discern that when you are both drunk and high. I’ve been drunk a few times and high once and I can say, under either circumstance, I wasn’t always sure what was going on around me. Being drunk impairs physical and mental faculties and being high alters your state of consciousness, so being drunk AND high and still discerning someone’s intention/actions toward you seems questionable. Nevertheless there are some facts in Dunham’s story that could render it true and a case of rape as we have come to know it in campus sexual assault incidents, but there are also some facts that make me question the story’s veracity. I wonder why–if she could sense that this guy was creepy and sexually aggressive and a Republican–she denied the help of a friend who tried to stop her? Was that not her ram in the bush? And had she not seen the condom hanging from the tree would she have continued in the encounter? Again I’m confused by the details of the story, what exactly makes it rape, and further what makes narrative accounts of this kind stand out in the public consciousness. Indeed we must be made aware of the sexual violence against women, but it seems that there is a privileging of narratives and those narratives that we lift up also happen to be from, primarily, from white women.

White women’s voices have long been privileged and the catalyst for change as well as, unfortunately, great hostility and violence. History proves this with the case of Emmet Till who, on a family visit to Mississippi, spoke to a white woman, was accused of flirting with her, and then was beaten and shot by her husband and his half-brother. The story of the Rosewood massacre has Fannie Taylor who had a domestic violence altercation with her husband that was heard by the neighborhood but she accused a black man of raping her. The cinematic portrayal of the Rosewood massacre, “Rosewood,” had Fannie run out of her house screaming, “It was a nigger!” This set the town against their black neighbors and caused tensions to flare to violent, destructive levels. Even Tyler Perry has illustrated the power of white women’s voices when, in his 2007 film “Daddy’s Little Girls,” Monty (played by Idris Elba) a single father is haunted and socially stymied by a rape accusation made against him in high school by a white girl whom he was having consensual sex with. I bring these examples up not to accuse white women of lying about their accounts of sexual assault but to illustrate the power their voices have had and have for a long time. Their word is bond before it is ever wrong. We know a white woman claimed to have started the #bringbackourgirls campaign and was believed without question when it was actually a global campaign that originated in Abuja, Nigeria. But far from highlighting negative accounts, there are also the positive accounts of white women coming to the defense of black people being discriminated against in public places–there’s an Upworthy video for that. White women’s voices have power for both good and evil, and while I respect the power wielded for good, I also want the world to recognize, hear, and acknowledge the voices that have been marginalized. Room must be made for a multitude of voices as we continue these discussions about rape culture and non/consensual sex. In this, black voices must be heard because black female bodies and the narratives of their sexual assault matter just as much as that black male bodies being taken nearly every day by force.

black_women_and_violenceIn almost any context sexual violence is hard to talk about, but it is black women who bear a particular burden with the issue because of the manifold ways in which our bodies have been exploited, objectified, and subjugated. In a 2012 article on entitled, “Black Women, Sexual Assault, and the Art of Resistance,” a statistic from the Department of Justice was shared that stated for every white woman who reports her rape, 5 don’t but for every African-American woman who reports her rape, 15 don’t. There are manifold reasons for this silence, many of which are connected to long-held, unhealthy cultural traditions. For example, some of us live under the “it’s family business” regime and therefore we keep our stories to ourselves lest we throw family members, friends, and others under the symbolic bus. Or there are the manifold cases of young women abused by family members who confess to their mothers, grandmothers, aunts or other female guardian only to be told they were lying, “fast-tailed” and then are summarily shipped away. But it is important for us to reveal and tell our stories not just for our freedom but to add color to a largely monochromatic discourse. There is (at least) one group doing just that.

In August, writer, performer, storyteller and teaching artist Michelle Denise Jackson knows a lot of black women whose lives revolve around some account of sexual assault in their childhood or during young adulthood and how black women’s sexual assault narratives are profuse but it is not a part of the larger discussions we have regarding sexual assault. Last Tuesday on, Jackson returned to the subject of Black women’s experience with sexual assault to promote the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an organization established by the black feminist organization Black Women’s Blueprint, to focus on rape/sexual assault and its effects specifically on women of African descent. The BWTRC is aiming to collect 1,000 stories from black women about how sexual assault has impacted their lives on every level and the impetus for this new initiative is precisely because the many dialogues about sexual assault fail to account for the specific ways in which the crime affects black women. And this is not the only group that is providing space for black women to share their stories of sexual assault and survival nor is it the first time a black woman’s group is stepping up to the anti-rape debate. Black women have been at the forefront of anti-rape activism and can count amongst their leaders, Rosa Parks, who did work to lead African-American women’s public protests that galvanized local, national and even international outrage and sparked larger campaigns for racial justice and human dignity. We need to get back to the place where black women’s voices on this matter have as much strength and credibility as their white female peers.

