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Podcast #236: Recovery from Rape

Quillette podcast host Iona Italia talks to Larissa Phillips about the best ways to prevent rape and promote victims' recovery.

A feature image of Larissa Phillips


Hello, everyone. Today I'll be speaking to Larissa Phillips. Larissa is an adult writing tutor. She is the founder of the Volunteer Literacy Project, which is a structured phonics curriculum, teaching reading to adults and also producing decodable books for older kids. It sounds like a very worthwhile and fascinating job.

What We Do — Volunteer Literacy Project

But today we're going to be talking about a piece that Larissa wrote for Quillette, which appeared in Quillette a couple of weeks ago [on 20 March 2024]. It's called “Toward Ruin or Recovery.” As the subheading states, the main thesis is that “the modern feminist response to rape is failing women and it is failing victims of rape, most of all.” I'm going to begin by reading a little passage from that piece. There is an audio version of the entire piece, which you can find at the Quillette site. 

Toward Ruin or Recovery?
The modern feminist response to rape is failing women, and it is failing victims of rape most of all.

This first part of what I'm going to read is a quotation from an essay by Katie Roiphe, which she wrote in 1993 for the New York Times Magazine:

We all agree that rape is a terrible thing, but we no longer agree on what rape is. Today's definition has stretched beyond bruises and knives, threats of death or violence, to include emotional pressure and the influence of alcohol. The lines between rape and sex begin to blur. The one-in-four statistic on those purple posters … (This is the infamous statistic that one in four female college students are raped or sexually assaulted during their university time) … the one-in-four statistic on those purple posters is measuring something elusive. It is measuring her word against his in a realm where words barely exist. There is a grey area in which one person's rape may be another's bad night. Definitions become entangled in passionate ideological battles. There hasn't been a remarkable change in the number of women being raped, just a change in how receptive the political climate is to those numbers.

Roiphe also worried that the revolution in sexual politics was robbing young women of their agency and of responsibility for their own conduct and safety, a necessary part of adulthood in a free society. The pursuit of female liberation was being replaced by illiberal and retrogressive notions of female fragility, virtue, and victimization … 

I remember [Roiphe's article] well because it was published five months after I was raped. One night, smoking cigarettes in the parking lot of a bar between music sets, my brother summoned the liquid courage to discuss Roiphe’s article. “But that’s not what happened to you,” he offered definitively. “It’s not the same thing.”

He was right—what happened to me was not the same thing at all. Mine was the old-fashioned kind of rape—two young men accosted me as I walked home alone in Florence late one night and dragged me into a park that ran along the Arno River. Having come of age in an era replete with education about rape culture and sexual violence, I should have been prepared for this moment. A self-described feminist since my teenage years, I had read and re-read rape-centred feminist classics like Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, and I had practically committed to memory Our Bodies, Ourselves, an earthy ’70s relic of medical and social-justice advice published by the Boston Women’s Health Collective. I’d attended a small liberal arts college in upstate New York where we had begun the work of unpacking the patriarchy. I was an avid student of feminist rape discourse and was often the one to tell many of my friends about the one-in-four figure.

But on that shocking night in Florence, and during the weeks and months that followed, I found that very little of what I’d learned was useful.

I'd like to start by talking about what the trigger was for writing this piece. It's been 30 years since you were raped. I believe you were 23 years old. And you have never written about this experience before. What made you decide to write about it now?

Larissa Phillips: I had been circling around it for the last couple of years, getting triggered by a lot of things happening in the media, in the world: the stuff going on on campuses, like what you just referred to that Katie Roiphe talks about. I have a relative who was kicked off campus for an alleged rape with no hearing. I have a friend whose son got in trouble. I have another friend … one of her close friends' sons [got in trouble]. It’s very close. This is happening a lot that these young men are getting in trouble. So that's been infuriating. The lack of due process is one of the parts that has bothered me so much. That’s just crazy, that rape, which is a really serious crime is more and more being tried on social media, in these campus courts hearings that are unregulated and subjective to whoever is leading them, whatever their thoughts are about the process. So that's been really bothering me. And with the Celeste Marcus article, that was the final moment that I was like, ‘This is crazy. I have to say something.’

