A VISUAL

LANGUAGE
OF VIOLATION

by Sarah Kasbeer

ISSUE ELEVEN | FALL 2018

CONTENT WARNING: SEXUAL ASSAULT

Look I am not in any way capable of rape! I cannot see how you cannot realize that when that happened and you told me to stop and I did.

The man who emailed me this confounding set of phrases was responding to a message I’d sent him about an incident that had happened ten years before. When I went looking for his email address in 2015, I found an article from 2005 that said he’d been hit in the head with a tire iron, which maybe explains a lot.

There is no easy way to say this, I wrote in the email. You raped me.

I hadn’t challenged him at the time because I’d been in shock — confused by the idea that someone I knew could have raped me. In the US, the federal definition of rape hadn’t yet changed to center around the lack of consent as opposed to the use of force. And though the meaning of the word has shifted throughout history, it’s always carried a seed of the same idea, from the Latin root rapere: to seize or take by force, haste, or fury; to ravish; to snatch. That is what he’d done. He’d pounced. He’d hastily taken advantage. He’d snatched.

 

* * *

I want you to think about what you are saying before the word rape is used. I moved faster than you were comfortable with. For that I am truly sorry. When you said stop I did. I can’t take back that moment.

I didn’t fully grasp the meaning of rape until I viewed a 17th-century baroque portrayal in at the Villa Borghese museum in Rome. Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculpture The Rape of Proserpina does not depict a “rape” in the contemporary sense of the word, but as it was used then — an abduction with the intent to forcibly marry, which carries many of the same hallmarks, the most obvious being implied sexual servitude.

In the Roman myth, Proserpina, daughter of Ceres, was picking flowers in Sicily when Pluto emerged from Mt. Etna with four black horses and dragged her back down to the underworld. Her mother, the goddess of grains and agriculture, caused a famine in retaliation and negotiated a deal with Pluto to allow Proserpina to return to the world of the living for six months out of every year. Her myth thus became the story of spring and a symbol for reemergence.

 

What is most striking in Bernini’s rendering is how it evokes both sensuality and horror, as Pluto’s muscular body overtakes Proserpina’s feminine curves — his large hands digging into her soft flesh, which for a moment, one forgets is made from Carrera marble. Her body contorts in an attempt to turn away from what her face tells us she already knows will be her fate. Fabric hangs loosely from their half-naked bodies as Cerberus, the three-headed dog stands guard below, foreshadowing what will become her lifelong ties to the underworld.

 

* * *

Ok I need to know that you understand that if you tell someone to stop and they do that it’s not rape. Yes I jumped the gun and yes I crossed the line and did so without asking most likely after misunderstanding a cue that you prolly never meant to give.

Just a few rooms away in the Villa Borghese, in another Bernini sculpture, Apollo and Daphne, a magnificent scene unfolds: A nymph is transforming into a laurel tree to avoid the romantic advances of a god. In the Roman myth, Eros (better known by the Greeks as Cupid), has shot Apollo with a golden arrow and Daphne with lead. Apollo cannot break the spell of his desire for Daphne, who is in turn repulsed by him. He chases her, and she flees, finally asking her father, a river god, to help her escape.

The sculpture demonstrates how quickly desire can slip into violence; the moment of Daphne’s transformation — and of Apollo’s revelation, as he catches up with her and realizes something has gone terribly wrong. Leaves have sprouted from her fingertips and roots from her feet. His hand reaches for her stomach to find only bark, but is not dissuaded.

As the story is originally described in Ovid's Metamorphoses, “Embracing the branches as though they were still limbs he kissed the wood, but even as wood, she shrank from his kisses.” Apollo decided she would still be his as a tree, and the leaves on her branches, blowing in the wind, seemed to nod in consent. Ovid places the burden on the reader to decide whether Daphne, as a laurel tree, actually offered her consent. For centuries, rape has been considered a a mutable concept; it’s existence dependent on the eye of the beholder.

 

* * *

I must have thought you were into it and made a very forward move without asking, which is not ok! But if you had in any way told me to stop before that happened it simply would never have taken place.

A story so old it’s written in stone.

We were kissing, and I wasn’t into it. So I lay curled up in a protective pose on top of his bed to take a quick nap. It seemed like the easiest way to simultaneously get out of rejecting someone I would have to see at work, and sober up before driving home. My body felt heavy as lead, impenetrable as rock—as uninviting as a tree.

For a moment, I was in a dream.

A hand was slowly unzipping my pants, and whatever it was doing down there sent warm sensations tingling through my body. As I awoke, his head found its way between my legs. I didn’t want it there, but I also didn’t fight the feeling. My branches bent and my body shuddered with unwelcome pleasure. His hands reached for the flesh of my thighs, gripped them, and dragged my hips down to the end of his bed.

Before I could react, he had forced himself on me.

“Stop,” I said twice, my body moving up and down, before his eyes met mine and something in his brain seemed to click.

Apollo’s revelation.

He rolled off me. We were both still wearing our shirts. I turned away so my back was facing him, and he slung his arm over my shoulder.

* * *

I hope you realize that I am not angry but just confused as to why with so much horrible sexual assault out there that you would attribute this to something like rape.

A small study, “Denying Rape but Endorsing Forceful Intercourse,” surveyed seventy-two college-age men. One in three admitted they would be willing to use force or coercion to obtain sex — as long as there would not be consequences. But when researchers replaced descriptions of forced or coerced sex with the word “rape,” the number dropped to one in ten. The research showed this smaller group of respondents held more overtly hostile attitudes toward women — whereas the remainder, the twenty percent that would rape as long as you didn’t call it rape, were simply callous, perceiving a women’s “no” as nothing more than token resistance.

Pluto takes pride in his actions. Apollo hides behind Cupid’s bow.

Which is the greater threat?

 

* * *

I AM SORRY, for moving too fast for you that night. I AM SORRY that it got as far as it did. But most of all I am SORRY you think is ok to accuse someone of something like this TEN YEARS LATER!

I didn’t fully appreciate The Rape of Proserpina until I saw it again, nearly a decade after my own rape—the sensual a thrill I’d first experienced as a viewer now inextricably linked with the terror in her eyes. Bernini had carefully carved out Proserpina’s irises to create a shadow that would outline her pupils. His portraiture is known for its intimacy, and the malleability he creates can be credited to a style he pioneered known as the “speaking likeness,” that is, capturing an expression just before or after an utterance.

He once explained, “To make a successful portrait, one should choose an action and attempt to represent it well; that the best time to render the mouth is when [the subject] has just spoken or is just about to begin speaking; that one should try to catch this moment.” Based on the way Proserpina’s head is tilted to one side as she pulls away from Pluto, two teardrops running down her cheek, her lips and teeth parted slightly, it appears she is about to say something. Perhaps it was going to be “no.”

 

Sarah Kasbeer lives in New York City. Her essays appear in Creative Nonfiction, Elle, Guernica, The Normal School, Vice, and elsewhere. Read more of her work here.

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