I’m teaching JM Coetzee’s Disgrace to first year literary studies students. When I read (again and again, a much quoted scene) Professor David Lurie’s rape of his student, Melanie Isaacs, I experience an uncanny doubling so uncomfortable that I often have to close the book. On the one hand, I inhabit David’s consciousness, and because I have to keep reading I’m forced to remain there as he rapes his student. On the other hand, and most essentially, I am Melanie, hoping that since the rape is now inevitable, it will at least be quick: ‘she lets him lay her out on the bed and undress her: she even helps him, raising her arms and then her hips.’ Reading this, I am both the young woman on the bed, and the middle-aged man undressing her, which makes it difficult to demonise and then distance myself from that man, that rapist. It’s a credit to this batch of first years that not one student questions whether this is, in fact, a rape. They seem to know, instinctively if not by experience, what Melanie’s motives are when, instead of struggling, she feigns consent.
I hope that none of my female (or male) students ever actually know what it is to be Melanie. I, however, do know, and have played the game of consent many times. Mostly, I’ve played it in long term relationships where the emotional consequences of saying no were so bleak that it was easier (and speedier) to give in. I know the various impulses that drive the quick concession, and I know the grim reality behind the glib metaphors that women in long-term heterosexual relationships use for pleasing their partners. We tell each other, conspiratorially, that if we don’t want sex ourselves it’s usually acceptable to service the car, give him a freebie, take one for the team. By such little acts of sacrifice is domestic harmony restored. We laugh about this, but it’s always laughter with an edge; the unspoken uncertainty: is this ok?
In each of my relationships there was consensual, enjoyable sex, but then there were the other occasions, where I, like so many women, did it because it was easier to get it over and done with. I wasted hours of my life lying there wishing he’d hurry up, encouraging him to go faster, faking it to please him, because, as Alison Croggon so aptly puts it: ‘I felt obliged’. But, more than this, because if I didn’t do it the man who swore he loved me would accuse me of being frigid and/or of not loving him, and there would follow days of fighting and misery. It seemed to me that I was in control of this because, after all, I could choose to keep him happy or make him angry. And, once I had children, avoiding conflict for their sake just reinforced this pattern. I made the choice that so many mothers have to make; just one of the thousands of variations on this tired and predictable story. This was my life for many, many years. I call myself a feminist and yet it has taken me over twenty years to figure out that the role I was playing had little to do with agency, or control, or choice. It’s only now, looking back, that I realise I was kidding myself thinking I had any choice at all.
Because of the limited point of view in Disgrace, we’re not granted access to Melanie’s thoughts and perceptions. Readers are privy to David’s, and only David’s, thoughts and impressions of the rape. Except, of course, he doesn’t see what he does as rape, or not exactly as rape:
Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nonetheless, undesired to the core. As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck. So that everything done to her might be done, as it were, far away.
But these, surely, are Melanie’s thoughts. Is she pondering the question of whether or not this is rape? If you know this novel you’ll recognize the cunning strategy here, the extension or hint of an understanding of the other’s point of view but also its indeterminacy; sympathy with ironic distance. We are never allowed to see the experience through Melanie’s eyes, and yet the passage about the rabbit and the fox suggests that David knows Melanie’s thoughts; he is reading them from her responses, or lack thereof. When David leaves Melanie’s apartment he imagines her washing herself, ‘trying to cleanse herself of it, of him’. In tutorials my students want to know two things: how does David know what Melanie is thinking, and if he knows this, how can he continue to violate her in the way that he does? I’m more interested in the second question. If David knows that Melanie finds what he is doing painful and repugnant, if he knows she doesn’t want him to keep shoving his penis inside her, why doesn’t he stop?
My ex-partner used to tell me that men’s genitals become very swollen and uncomfortable if they don’t ejaculate often enough. I often wondered if he’d been reading Cosmo and misinterpreted the warnings about this as some kind of medical fact. I used to enquire, when I was feeling rebellious, why don’t men just masturbate more often? He told me that grown men don’t do that. Why would they, indeed, if they feel entitled to use women for that purpose? How much more satisfying must it be to make somebody else responsible? Disgrace opens with David Lurie stalking the prostitute Soraya, for whom he has developed an obsession beyond their professional relationship. Right before the novel’s end he hires another prostitute, a young girl, ‘even younger than Melanie’ who ‘does her work on him as well as he could expect.’ Are David’s genitals uncomfortable beforehand? It does seem that way, because ‘afterwards he feels drowsy, contented; also strangely protective.’ If this was a long-term relationship this girl might have just bought herself a few days or even a week of peace before that special, life-giving force begins to build in her partner’s balls again, demanding the release that is his right. As it is, she’s lucky he intends only to return her to the street corner where he picked her up.
David Lurie is a man of letters, a self-styled Byronic hero driven by eros. This is why, when he rapes women and girls, it is different to what happens when three African men rape his daughter, Lucy, while he is locked in the toilet. And of course, when David does it there is consent, or something enough like consent (a monetary exchange, for instance) that means he is not the animal he considers his daughter’s rapists to be. Croggon’s brave and timely essay reminded me, like Disgrace, that subjectivity in rape means that representing that experience is always limited. Maybe that is why rape victims are rarely accorded the dignity of a sympathetic hearing, and maybe that’s why rape in marriage is still so frightening a concept. Consent is apparently a matter of perspective and point of view, and much depends on whose version of events is privileged. I’ve been asking my friends and family if they think I have been the victim of sexual violence. This makes many of them uncomfortable. It is one of our most potent taboos: the sanctity of the marital bed, the quiet room of our intimacy. If I felt violated why did I wait until I’d fled the relationship to speak about it?
Croggon reminds us that the question of consent is not really a question. By substituting the word ‘rape’ with the word ‘fuck’, and then by pointing out the conflation of the two she shows up the slippage that makes it possible for these two words, two of our most loaded, to continue to denote different categories of experience. As we continue to count dead women and listen to celebrities and public figures speak about family violence we should also be willing to make the connection between emotional and sexual abuse without prevaricating about questions of choice and consent. There is no such thing as partial consent. Consent is that peaceful country we all want to inhabit so badly that we avert our gaze from the other place. It’s easier to feign consent, often a lifetime’s worth, than to admit that we’ve been living in a wasteland of coercion, marked only by degrees of violence.