Iona Italia: So, for listeners: Celeste Marcus, who is a writer and the editor of the journal Liberties, recently published an article in there, in which she talks about having been raped. She calls it “After Rape: A Guide for the Tormented.” It's an extraordinary and somewhat odd article. She doesn't name her rapist in that piece, but shortly afterwards, she tweeted that her rapist was Yascha Mounk. And she told Twitter that she had written a letter to the Atlantic Monthly editor and subeditor and said, “You have a rapist on your staff: Yascha Mounk.” She named him and she said, “I will not be raped with impunity.

LP: That article triggered me to go write a piece about it. And it was partly the due process, the fact that you can make this allegation and there's no way he can defend himself unless he's going to stoop to the level of going onto social media … what are they going to do, have an argument on social media? It's insane. And no evidence. And she's arguing, don't go to the police and everything that I think is wrong. And then on top of that, this really deep never-ending, unresolved trauma. Two and a half years later, she's still suffering so terribly from whatever happened. She's clearly suffering. And not only that, but she's advising other people to follow her model and I'm totally opposed to that model. I have a different model. My approach was, ‘How about you work really hard to get over the trauma?’ And I thought everything she was suggesting was going to lead to the exact opposite of getting over it.

II: It's extraordinary that universities are acting as, in effect, trial courts for accusations of rape. On the one hand, it invites or certainly allows for false accusations and abuse of the system because they are not using the rigorous standards of proof that you would have in an actual court.

And by their nature, they're often investigating things that are very difficult to prove either way, since there were often no witnesses. And at the same time, if the person is found guilty, quote unquote, of rape by the campus authorities, all that happens is they're usually, at worst, expelled from the college.

LP: Which is crazy. And it just shows you they don't really believe these are predators. The colleges clearly don't believe that these kids are predators because they're like, ‘Just go away.’ And, in fact, the kids just have to go away and the whole allegation is resolved. If they're really predators, they're just sending a dangerous predator to another campus.

II: Yeah, I mean, if the person actually committed a rape, then they should be in prison, rather than just expelled from their Ivy League college. The Title IX stuff in colleges, I also find very disturbing. And there has also been this escalation of discourse about rape and sexual assault. I think we were both in college at the same time. I remember this one-in-four statistic, which I took totally seriously, but I dealt with it by believing it was at American colleges. I decided that I would never in my life set foot on an American university campus because there was a really strong possibility of being raped there. I had read stories about frat houses, which we don't have in the UK, and I thought they were basically these completely feral environments, full of violent men, who would just rush onto campus, grab women, and take them up to rooms to be gang raped. I had an extremely lurid view, but the statistics really encouraged that view of campus as a place where there were very frequent rapes and assaults.

LP: The statistic is very misleading because it's not just rape and it's not just attempted rape, but it's even harassment and unwanted touching, unwanted kissing, things that I don't think anybody would really consider rape, so it's a very misleading statistic.

II: I read, I think, that it was Katie Roiphe who wrote this, and you talk about it also in your piece that the researcher Mary Koss, who initially came up with that figure, when she asked the respondents whether they had been raped, many of them initially didn't think they had been raped. And then because of her definition, she convinced them that they had been.

LP: I feel like that's a common thing that happened. I just spoke to somebody recently who told me that she had been raped, but she didn't realize it was rape until her therapist told her it was rape. I wonder how useful that is. Maybe it is useful, but maybe it's not useful. Does that help you make sense of something to be given the idea that it has a name, a really terrible name?

II: I think in some ways that feminist ‘No Means No’ campaign was useful. One thing I think was useful was the idea of ongoing consent that because you're agreeing to be kissed or you're agreeing to go back to a room, et cetera, you never give a blanket consent to everything that's going to happen afterwards. So, you can withdraw consent at any time and at the point at which you say, ‘No, stop, I don't want this anymore,’ or ‘I'm happy to do that. But I'm not happy to do this,’ if the person disregards your explicit wishes at that point, it becomes rape.  So, I do think that was a useful thing, which was probably a reminder that at least some people needed.

LP: Good guidelines. But I think it changed, though, because it stopped being ‘No Means No’ and just became ‘Yes.’ So, the absence of ‘yes’ is the problem. And that's a totally different thing than being able to say ‘no.’

