Relationships in disgrace

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.

Kate Hall

Kate Hall teaches literary studies at Deakin University, Geelong. She writes fiction and non-fiction, with recent work appearing in The Grapple Annual, Overland and New Community New Community Quarterly.

More by Kate Hall ›

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  1. Yes – you have suffered sexual abuse. Rape does exist in Marriage ! Consent is not partial – it is given whole heartedly & felt as such & any receipient knows at a soul level when it is not given sincerely. An interview i had with a rapist many years ago claimed that ‘rape’ felt like masturbating with a piece of cold steak. They are aware of what they are doing !

    We do not speak of such atrosities during marriage in order to protect, keep the peace & retain safety …. we take it on the chin as a WARRIOR because we are the only ones aware of the consequences … Protective of our children we must operate with no emotion. Distance ourself from the physical & dissolve into our spiritual being in order to survive antoher week. Our feelings become null & void, almost evolving into a robot like android.

    When the opportunity presents itself; that it is safe to flee with cubs, it is then & only then that mother bear will run. Then when children are safe & distance has been made can the Warrior Roar & spread her wings, begin to soar & HEAL. Learn to fly…. Love & Light, Peace & Blessings 🙂 xoxoxox

    1. Thank you Anwen,

      Your response reassures me that this is a dialogue that needs to be opened up. I’ve heard so many stories since writing this essay, from women who consider themselves to be strong, protective ‘warriors’ and yet whose experiences are remarkably similar to my own. I don’t want my daughters, or any young women, to suffer through silence and self-doubt. I want to tell them, when they are old enough, that consent is, as you say, ‘whole-hearted’ or it is not consent.

      Thanks again,

  2. I cannot imagine myself having sex with a woman who didn’t want to play. A desire killer. Reading about the wholesale rapes by the Russians advancing into Germany in 1945 I assume that if I was subject to the same dehumanizing experiences I would do what they did, but I am not sure. I may not be a proper man.

  3. I cannot believe there are intelligent women who put themselves into such a loveless or substandard scenario. My reading of this is that if I met a guy like that or my boys ever became like that, I would be horrified.

    I may just be a SNAG, but, swollen balls syndrome or whatever other excuse a guy like that gives indicates who, rather than, what is really the dick in the equation.

    If its not consensual its not only illegal, its insufferable. I feel sorry for any women in this circumstance and disgraced that this male mentality is inflicted on people. I am both disgusted and deeply saddened by this article.

  4. I find this hard to accept and Im deeply offended by the material presented here. Let me explain why. As a woman, who has been raped, who suffered childhood sexual abuse, who has been raped by more than one person (one woman included) I find this offensive. It demotes my experience to one of simple ‘consent’. Is this an issue of ‘rape’ you are expressing here? or the expectations we put upon ourselves? Not only that, but you liken your experience of a moody man, who albeit moody still accepts your refusal to sex, compared to mine, where my jaw was fractured and my rape was so brutal it took me months to recover physically, and I will forever be scared emotionally. As a survivor, I want to say, you have no clue. The scenario you are describing is one of compromise, a compromise YOU put upon yourself. This is a story of a woman who had to find her her mind, this is worlds apart from my experience of a rape survivor, and you have diminished that experience and my recovery by this self indulgent drivel. Before writing about these experiences, spare a thought for those who have actually survived them, I would have traded my experience for yours in a heart beat.

    1. this is such a weird response.

      no one is saying all rape situations are the same. the fact that you think your situation is “lessened” because of someone else’s different experience is not the fault of the person. it’s not even your fault. rape is rape. society has made it so hard for people to even come out about these experiences that so many people internalize the idea of “wanting it” because they do not dare to imagine what could’ve happened if they pretended to not want it. there shouldn’t be a contest. physical and emotional abuse usually go hand in hand. and one does not truly know the outcome of refusing sexual advances until they do. not everyone wants to even risk a “moody man” as you put it. that moodiness can translate into emotional manipulation. there shouldn’t be any compromise in the act of sex. if someone doesn’t want to participate, they should be able to simply not do so. to take advantage of someone’s unwillingness to conflict, especially when one has any type of power dynamic over the other, is coercion. sexual coercion is rape. it is a consent matter. i hope you have healed and grown past this mindset.

    2. I must agree with your comment — if anything, time (elapsing in our collective cultural discourse) has proven your position correct. I read the novel in a similar college course as described by the author, just found my notes and googled around to this article. Very strange to equate emotional coercion and submission to marital rape. Of course marital rape is “real” as most rapists are obviously not strangers to their victims, and husbands are in the obvious position to inflict such violence against an unwilling partner. However, your husband is not a mind reader. People in general are not mind readers, and men who are about to have sex with their apparently (to them) willing wives are even less in a position to do so. The dynamics described in the novel map on poorly to the author’s own experience of what she calls “rape” in the context of a monogamous, legally reified relationship between a man and a woman. If you feel you don’t want to have sex, you should speak up! Of course every woman should speak up if she feels violated by anyone! But this reads like a bitter accusation of an ex who is no longer around to defend himself and who exists only in an imaginary form in the author’s life, a memory of their earlier life, from which she is free to extrapolate detail retrospectively that never may have existed. Human memory is faulty, we cannot and must not blindly trust our own thoughts. We as women have agency insomuch as our husbands do to request or deny sex and to discuss such things with the person we are legally bound to for life (or so they say during the ceremony at least!) and marriage is not a fairy tale but hard work to relate to someone outside of yourself and reconcile differences and cede parts of yourself for the other person so that they may similarly sacrifice for you when and where it is needed. Being bored during sex and mulling over how you wish you were doing something else – a situation the author did not randomly find herself in nor was she coerced by the same relationship structures as discussed in the novel (relationship of john and prostitute, predatory teacher to a young and possibly mentally impaired/implied to be borderline mentally retarded student — neither of those female characters has a mind to change, so to speak, in that sexual relationship and are compelled not to or are unable to speak up and say no)
      It is no wonder that the author’s family is uncomfortable when she asks them if THEY THINK she’s a rape victim. Use of the term “rape” in such scenarios dilutes the term and only has made it harder for the true victims of rape as now our popular consciousness immediately summons the image of the author of this blog as the stereotypical “marital rape victim” rather than the victims who did speak up and express that they did not consent, and for whom that expression of their own will was denied by their sexual partner who takes out their anger at being denied on the victim in the form of sexual abuse and forced submission. This author didnt have to be forced. She just had sex with her husband, who is likely out there none the wiser of his reworked image in the mind of his ex wife (and all the family members she has accosted and involved in her fantasy of being a rape victim by asking them whether they thought she qualifies as such).

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