Why ‘13 Reasons Why’ is a Grim Salute to the Rape Survivors I Know
The rape scenes remind me of survivors I know who’ve held back from reporting, fearing no one would believe them.
When Shonali* first described her rape to me, we both cried. She’d been recounting it for months already – but it had never deadened the sense of recapitulation for her, the sense of no ending. She was blamed for months after the rape, in insidious, often snide little ways. If her father refused to take her to the police station to file an FIR for the longest time, it was because he refused to believe it hadn’t been consensual. “He was your boss, was he not? And I thought you liked him.” Shonali did like him, had vowed to marry him – before it all went awry. Before he cheated on her and refused to stop; before she threatened to leave him and he raped her as punishment. He actually raped her twice.
Before she shut up.
Shonali eventually told her father and a long and tedious process of filing an FIR was undergone. The cruelest point of it all? The incredulity that she could possibly be a ‘victim’.
“Weren’t you in a relationship with him?” the voices asked.
“Why didn’t you say something when it happened?”
“It isn’t really rape.”
Why Rape Survivors Don’t Report
Neha* was told this too – not by anyone she’d confided in, but by her own consciousness. Out with a boy whom she’d met on Tinder, on a date she enjoyed, she agreed to go back home with him for drinks. She did not, however, agree to sex. “I wasn’t passed out. I said ‘no’,” Neha told me vehemently. It didn’t matter. She woke up the next morning with her underwear around her legs, stripped of agency and clothes, and walked home with a distinct, uncomfortable truth – that she’d do nothing about it.
She did nothing about it, because she was sure no one would care – or more honestly, that they would believe she brought this on herself.
Yes, rape IS black and white. A perpetrator violates your body against your will and you have every legal recourse to punish the violator for his crime. But what of the cases where the lines appear blurred to the survivor themselves? Where the latter convince themselves no one’s going to believe them because they were intoxicated at the time/or have been coerced to believe otherwise/or are unscrupulously threatened with photographic or video evidence?
The Brutal, Graphic Rape Scenes in ‘13 Reasons Why’
If you’ve watched Netflix’s original series 13 Reasons Why, the question will have leapt out at you. More likely, it shall have pierced your erstwhile compartmentalised perceptions of a black-and-white world of sexual crimes – where rapes, as movies and television will often tell you, happen in bursts of rage, or are acts committed by strangers waiting for an unsuspecting victim.
Two characters are raped brutally during the course of the series – both rape scenes excruciatingly graphic in their depiction. The protagonist Hannah and her former best friend Jessica are both raped on 13 Reasons Why – in two starkly contrasting scenes, with ONE similarity: neither do anything about it immediately after. Jessica is raped by her boyfriend’s best friend whilst the boyfriend – in what is easily the most disturbing scene in the entire show, stands outside, knowing and sobbing. We watch in grotesque horror as Jessica’s rapist Bryce, known to her and their circle of friends, drapes his half-naked body over Jessica’s semi-conscious one, pulls down her panties and penetrates her with relish.
It is a rape that Jessica only half-remembers, her oblivion supplemented by her boyfriend’s insistence that nothing ever happened.
Hannah’s rape is the most gruesome play-by-play television could have depicted, with the camera choosing to focus on her face at every penetrative jab. Hannah is raped by the same high school jock that raped her friend Jessica – except in this case, Hannah is fully conscious as Bryce takes control of her body in a hot tub at a party. Hannah freezes and stops squirming within the first ten minutes of the act, choosing to let the dread wash over her like a dull pain; you see her eyes glaze over as Bryce finishes – and Hannah steps out of the tub, walking zombie-like in the direction of her house.
Hannah said nothing, because she’d already been labelled a ‘slut’ by the entire school and knew everyone would believe this was just desserts.
In many ways, Hannah and Jessica reminded me of the survivor stories that had been told me – of women who have irrevocably, undoubtedly, most heinously been raped – and yet hold back on complaining, on reporting, for a multitude of fears.
“If You Didn’t Consent, It’s Not Your Fault”
Instances of such rape are more delicate because the woman believes she has to face the trauma single-handedly. She may speak to no on about it, but will experience great disorientation and night terrors – often withdrawing from her surroundings. She will usually go through stages of denial, anger and sadness.Dr Kamini Bhoir, Police Psychiatrist
That denial is writ large on the character of Jessica – who, forever changed by a night she cannot fully remember – struts around school corridors in a daze, shutting down the few voices who try to speak reason.
Hannah, meanwhile, is certain her story will have no takers – something both Shonali and Neha feared, whilst struggling to cope with their trauma.
Ashif Jan, director of Jan Sahas India – a Social Development Society that aims to protect the rights of girls and women – weighs in:
It is pertinent you ask this because we’ve recently started a National Helpline for survivors of sexual assault, and a large percentage of the cases who call in, are of this nature. These are women who are unsure if people will take their assault seriously because the rapist was known to them. In many cases, it is an ex-boyfriend who blackmails them with old photos or videos. Their trauma is largely aggravated by societal pressure.
Ashif says that the women who call in almost always say one thing – “I don’t want to file a complaint, but mujhe mukti chahiye (I want freedom)” It is difficult to convince them, he says, to stride ahead with a formal complaint.
Ashif’s organisation conducts workshops with both survivors and local police personnel to initiate healing. It is at one of these workshops that I had first met Shonali and watched as she coped – and eventually filed that FIR. She still struggles with what what she thinks were her “blurred lines of consent” and will intermittently look surprised whenever I remind her that it wasn’t her fault.
“The most important thing to tell them is that ‘no’ means ‘no’. If you haven’t consented, it is NOT your fault,” asserts Ashif.
Here’s hoping that that message travels far and wide, as unclouded and unambiguous as the seemingly novel idea of consent.
(Survivors of rape and sexual assault can call Jan Sahas’ National Helpline number 180030002852 for both online and offline support, including advice related to police, legal, medical and counselling)
*Names changed to conceal identities
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