II: Yeah, that's right. I mean, ongoing consent shouldn't mean you need to check in verbally every five minutes and ask. There is a responsibility to the person who doesn't want the thing to say, ‘No, I don't want this, stop, etc.’ And there's a discourse around this which seems to suggest that women are incapable of saying ‘no,’ that if you feel any emotional pressure, then in effect you are raped because you've got no way of standing up against emotional pressure or expectations.

LP: Which I'm sure happens, but it seems like even more so that that should be part of the discourse: helping young women, teenage girls to understand that they can set their own boundaries, they can say ‘no,’ they can say ‘no’ loudly, to give them ways to maintain their boundaries. It seems like right now the only response they can really say is ‘yes,’ which is a weird standard because there are plenty of people who are going to say ‘yes,’ even if they didn't want to say ‘yes.’ Just because someone says ‘yes’ doesn't mean that they really felt it. I just don't understand why they're not pushing ‘no,’ like ‘You can say no; you can be a little bit aggressive; you can defend your boundaries. You might have to, especially if you're being adventurous and taking some risks, you're going to have to be ready to defend your boundaries with some vehemence.’

II: Obviously, sometimes you say ‘no’ and people just use violence to get what they want anyway, which is what happened, horrifically, in your own case. But nevertheless, it's important not to see violence as a foregone conclusion. The first thing you need to do is say ‘no.’ And I think the other thing is it's OK to feel ambivalence, to change your mind. It's OK to feel regret. One thing that's happened is we have lost a good vocabulary to talk about guys behaving badly on dates and in sex. We immediately are starting to label that as rape or sexual assault, things like what happened with Aziz Ansari, whereas we should be just saying ‘This person was insensitive. They were a cad. It's bad behaviour and we don't condone this bad behaviour.’

LP: Totally. When that happened and that news broke and Bari Weiss wrote a piece for the Times about it, I was like, ‘Thank God.’ When I read that, I was so relieved to see somebody talking about it with so much common sense and intelligence. I read it to my daughter because my daughter was about 16 at the time. I went over the whole thing with my daughter. I was like, “If you're ever uncomfortable, if someone's acting in a way that you were not wanting or expecting, what do you do?” And the answer is: you leave. If you can leave, you leave. Whether someone's harassing you on the subway or anything, if you can leave, you leave. That was the infuriating thing about that article was that the woman stuck around just waiting and waiting for different behaviour.

II: The other thing that is to me troubling about the Celeste Marcus piece … I'm not going to draw any judgments whatsoever about what actually happened between or didn't happen between her and Yascha. But what I found troubling from the perspective of the writing is that it's a long piece and she talks a great deal about the emotions surrounding rape, about other people's experience of rape, about terrible things that can happen during rape that didn't happen to her. She describes gang rapes at one point and that didn't happen to her. She also talks about how difficult it is to go to the police and she didn't go to the police. There is very little about what actually happened to her.

It's a topic on which people tend to immediately start talking in generalizations. They are very unwilling to speak clearly, to tell their story in a clear and straightforward way, which was one of the things that was so extraordinary about your piece for us.

LP: Yeah, I don't know why she didn't tell it more explicitly. This is a tiny bit off topic, but I was just reading an Andrea Dworkin essay about her experience with abuse, and it mirrored Celeste Marcus's essay. It had so many shared characteristics: naming other really horrific events, telling the reader how they would feel, insisting you couldn't go to the police because the police would be useless and this deep poetic trauma, never-ending trauma that was poetically and evocatively described. It was really weird—like this is a genre, perhaps, the poetic rape, sexual violence accusation. It's interesting.

II: Katie Roiphe mentions [Samuel] Richardson's Clarissa, the novel, which was published in 1749 [actually 1748]. I actually wrote my undergraduate dissertation on that novel. It's one of my favourites. It's an extremely long novel. It's said to be the longest novel ever published in the English language that we know of. It's an extremely long novel in letters. At the centre of the novel is a rape and the rapist Lovelace, who is one of the two letter writers within the novel, always writes these really long, florid, very imaginative, and eloquent letters and when the rape happens, his letter just says: “It is over. Clarissa lives.” At the dead centre of the novel is this lacuna, avoidance of the facts of what actually happened. Giving it this taboo quality, which I think is really damaging to victims.

