Tough Girls, Class Differences and Rape Culture (Trigger Warning)


Salander was not like any normal person. She had a rudimentary knowledge of the law—it was a subject she had never had occasion to explore—and her faith in the police was generally exiguous. For her the police were a hostile force who over the years had put her under arrest or humiliated her. The last dealing she had had with the police was in May of the previous year when she was walking past Götgatan on her way to Milton Security. She suddenly found herself facing a visor-clad riot police officer. Without the slightest provocation on her part, he had struck her on the shoulders with his baton. Her spontaneous reaction was to launch a fierce counterattack, using a Coca-Cola bottle that she had in her hand. The officer turned on his heel and ran off before she could injure him. Only later did she find out that “Reclaim the Streets” was holding a demonstration farther down the road.

Visiting the offices of those visor-clad brutes to file a report against Nils Bjurman for sexual assault did not even cross her mind. And besides—what was she supposed to report? Bjurman had touched her breasts. Any officer would take one look at her and conclude that with her miniature boobs, that was highly unlikely. And if it had actually happened, she should be proud that someone had even bothered. And the part about sucking his dick—it was, as he had warned her, her word against his, and generally in her experience the words of other people weighed more heavily than hers. The police were not an option.

She left Bjurman’s office and went home, took a shower, ate two sandwiches with cheese and pickles, and then sat on the worn-out sofa in the living room to think.

An ordinary person might have felt that her lack of reaction had shifted the blame to her—it might have been another sign that she was so abnormal that even rape could evoke no adequate emotional response.

Her circle of acquaintances was not large, nor did it contain any members of the sheltered middle class from the suburbs. By the time she was eighteen, Salander did not know a single girl who at some point had not been forced to perform some sort of sexual act against her will. Most of these assaults involved slightly older boyfriends who, using a certain amount of force, made sure that they had their way. As far as Salander knew, these incidents had led to crying and angry outbursts, but never to a police report.

In her world, this was the natural order of things. As a girl she was legal prey, especially if she was dressed in a worn black leather jacket and had pierced eyebrows, tattoos, and zero social status.

There was no point whimpering about it.

On the other hand, there was no question of Advokat Bjurman going unpunished. Salander never forgot an injustice, and by nature she was anything but forgiving.

– From The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

I was in a bookstore, flipping through a copy of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo when I first came upon this passage.

I’d heard about Dragon Tattoo’s notorious rape scenes (and equally notorious rape-revenge scene), but I’d decided to brave it anyway. I’ve since picked up a copy, and added it to my stack of books I need to read – I’ll get to it one of these days – but that one passage struck so much of a chord in me that I need to talk about it now instead of later.

On the off chance that you’ve read my own book Hometown, you know that the character Vicki Powers goes through some experiences very similar to Salander’s. In Vicki’s case, she has an on-again, off-again “boyfriend” who uses alcohol to make sure he gets his own way.

Vicki didn’t go through all that because I wanted to be shocking or titillating, or because I felt I had something important to say about sexual assault, but because Hometown is drawn from my own life and experiences

No, I’ve never experienced any of those things personally, thank God.

What I’ve done is listen.

I wasn’t the most popular guy in the world in high school. I didn’t get invited to a lot of parties, or go out on a lot of dates. But I did have friends of every social level and class – especially girls. And when they talked, I listened.  I listened, and didn’t judge, and occasionally comforted, and before too long, I had the bleak privilege to listen as they told the stories that they saved for those they trusted:

There was the girl whose boyfriend-for-the-week held the necklace she’d borrowed from her mother hostage until she gave him a blowjob.

(And possibly one or more of his friends who was there that night; my memory is a little faded. It’s been more than twenty years after all.)

There was the girl who complained how “slick” some of the boys she’d been to bed with were at sneaking off the condom and going in bareback.

There were the girls whose boyfriends refused to wear condoms at all – and then failed or refused to withdraw in time. Yes, several pregnancies (and shotgun marriages) began this way.

There was the girl – this one I met at college – who said that she had once believed that waking up to find that someone’s dick had been in her was “just the price that party girls paid”.

There was the girl who spent her entire First Time (at age 14) thinking “Get this thing out of me!”, and her friend who simply spent her First Time (also at age 14) yelling “Shiiiiiit!”

(To be fair, those two were nominally consensual, at least at first, statutory issues and questions of coercion and manipulation aside. But the fact remains that their partners didn’t care about their discomfort, and the girls didn’t feel comfortable asking them to stop. The sex was about the older boyfriends getting their way, despite the girls’ pain.)

Sexual assault was hardly limited to the poor and working classes, of course. Just like the cheerleader crying on the bleachers at the beginning of Hometown, I knew at least one girl from a respected middle-class family who spent most of one year with the kind of respectable, pretty-faced abusive boyfriend who doesn’t leave marks. I didn’t see her smile again until she went to the prom with a workboot-wearing roughneck who treated her like gold.

(And of course, the number of girls I knew from the middle-and-higher classes who’d been sexually assaulted just exploded when I reached college.)

