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Books Roxane Gay-edited anthology Not That Bad looks at haunting effects of sexual assault

Sharisse Tracey was 13 when her father, a photographer, sexually assaulted her after taking her “glamour shots,” photos Tracey hoped would make her feel “pretty and important” at school.

Tracey told her mother, expecting she’d throw him out. Instead, the three of them sat down with a counselor, a family friend who pressured Tracey to forgive her father and, in a bizarre bid to make it all go away, convinced them to take a grotesque family trip to an amusement park called Magic Mountain. Desperate to escape her home, Tracey wrote letters to family, friends and fellow churchgoers, pleading for help. Nobody wrote back.

Tracey’s story is both horrifying and common: A woman survives sexual assault only to face gaslighting and the abject failure of her family, friends and community to help.

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“It was treated as something we were both guilty of,” Tracey writes in Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, a timely new anthology edited by Roxane Gay, cultural critic and bestselling author of the essay collection Bad Feminist and Hunger, a memoir.

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Not That Bad, a reference to the widespread minimization of sexual abuse, looks beyond the gendered bickering that’s often hijacked the #MeToo movement, back to the crimes themselves. It is a difficult, almost unbearable look at what perpetrators are capable of. The details, devastation and sheer number of men helping themselves to the bodies of women, girls and boys deaden the reader. It is a critical work that makes this much clear: The violations #MeToo rages against can and do damage people for a lifetime.

“It is a crime and an experience that has no end,” Gay said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “You can get over it and you can heal but it changes you. Everyone in this book has been changed, and that’s a shame.”

When she was 12, Gay was gang raped by a group of boys in the woods. Her life is bisected: before and after the attack. “How would I have thrived,” Gay asks, “if this thing had not derailed me and reshaped who I am?”

The question haunts many of the anthology’s 29 contributors. Gay solicited half of the writers and also called for submissions, seeking different perspectives and writing aesthetics. They are a diverse group of women and men: famous and never published before, young and old, straight, queer and transgender. Among them are an army wife, a biochemist, an exterminator, a lawyer, a cartoonist, an eighties film icon and an author researching mental illness in the suburbs. Their stories make clear that the reverberations of sexual predation live on inside all kinds of people.

Not That Bad peers into the psychology of victimhood, mining elements of sexual violence we don’t understand very well yet. There are the creeping tentacles of post-traumatic stress disorder; the way trauma chops holes out of memory; the tendency of victims to keep secrets from themselves as a coping mechanism, or to internalize the abuse and self-destruct.

“Rape is a wound that throbs long after it heals,” writes actor Gabrielle Union, who was sexually assaulted at 19 in the back of a Payless shoe store where she worked, and charts the ripple effects in an essay titled Wiping the Stain Clean.

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One of the strongest essays in the collection comes from a professional exterminator named Anthony Frame, one of two men featured in the book. Frame describes the lifelong fallout of being sexually assaulted in Grade 6 by a friend’s father. He grows up paralyzed around intimacy and is later reluctant to initiate sex with his wife. Likewise, queer writer Miriam Zoila Perez describes years of encounters with partners who have suffered sexual violence, which lingers in the bedroom like a “barely audible, inescapable presence.”

The pervasiveness of child sexual abuse and incest in these stories is tragic, and the proportion of women who are unconscious throughout their rapes disturbingly high. But not all the stories are about rapists. There are men who routinely harass women on the street, “testing something out,” essayist Aubrey Hirsch writes. There are ambiguous encounters that leave women questioning their self-worth, that aren’t exactly rape but can feel that way, transgender journalist Meredith Talusan writes. And there are the men who seek out sexual women only to degrade them for it: “So many times my mind left my body only to return to find it soiled,” essayist Emma Smith-Stevens writes.

It’s unlikely critics of the #MeToo movement will appreciate this literary exercise. One conspicuous complaint that’s being lobbed at sexual-assault survivors is that they focus too much on victimhood and not enough on empowerment. At a seminar in San Diego in March, self-actualization guru Tony Robbins dissed victims for acting like victims, then implied they were speaking up now to gain “significance.” (Gay calls Robbins an “idiot” who “doesn’t understand people.”) But we’ve also heard this criticism coming from victims themselves. Samantha Geimer, who was sexually assaulted by director Roman Polanski when she was 13, has said #MeToo “glamourizes weakness” and pain; she’d prefer victims concentrate on surviving the past.

“Just because you acknowledge your victimhood doesn’t mean you’re wallowing in it,” Gay retorts.

On the cult of empowerment, Gay said, “We have this idea that hardiness and strength mean that you’re invulnerable and that nothing bad can happen to you and if it does, you should be fine.”

Despite the #MeToo movement, we remain deeply uncomfortable with rape victims. Unlike other violent crimes, sexual assault is often treated as somehow personal. Female victims are viewed as culpable or hysterical while male victims see their masculinity questioned. “Some people just resent being asked to extend empathy when they don’t believe that empathy is earned,” Gay said.

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In a world this “shamefully warped,” as Gay puts it, many are skeptical that the catalyst for #MeToo, the exile of producer Harvey Weinstein, accused of sexually assaulting dozens of women, will spell lasting change.

The Breakfast Club actor Ally Sheedy is clear-eyed in her essay, titled Stasis: Misogyny continues to be firmly entrenched in the entertainment industry and beyond. The daughter of a feminist activist mother, Sheedy got a rude awakening arriving to Hollywood, where she was instructed to start dieting and given a ThighMaster before a substantial movie role. She was told her career was moving slowly because no one wanted to have sex with her. She rejected roles that required nudity or glorified violence against women – a career move that left her with lots of unpaid bills.

Today, Sheedy teaches film and theatre at a New York high school. The stories teen girls tell her are unsettling déjà vu: One 15-year-old described being asked to “hump a table” during an audition. At this year’s Golden Globes, Sheedy took to Twitter to call out actor James Franco, who has been accused of sexually exploiting multiple young women, including students at his film school.

“Some men will get careful. Some men will pretend they never behaved like predators and wait this out,” Sheedy writes. But the culture for Weinstein’s sick behaviour will remain in place, she says.

Nothing short of a seismic shift will alter these realities for women. A small window of hope opens with the parents in this anthology, who write about raising their sons to treat women like human beings. Union and her husband, NBA player Dwyane Wade, speak to his sons “about what it means to not be a danger to someone else.” Hirsch, a creative writing teacher, practises the parenting conversations she hopes to have with her growing sons: Consent should be enthusiastic (“Wait for her to yell it”) and male entitlement is a disease (“Not everyone gets to have sex when they want it”).

There are mothers of daughters writing here, too. Elisabeth Fairfield Stokes was sexually assaulted twice, once in a car at 15 and again at 17, at a party where she was drunk and semi-conscious, her leg in a brace after a skiing accident. The attacks permanently reframe Stokes’s views on intimacy and on her own body, which, she writes, “had been used against me.”

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Stokes and her husband are trying to turn the tide for their daughters.

“We tell them that they can choose to live their lives in a way that is not defined by anything that happens to them,” Stokes writes, “something that I have not yet been able to do.”

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