LP: Yeah, I agree. On the one hand, rape is a very particular kind of violation that is different than other kinds of violence. So, we seem to hold on to that aspect of it and have some kind of aversion even now to describing it in detail or to discussing it without any shame or [without] the idea that somebody is diminished or ruined. There still seems to be this inclination to attach ruin to it. That was one of the things that drove me crazy about the Celeste Marcus essay was that, even though it's not shame anymore, it's not like she's economically ruined, she's ruined by trauma. So, we still have this idea. Katie Roiphe talks about that, too, that trauma has replaced social shame. I don't know why that is. You were mentioning, when we were talking another time, that maybe there's some biological element to how we're looking at rape.

II: Yeah, I felt very convinced by the arguments that Steven Pinker cites in The Blank Slate. I think those arguments are drawn from Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer's book, A Natural History of Rape. I thought these ideas originated with Pinker, but I went back to read the section on rape in The Blank Slate before today. Sorry, it's Steven Pinker citing Thornhill and Palmer, who are citing John Tooby and Leda Cosmides [Why Men Rape, Why Women Suffer].  

They [Tooby and Cosmides] have a deep evolutionary explanation for why rape is so traumatic to women. I agree that it is especially traumatic, more than ordinary violence, other kinds of violence. And that, they say, is because—I'm going to quote here:

Rape subverts female choice, the core of the ubiquitous mechanism of sexual selection. By choosing the male and the circumstances for sex, a female can maximize the chances that her offspring will be fathered by a male with good genes, a willingness and ability to share the responsibility of rearing the offspring or both.

And this is Tooby and Cosmides:

Women evolved to exert control over their own sexuality, over the terms of their relationships and over the choice of which men are to be the fathers of their children. They resist being raped and they suffer when their resistance fails because control over their sexual choices and relationships was wrested from them.

LP: There used to be a real distinction: rape meant that there had been penetration. If there was no penetration, there was not rape. In fact, in my story, I met a young Italian woman who had been assaulted by these same two men a few nights previously. She was adamant that she hadn't been raped because there had been no penetration. She'd had her clothes cut off with a knife and they'd both taken turns mashing against her, trying to penetrate her, but couldn't. And she was like, “No, no, no, I wasn't raped.” And I was a feminist at the time. I was like, “All right, whatever. You can call it what you want to call it. But in my opinion, that was rape.” But there's a distinction.

II: It feels like a little bit of a pedantic distinction between rape and sexual assault.

LP: To her it wasn't though, to her it was massive, you know?

II: That's fortunate for her. We should encourage that.

LP: I know, right? That's why I wonder about my friend whose therapist told her it was rape. I don't know: is that better to think that you went through a bigger trauma or better to be like, ‘Oh no, I didn't go through a terrible trauma.’

II: I think it depends on what the person is doing. If they are really suffering and completely blaming themselves in a situation in which they were largely powerless, that's bad. We don't want people who are genuine victims of other people's terrible behaviour to be blaming themselves. But it's also good to encourage resilience and it seems to be very difficult for people to unpick those two things. You said that afterwards, when you were thinking about the rape in terms of moral responsibility versus a practical analysis of what you might have done differently on that night, how your choices might have contributed, which is different from being at fault. There was no fault at all.

LP: Totally. But it was worth considering, what part did I play in that? What could I have done differently? What would I do differently in the future? That just seems so obvious.

II: Yeah, I agree. In many circles, especially in progressive leftist circles, it seems to have become really taboo to suggest that there are preventative measures that women should take. I frequently hear this saying that ‘we should teach men not to rape.’ How do you feel about that?

LP: On the one hand, I think it's ridiculous. We do teach [that]. Most men aren't rapists, just naturally. If they're raised in a regular society, you don't even have to tell them, ‘Don’t rape.’ Most men aren't rapists. On the other hand, there are cultures where maybe they do need to be told not to rape. There are places where there's a lot of rape happening, and it doesn't seem to be a taboo. So maybe there is a little bit of teaching that has to go on in some places. But in general, I feel it's shuffling off the responsibility that, at the end of the day, if you're going to be a modern woman who's travelling and going out in the world and going to bars and being independent and going to music and whatever, living a very free and adventurous life, you're going to have to be ready to defend yourself and to make decisions to defend yourself. You're always going to encounter people who didn't get that education. So, I think the responsibility at the end of the day is going to lie in yourself.