My desire is that discourse regarding sexual violence, from rape to nonconsensual sex and the areas in between, would be an inclusive dialogue. That every time we come to the table to talk about sexual assault, a multitude of voices would be present that represent the diversity of women’s experience with this crime. The Lena Dunhams, white sorority girls, and white women of the world can’t be dominant in sexual assault narratives, and the narratives of black women can’t be relegated to the margins. The establishment of the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is surely a start in the right direction, but we also need to work on forming multicultural alliances that facilitate a more in-depth understanding of how sexual violence affects women in the broader sense so that policies created touch those women and not just answer the cries of the privileged. We can no longer work with the assumption that all sexual violence is experienced the same (which, I understand may also bank on me acknowledging that the accounts from Dunham and the white sorority girl are valid because those are particular experiences of sexual assault that took something away from those women.) There are cultural differences that influence understandings of sexual assault and those differences need to be brought to the forefront for everyone to acknowledge and understand. We need an alliance that explicitly calls for the integration of women’s stories of sexual assault that will both reveal and allow for cross-cultural understandings of the many faces and experiences of sexual assault. It’s time for us to make clear space for women of all races and ethnicities to come together and share their stories in ways that refuse to privilege any one story. Because if any decision is going to be made about women’s bodies all women must be taken into account.

For more information on organizations that focus on rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse, incest, and other sex-related crimes visit:

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network

National Sexual Violence Resource Center

The Department of Justice’s Sexual Assault Page


Rape Culture, Race, and the Privileged Voices, Pt. 1

Disclaimer: I understand that by writing this many may interpret this work as me victim blaming and/or shaming, that isn’t my intention. My intention is to start a dialogue on an issue that has confused to me, namely how we define rape and nonconsensual sex in the midst of a society consumed by rape culture. My impetus for this discussion are two stories that I came across in recent weeks which made me question not only what I understand about rape and non-consensual sex but who is dominating those discussions and shifting perspectives on the matter. I will take up this discussion in two parts, the first of which is below and the second which will be published tomorrow–I promise.

**********TRIGGER WARNING**********

The first article entitled “Is It Possible That There Is Something in Between Consensual Sex and Rape…And That It Happens to Almost Every Girl Out There?” details a sexual encounter between two people who had spent a substantial amount of time drinking together. The young woman went home with the young man, in the morning she ended up in his bedroom where they had a heart-to-heart discussion, and then things went seemingly downhill from there. While they were talking the young man said, “I feel like you want me to make a move, just so you can turn me down.” And following those words they began to make out and making out escalated into sex. Here is how she describes it,

Before I even had a chance to decide if he was right, we were making out. In my state of extreme intoxication, my mind was racing in search of a decision. This was exciting. This was fun. But this was also really, really weird, and ultimately, not a road I wanted to go down. I couldn’t decide if the excitement and lust in the air would win over the pit in my stomach. It wasn’t until he grabbed a condom that I really knew how I felt. I was not okay with this. I did not want to have sex with him.

But I did.

She goes on to describe the internal conflict she had throughout the entire encounter, wrestling with the fact that she was uncomfortable with the situation but conceding to it. She says,

It was easier to just do it. Besides, we were already in bed, and this is what people in bed do. I felt an obligation, a duty to go through with it. I felt guilty for not wanting to. I wasn’t a virgin. I’d done this before. It shouldn’t have been a big deal–it’s just sex–so I didn’t want to make it one.

It is in retrospect that she realizes that what happened to her may have been a violation to her. She struggled with this because there are no clear words for what happened, it wasn’t rape but it wasn’t consensual sex either and thus it is complicated. She is telling her story to shed light on something that she believes happens all the time to women and as she states in the article, many women replied in the affirmative that they had similar experiences with men. Thus she concludes with this,

It happens to us with consistent hookups, first dates, boyfriends, and one-night stands alike. We have sex with guys, because sometimes it’s just easier to do it than to have the argument about not doing it. But no one talks about it. Talking about it makes it a big deal. It makes us feel like we’re whining. It makes us feel like we’re being dramatic. And we don’t want it to be dramatic. We don’t feel entirely violated. It doesn’t affect us forever. We just feel like we got the short end of the stick, and that sometimes, we have to do something we don’t want to do, out of politeness or social obligation. So why bring it up? Why risk wrongfully tagging a guy with a serious, heavy label he doesn’t deserve? And more importantly, why risk being wrongfully tagged as “the girl who cried rape,” when we’re not trying to say it was rape at all? We’re saying we don’t know what it was. We just didn’t like it. But by refusing to acknowledge the existence of these rape-ish situations, we’re continuing to subject ourselves to them indefinitely.