But upper-class girls seemed to have a better concept of their bodies as belonging to themselves. They tended to recognize sexual assault as sexual assault, rather than just “the price party girls paid”. They also had more of an expectation that help would be available to them if someone decided to trespass, rather than just accepting that they were “rightful prey”, and that no one would help. It didn’t always work out that way, unfortunately: one frat boy, the model for Darren Edwards in Hometown, was responsible for at least two of those college rapes I mentioned above. His brothers knew all about it – his nickname in the house was “Date Rape Darren” – and his rapes, which involved roofies, were blatant enough to be recognized as such even in 1995. His punishment? He wasn’t allowed to receive his diploma with his class. Oh, he still graduated. He just didn’t get to march to “Pomp and Circumstance” and walk across a stage.

But here’s the catch:

As anyone who has heard anything at all about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo probably knows, Salander’s plan for revenge – while ultimately successful – goes badly awry on her first attempt, when Advokat Bjurman proves to be of a different breed than the abusive boyfriends. The acts he performs would have been unequivocally recognized as rape by both Salander’s outcast friends and the police – if Salander hadn’t decided to pursue her own personal revenge, which achieved goals other than simply sending her rapist to jail.

Similarly, while Vicki “takes responsibility” for getting drunk in Rodney Dupre’s presence and considered the resulting rape to be just “shit that happens” (and considers the rest of the group’s objections to be a bunch of silly, sheltered upper class/virgin nonsense), she has no trouble recognizing Darren’s brutal assault for what it is (or rather, what it attempts to be). She even turns out to be a pretty competent, if plain-spoken, rape counselor.

In the same way, Vicki’s real-life counterparts – tough girls like Vicki and Salander for the most part – would have easily recognized some sexual assaults for what they were.  It’s just that they had a picture in their mind of what rape and sexual assault meant, and they generally ruled out the things that they had experienced: someone touching their boobs or (under the right circumstances) making her suck their dick; the older boyfriends who used a certain degree of force to get their way. Such incidents led to crying and angry outbursts, but never to a police report. In their world, this was the natural order of things. As girls, they were legal prey, especially if they lived in the trailer park and wore too much makeup and tight clothes, and had zero social status.

There was no point whimpering about it.

Does this mean, as some like to argue, that it was all okay? That if they didn’t think it was sexual assault, then it wasn’t, and they would never be “traumatized” if some feminist didn’t tell them otherwise?

Not hardly.

Have you ever considered how many “bad kid” behaviors – drug abuse, antisocial acting-out, emotional outbursts, reckless risk-taking – are also PTSD symptoms?

(In the same way, have you ever noticed that the sexual precocity of the stereotypical “slut”, used to justify many of the aforementioned abuses, is a known symptom of childhood sexual abuse?)

Sitting and listening to those tough girls as I did, I learned what a rape culture was before I ever had the words for it.

A lot of people don’t seem to quite get the concept of a “rape culture”…though of course, there are a lot of people who don’t get it because they don’t want to. They seem to believe – or at least, they argue – that because we recognize the violent assaults of the Bjurmans and the Darren Edwardses as Bad Things and punish them (sometimes), that we can’t have a rape culture.

But listening to those tough girls and their stories, I soon began to see a pattern: there was indeed that belief, though none of them would have put it that way, that girls were legal prey – that if a boy used a certain amount of force (but not too much!) or trickery to make sure he had his own way, that was only to be expected and there was no use whining about it. A girl’s rights to her own body – to the extent that such things existed at all – were limited to her own will and ability to enforce them. But she didn’t dare be too much of a hardass about such trivialities, because it was taken for granted that a woman needed a man, and needed to put up with a certain amount of shenanigans from him if she wanted to keep him. There was the knowledge – all too often proven correct – that anything short of a Bjurman/Edwards violent assault wouldn’t be taken seriously, and that people – up to and including the justice system – were much more likely to side with her attacker than her if she tried to make an issue of it.

These things weren’t limited to the trailer parks and backwoods shacks and decaying crackerbox houses on the bad side of town. After all, it was a funny fellow from a good middle-class family who joked at lunch once: “You’ve just gotta date-rape sometimes.”

(Had he ever really date-raped? I actually think not. But he and his companions thought it was a funny joke. Not something to be taken seriously at all.)

But it was more obvious in those trailers and shacks and decaying houses. More blatant. Those tough girls with their zero social status had no illusions. And that made the pattern clear:

All of those things made rape and abuse easier. Easier to happen, easier to get away with.  They protected the abusers and made it harder for the victims to even identify what had happened to them.

Years later, when I had the concept of “rape culture” explained to me, my only reaction was “Oh, so that’s what you call it.”


(Unfortunately, hanging out with those tough girls, I also learned about internalized misogyny before I ever had the words for it. No one was quicker to call someone a slut – even themselves – and whatever their man did with another girl, it was the other girl’s fault. But that’s for another time.)



Filed under Feminism, Fiction, Hometown, Inspirations, My Life, Politics

2 responses to “Tough Girls, Class Differences and Rape Culture (Trigger Warning)

  1. Touching post, I would love to hear what you thought of my review of The Girl Who Played with Fire! I’ve just started my own blog too. It’s all about books and a chance for us all to read together, take a look at and follow if you find it interesting! Many MANY more to come.

  2. Pingback: Heroines of Hometown: Vicki Powers | Dreams of the Shining Horizon

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