II: Yeah, I agree. I think there's some truth to this idea that you can teach men not to rape because we have less violence now than we used to have in the past, historically. And we also have some countries in which things that we would consider rape, they don't even consider rape, like in India and Pakistan, marital rape, there's no such concept. And so culture does make a difference. You can skew the incentives against rape. You can make the punishments very harsh. You can make the social opprobrium very strong. But at the same time, it doesn't seem like a very woman-centred way of approaching it to ask women to depend for their own safety purely on appealing to the better natures of men, some of whom may be real sociopaths or just very entitled, selfish people, who know perfectly well that what they're doing is wrong. They don't need education. They just don't care.

LP: It's a real conundrum because there's so much sexual freedom right now and the protections that have existed forever and still exist in many parts of the world have been lifted for young women especially. I don't know who's sexually active still, but apparently sex rates are going down, but for people who are young and experimenting, just getting into their sex lives, for them to have to figure this out and make themselves safe when everything that's normal about sexual practice is not really telling you to do that. There's no chaperones, there's no curfews. They're left on their own. Everyone fought for that, but there's a weird thing with freedom. I've heard Shelby Steele talk about this regarding black America, and I think it applies to women a lot too. We've gotten so much freedom and then we don't know what to do with it. And then we're resentful that we were left unprotected. With freedom comes all this responsibility and danger too. So how are we going to handle that?

II: One of the things that I know you found very important was reclaiming the ability to look clearly at and partake of the full spectrum of life. After the initial period of shock, to be able to make the kind of recovery whereby you are able to contemplate and talk about all kinds of topics, including other women's rape—shortly after your experience, the terrible mass rapes of Bosnian women and girls were happening, during the Balkan wars—and also to be able to think clearly about topics like evolutionary psychology, also depictions of rape in literature and classical art.

LP: To go to museums … I love obnoxious humour. I've always loved inappropriate humour. There was one time, a few months after the rape, when I was working in a restaurant and a friend of mine came up and … You know, we're Gen X and Gen X was doing this, playing around with obnoxious phrases. And she comes up with an empty breadbasket and says to me, “They raped my breadbasket,” meaning the customers had eaten all the bread. She knew my story. And then all of a sudden she looked at me aghast, like, ‘What have I said?’ What am I supposed to do—to have to go cry in the bathroom? I'm going to live in the world and people are going to say things and I'm going to go to museums and I'm going to watch movies and I'm going to read books. The idea that I would be protected from those things was terrifying to me, really terrifying.

Can I tell a story that wasn't in the essay? So, on the first night in the police station, I had to go to the bathroom. I was in the detective's office with Enzo, my boyfriend, who was wonderful, and the detective, and I had to go to the bathroom. So, I was like, “Where's the bathroom?” And the detective looks at me for a second and then he goes, “It's all the way down the hall.” And they both stare at me and Enzo goes, “Do you want me to go with you?” And this is five o'clock in the morning. Four hours earlier, I'd been raped. My immediate thought was, ‘Yeah, I want you to go with me because I'm terrified.’ And then my second thought was, ‘Are you joking? What? Do you need your hand held to walk to the bathroom in a police station? You're not going to get raped if you walk down the hallway.’ And so, I was like, “No, I can walk down the hallway by myself.” And so, I walk out into the hallway and it's this big hallway and it's lined with lockers and benches, and it's filled with young men, these military police service guys. It's like 20 guys and I have to walk down through them, and they all just go dead silent and stare at me because it's clear why I'm there: I'm reporting a terrible crime. And so, I had to walk through. Maybe I should have gone back and gotten Enzo, but I was like, ‘Okay, you're going to do this.’ So, I walked down. And you know in Game of Thrones when Cersei has to walk naked through King's Landing, that's what it felt like. When I saw that scene, I was like, ‘Oh, I know that feeling.’