Having read this article several times I remain confounded by it and its implications for women and men. To establish this space between rape and consensual sex is confusing to me. What does this continuous expansion of the definition of rape and nonconsensual sex mean in the long run? Who is given the authority to expand definitions of rape and consensual sex? Who are the women and men who are allowed to talk about their experiences most widely in a way that has impact on the general perspectives of this issue? What is the cultural impact of these discussions? The latter question is based on my reading and interpretation of this as a black woman who has observed rape culture and nonconsensual sex discourse as one that is dominated, primarily, by white people–particularly in the public spotlight and spaces.

I thought about if I were in this woman’s shoes and wondered what my friends, most of whom are black women, would say. Having talked to a few of them and explained this article in detail they all believed that it wasn’t rape and it wasn’t non-consensual sex, it was a woman making a mistake and expressing regret. Given this, it seemed to me that interpretation and response may vary based on culture and certainly there is a longstanding tradition that exists. For so long I have watched society set white women up as vestal virgins and blameless persons whose sexuality must be protected while women of color have constantly fought to protect their bodies and their sexuality while being labeled as hypersexual and animalistic by those same protectors of white womanhood. I’ve not had the good fortune of being a part of a race where it is assumed that I am good and pure even as a black Christian woman. I am a part of those darker women who, when their bodies are thrown off an overpass and it is discovered that they were strippers the stories goes, largely, untold. Meanwhile the white sex workers who face a similar fate have their stories plastered everywhere. I see the many ways in which white bodies are protected or how, within their narratives, there is an implicit expectation that someone should protect their bodies for them and thus they give up agency while my sisters and I must always protect ourselves. To be clear, I’m not arguing for the chance to give up agency or claim victimhood, I’m sharing an observation about the highly politicized nature of the black body versus the highly praised white body and how either is protected or not. This leads me to a brief point about perceived lazy womanhood and taking up agency.

The young woman in the aforementioned story embodied what I call a “lazy womanhood” indicated by her giving up agency in favor of surrendering to a man’s needs, particularly in a situation that seemed ripe for her use of agency. Her account suggests that there was room for her to voice her concerns during the encounter but out of fear of disappointing the man she chose not to. Furthermore, when she points out that many other young women had similar experiences it further perpetuates this notion of placing male desire and lust above female need and security. But this can’t be our womanhood.

We should always feel we have the right to say “No” in a sexual encounter, based on what we need and never based things on disappointing someone else. In campus sexual assault situations that are growing more ambiguous than they are obvious it is important for women to believe and know that they still have an upper hand in the situation. Sex is not something that just happens to women, we are not a refuse or mere pleasure hole for men’s pleasure-seeking missiles, we are full-bodied people who should often and always speak up and say “No.” I reiterate this especially in the wake of these beginning gray areas between rape and non-consensual sex. There must be some recourse for women and it cannot be that anytime we enter into a sexual encounter our defenses are down and we become victims before we learn to be conquerors. Especially in these newly exposed gray areas, women need to be as vigilant and outspoken as ever for it seems that this might actually be a case where, more often than not, they could stop an uncomfortable encounter before it starts. Again, I don’t want to be interpreted as shaming or blaming this young women or women like her, I do want us to take a more critical eye toward what we are claiming when it comes to discussions of rape and non-consensual sex and who we are allowing to dominate these discussions.

The story that has grounded this post came from a young white woman and it is also indicative of a trend–or maybe the norm–of these being the stories that dominate discussions on rape and nonconsensual sex. I’m concerned about the influx of these narratives and the way in which they are privileged, shape definitions, perspectives and even policies, all the while coming from white women. Women waving the feminist banner but not evolving beyond the age-old feminist practice of neglecting race and class in their struggle for gender equality. Herein lies the segue for the second article…

Tomorrow I will continue this discussion with the second article in question which further proves the “privileging of white female voices in sexual assault narratives” argument, will highlight work being done among black feminists to give capital to black women’s sexual assault narratives, and finally I will offer a third way of fostering dialogue.