A survivor shares how we can have better conversations around rape

In 1980, just a few weeks before she started college, Sohaila Abdulali was raped and almost killed in her native India. Three years later, a women’s magazine in Delhi published her account of what happened. Then, three decades after that, when we started to have more open and honest conversations about rape and rape culture, her story went viral.

Suddenly, everyone wanted to offer Abdulali sympathy and support she hadn’t asked for and “didn’t need” (her words). She didn’t need to talk about it but it had become impossible for her not to. So, in 2018, she published What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape (the title a play on the 1981 Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”), a guide to having better conversations about assault. It’s brilliant, necessary reading on the ways we talk—and, more importantly, don’t talk—about rape and rape culture.

We spoke with Abdulali about teaching men prevention, the power of speaking up, and the intricacies of the phrase “yes means yes and no means no.” Our conversation, and the conversation she facilitates in her book, are ones we wish we’d had when we were younger.

HelloGiggles: How can we have better conversations about rape? Especially when the conversations are so often, as you write, draining, irrational, and bizarre?

Sohaila Abdulali: I think it’s important to remember that while this is an urgent conversation, it’s not any one person’s job to constantly go outside his or her comfort level to talk about it. If bringing up rape doesn’t feel possible, why not instead pay attention to the ways in which we promote pro-rape attitudes? Calling out sexism, disrespect, and inequality can go a long way towards combating the prevailing atmosphere that it’s okay to force yourself on someone who doesn’t want you to touch them.

I also think the conversation is easier when we don’t let ourselves get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the topic. If we’re talking about trauma, it’s okay to stick with that and not feel that we have to go into a whole analytical tailspin about all the historical and cultural reasons why this particular trauma manifests in this particular way. It’s okay to pay attention to the person in front of you and limit your conversation to what’s immediately relevant, if the big picture is just too big to get into.

HG: At one point, you write in an aside, “There must be a manual for rapists somewhere.” How do men learn this behavior so similarly, all around the world, and across generations? Where do they keep learning it?

SA: Everywhere! Movies, books, the lessons you learn at home by watching and listening to the adults in charge, all the little things that chip away at a fair and equal society, even the distinct words we use to describe the same behavior in girls and boys (“shrill” vs. “confident”)—it all adds up. I catch myself doing it, applying these different standards, and I kick myself mentally, and then I catch myself doing it again.

HG: In the book, you expand on the different reasons why women don’t always report assault. Shame is one, but there are many more, too.

SA: Frankly, I think shame plays only a supporting role for many women. There are so many equally compelling reasons, the foremost often being that the person you tell immediately blames you, either explicitly or implicitly. Who wants to have to justify themselves after being violated? Also, where is the reward for telling? Victims get stigmatized, while perpetrators go on their merry way. Then, of course, there’s the very real fear that if you speak out, you’re forever condemned to being The Rape Victim and the label follows you wherever you go. Ask me how I know.

HG: You also talk about the intricacies of “yes means yes and no means no.” Can you explain what people get wrong about that, and why it’s so complicated?

SA: I think this has a lot to do with gender. Women are taught to please and be polite. Sometimes we say yes to the most awful things just to keep the peace. And sometimes we say no because we don’t believe we deserve pleasure. In a world where we are taught sex is for men to enjoy and women to endure, it’s no wonder everyone gets baffled by each other’s signals. This is not an excuse for rapists—it’s simply an acknowledgement that language is complicated, and that a “yes” under duress (not knowing your rights; worrying about your job; thinking it’s your fault for being in this situation, etc.) isn’t the same as a “yes” given freely.

HG: Victims often have the double burden of being the victim AND the educator. How can victims who find themselves in this situation get out of having to educate someone, but still push them toward understanding why they shouldn’t have to do it?

SA: I’m still trying to figure this one out!

HG: You write: “The only people who are truly responsible for preventing rape are rapists.” Can you talk about the struggle between wanting to teach rape prevention, but also not wanting to send the message that it’s someone’s responsibility to not be raped?

SA: I do think we need to teach prevention—to men. As far as teaching potential victims about responsibility, nope. I want my daughter to do whatever the hell she wants to do, go wherever she wants, as long as she is comfortable and informed about the reality. The reality is that she is less likely to be raped walking down a dangerous street than she is in her own dorm in college. She has every right to avoid the dangerous street, but if she walks down it, that’s perfectly fine and I hope somewhere some father is teaching his son to be a good man, a man who lives with integrity and honor and would never hurt anyone, on the street or in the bedroom.

HG: Keeping a secret about an assault takes a toll. After your old essay went viral, you started receiving emails from strangers sharing their own experiences, many of which had been kept secret. You write about how if a victim is comfortable doing so, there’s power in telling their secret.

SA: So much power! But I can only speak for myself. If someone doesn’t want to tell, and finds comfort in keeping her (or his) secret from the world, I have no argument. We all cope in different ways. For me, there’s great power in not feeling alone, in knowing that someone else knows, and in getting other perspectives.

HG: Should we keep trying to reach people who aren’t listening about assault, or focus our attention on others? Talking to a wall is exhausting, but is talking better than not talking at all?

SA: It’s difficult to know when a wall is a wall, and when it’s actually a door. Again, I think that as long as you have the energy and will, get out there and talk to anyone who’ll listen. You never know what sticks. You might even learn something. But you don’t HAVE to.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape is available wherever books are sold.