So, I'm walking down and they're all dead silent, 20 guys watching me as I walk through them. And then I hear this explosion behind me. And I'm terrified, startled. I just keep walking and there's another explosion and then they keep happening. And I realized the guys were punching the lockers, like, ‘This is what I'm going to do to those guys,’ like a macho kind of expression. And then once one of them did it, they all had to do it. So, I walked down the hallway with these explosions going on behind me. It was crazy. But then I got to the bathroom and when I came out, they were gone, and it was fine. But yeah, I remember from the first moment, even more terrifying than my fears of men or of people getting too close to my face or whatever was this massive terror that I was going to be like an invalid or a child. That was a far greater fear to me. I don't understand why people don't have that fear. I don't understand the fetishization of victimhood. I guess you're getting something from it because why would people want to take that path? I don’t get it.

II: I think that, in many cases, people who haven't really been victimized are assuming that status because it gives you some kudos nowadays.

LP: Yeah. It gives you some street cred.

II: Yeah, certainly on the left there seems to be this moral hierarchy whereby it's both the case that the more of a victim you are, the more oppression points you have, the more valid your opinions and your views are supposed to be. And also, the converse seems to be true that being resilient and successful and confident ... there's almost an opprobrium attached to that by some on the left. There's a very simplistic oppressor–oppressed dynamic going on. You want to show that you're on the side of the oppressed. And that, of course, means that it's got to be ongoing, rather than a terrible thing that happened to you, which was horrific at the time, but which is in the past, it needs to become part of your identity, like it's an integral part of you what happened. And so, you're carrying this. In the past, it used to be a stigma. You would be a fallen woman. You'd be wearing your embroidered red A on your clothes. This is almost the converse of that. You're given this halo, this saintly status.

But both of those things depend upon it becoming part of your identity and I really don't think having been raped should be part of someone's identity. I have no judgement for people who continue to feel a lot of trauma for a long time, for people who find it very hard to get over it psychologically. I have complete sympathy with those people. But we should be encouraging resilience wherever possible. Sometimes, it’s just not possible. I think part of this is a personality thing; part of it is genetic. Some people are just more fragile than others psychologically and there's a limit to how much you can help them. But, wherever we can, we should be encouraging resilience. Resilience is possible. You were raped, but you didn't become a different person as a result. You were still you. You woke up and you were still fully you. It’s just that a bad thing had happened to you.

LP: I didn't feel that way the next day. But every day that something happens, like the first day, a few days after the rape, when my best friend, who was very funny, made a rape joke—perhaps too soon—but she was very funny and we were very close and she made a joke about the rape, which I really wish I remembered, but I can't. All I remember was that we stared at each other for a second, then we started laughing really, really hard. And it was not only great to laugh, but it was like, ‘Oh, I'm still me; I'm still someone who can laugh at something like that and who still thinks my friend is hilarious.’ So, all of those moments of coming back to yourself are so valuable and amazing. But I was always frustrated. I did feel different. I felt stronger. I felt stronger and smarter afterwards. It would be great if we could switch the narrative a little bit so that it did become heroic. I feel really proud of my actions, both during the rape and afterwards, in the ensuing days and weeks and months. I'm very proud of myself. I feel I did a really, really good job at dealing with a really terrible event. It used to frustrate me that it wasn't easier to get credit for that because it's never something that you can just drop [into a conversation], you know? That was always my goal. I was like, ‘I wish I could talk about it like really easily.’ And I realized at a certain point, even though I felt completely healed, that it was never something that other people were going to receive very easily. It's always going to be a momentous thing to tell somebody, somebody who's close to me, certainly. But I was always irritated that I didn't get some credit. To do something really momentous and that you're very proud of and then you can't talk about it unless it's going to be in some very particular context. It's frustrating to me.

II: I'm going to quote something you said to me on another occasion, which is, “There's no hero's journey for the woman who has been raped.” I'm quoting you:

I felt heroic. I feel heroic about my experience. I feel like I was thrown onto this ancient battlefield, and I was forced to fight and I did and I was raped. But I still feel like I did a really good job fighting and I feel like I did a really good job afterwards vanquishing and coming back to myself. I feel proud of everything, of the whole experience.

LP: Once a rape happens, the person being raped is no longer on the hero's journey. They are now an opportunity for someone else on their hero's journey to come in and do the rescuing, which is great if that happens. I absolutely love heroic men who come and do the saving, but it doesn't always happen. And if you look back on everything that I've seen in myths and legends, there really are not raped women who survive and come back to being a more powerful figure. That’s the narrative: you go through some terrible test and then you come back stronger than ever. That's how we do it. But for raped women, it's never that. It's like in Clarissa. She dies of anorexia, right?

II: She dies of anorexia. Yeah.

LP: She dies and that's the noble thing to do. That's how we know she was a good character: she died. It's very frustrating.

II: Richardson found it frustrating that readers didn't like Clarissa. They insisted on sympathizing with Lovelace. And that sounds terrible that people sympathized with a rapist, but it's a bit different in literature. The actual rape itself is still horrific. You don't sympathize with that, but Richardson portrays a character who is more interesting, more fun to inhabit imaginatively. We don't want to inhabit Clarissa.

LP: Right, because she wasn't a hero; she was a raped woman. She was pathetic. Who would want to relate to her? It's a foregone conclusion. In rape trials, they used to not put women onto the juries because they thought that they would automatically be too sympathetic to the woman. And they found out the opposite was true. Women were unsympathetic to the raped woman. So then, depending on which side you were on, you'd make your decision about what jury you wanted. I think no one wants to identify with a raped woman.

II: That's interesting. I don't think I should be on a jury in a rape case because I think I would just find the rapist guilty no matter what. I suspect that.

LP: Yeah, it's an emotional topic.

The one character that I know of is Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones. When Sansa's raped in season five by Ramsay Bolton, he's a total sadist; it's a terrible scene. When it was first aired, there were all kinds of articles written about it because people were [like] ‘It was too much.’ I wasn't watching it at the time, but I remember reading the articles because I was reading the books, and I was interested in the show. And Sansa is one of the only characters I can think of who does come back. There's that scene where she's talking to the Hound, where she says, “I would have still been a little bird if none of this had happened to me.” She acknowledges that she's a stronger person for having gone through all this trauma. And then she becomes a heroic warrior queen—not sexual, she doesn't get her sex life back—but in every other regard is very, very strong and heroic.

II: There is a capacity for resilience in many people, which we should be recognizing and encouraging. To acknowledge that people can be resilient is not in any way to downplay the evil of what happened.

LP: I tried really hard in the essay to acknowledge that this is my story. Other people are going to have their story and they're going to deal with trauma however they deal with it. I had a lot of support. I had a very clear-cut situation. There were a lot of factors in my favour that I'm completely aware of. There are ambiguous cases—not ambiguous cases, but there are cases where the woman has a relationship with a man and it's a real rape and I think those are probably the most devastating ones.

II: There are certainly cases in which I think it's impossible to go to the police because it would be impossible to prove anything. For example, if your boyfriend raped you, you can't take a rape kit because you're having sex with your boyfriend anyway, it wouldn't really prove anything. There's very little you can do beyond gossip. And in those kinds of situations, I think gossip among your friends is probably important. People who do trust you could get some warning.

LP: There are a lot of fine lines.

II: But I think there are a lot of very difficult situations in which you really have been wronged and there's no easy way of getting justice. But some feminists have started to discourage women from going to the police after having been raped.

LP: I said that in the essay, how I was like, ‘Oh, there's no way I can go.’ And Celeste Marcus makes a big point in her essay that there's no way you can go and almost no one she knows goes to the police. That's a really frustrating part of the discourse for me, because if you go onto anti-rape activist sites, I hear this all the time that rape is the most underreported crime and everyone's like, ‘Oh, well, it's under-reported.’ And well, who could change that? Yeah, some cases are impossible to report, but maybe there could be some other panel that you could report it to in the cases that you could report it. That seems like an area to work on. That seems like that's where the activism should be going is making it easier and more effective to report rape, to take all the rape kits that have been untested—because apparently there's this massive backlog. So, maybe put some money and activism into that, to making it less under-reported.

II: Your own experience at the police station was not ideal. Do you want to talk about that a little bit and what happened afterwards?

LP: Sure. So, I wasn't going to go to the police at all. It seemed like a totally foregone conclusion that there's no way I should go. And then my boyfriend, who, as I said in the article, didn't know about the patriarchy, insisted that we go. So, we went, and I was examined. It was just as bad as I'd heard. I was examined by a team of male doctors, all really handsome, Italian, young doctors and this older doctor and they all were helping me undress and helping me undo my boots. And I was in an open-air, middle of the emergency room, with nurses and doctors walking by and no privacy screen or anything. It was so unideal, but I was very aware of the fact that they … they just seemed really awkward. I felt like they didn't know what to do. It didn't feel oppressive. And then while I was there, I had just gotten dressed again. (To be clear, I had my shirt on; I just took my pants off, I wasn't fully undressed in an open-air area.) My boyfriend ran off because there was a commotion behind these double doors, which I assume was the ambulance loading dock or unloading dock. And he comes running back in, he's like, “They got your rapists; they have them on the other side of the door.” And they had my jewellery, and they had the money and my watch. So, it was very clear it was them and they were wheeled past me. That was an extraordinary set of coincidental circumstances.

II: Because you went to the police and also this other woman who they attempted to rape went to the police, as a result, those two men were convicted, and they went to prison for eight years. And at the very least, those were eight years in which they were not preying on other women. Those were eight years in which other women were not raped by them and possibly they didn't rape any other women at all after that. That may have been enough deterrent for them, for life. I feel a lot of sympathy for people who don't want to go to the police, but you have a duty to other potential victims.

LP: I think so too. It's also think that it’s such a knee-jerk response at this point. It's not a considered decision that a lot of women are making. And I say that based on my own reaction because I just had a knee jerk, ‘Oh no, there's no way I'm going to go.’ Because I'd read about it, I'd read how horrible it is. But I’ve also heard from the majority of my friends and acquaintances whom I've talked to about the article, who have said, ‘Oh yeah, well, it's really impossible for women to go to the police.’ And the thing I hear most often is that it's too traumatic for them to go to the police, which is the weirdest thing. Like, it's too traumatic because you have to talk about it again? Like you're not going to talk about it; like that's not a good idea; like you were just going to shuffle it away and shut the closet door on it? It's just such a knee-jerk response: there’s no way you can go. It’s just too traumatic. I mean, it's probably traumatic to go to the police after a murder too, or even after you get your wallet stolen, it's a little bit embarrassing and you feel humiliated. To go to the police sucks. Crime sucks. But it seems like that should be the default: the default should be that you really should go. What about if the activists had someone who would go with you? You should go and you should take someone with you. That would be so much more constructive advice. I would even say, ‘bring a man with you.’ If you have a really trusted male figure, I would totally say go with a man for a bunch of reasons, because it worked out for me to have a man there.

II: You'll feel more protected.

LP: Yeah. Have someone there to advocate with for you. That just seems like so much better advice than just this universal acceptance of the idea that it's too traumatic, it's too difficult, nothing will ever come of it, so just don’t. I can't believe I almost didn't go. Even if I hadn't gotten the satisfaction of my rapist being convicted, the automatic secreteness of it: that's just wrong. That's a completely backward approach to dealing with rape, to get swept along with that idea that this is a little bit shameful; it's a little bit secret; you're diminished. I feel like would have been on that path and it would have been a very, very different thing.

II: It's amazing that you had the courage and the intelligence to write about what happened to you so clearly and explicitly. It's an amazing piece. And also to be so very thoughtful about how it fits into the context of wider life and what are some of the best ways that we can find to prevent rape and also to support people who have been raped. I think that that's amazing.

LP: Thank you so much. It's been such an honour to have it published by Quillette. It's been great. And thank you so much for having me on.

II: Thank you. My pleasure. It's our pleasure and our honour, Larissa. Thank you.

LP: Thank you.


Larissa Phillips

Larissa Phillips is the founder and director of the Volunteer Literacy Project. She lives in Upstate New York with her husband and two children.

Iona Italia

Iona Italia is the Managing Editor of Quillette. She was previously the editor of Areo Magazine, and host of its Two for Tea podcast. She writes creative non-fiction for her Substack The Second Swim.


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