How to Talk About Haiti's Rape Epidemic

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After touching on the subject, a journalist is accused of having a colonialist mindset. But it's her critics whose attitude is imperious.

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Mac McClelland traveled to Haiti, reported on one of its rape victims, developed post-traumatic stress disorder, and coped in an unusual way: "All I want," she explained, "is to have incredibly violent sex."

She tells her story in an essay published at GOOD Magazine, where Ann Friedman, formerly of The American Prospect and the group blog Feministing, is the new executive editor. The essay, titled "I'm Gonna Need You To Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Eased My PTSD," is surely the most provocative piece that GOOD has ever published. "My mind stayed there, stayed present even when it became painful," McClelland writes, describing her ostensibly therapeutic sex, "even when he suddenly smothered me with a pillow, not to asphyxiate me but so that he didn't break my jaw when he drew his elbow back and slammed his fist into my face."

Descriptions that graphic are sure to stoke controversy, as is subject matter like female sexuality and violent intercourse. We're unaccustomed to women unapologetically describing sexual urges, wants, and transgressive behavior*. There's also bound to be skepticism about McClelland's particular theory of healing.
 
Far more controversial than the graphic sex, however, is a short description of Haiti and its dangers that McClelland included at the beginning of her piece to explain why it traumatized her so. The average reader likely got through the passage without pausing, but it so bothered 36 women who've worked in that country as journalists, activists and development workers that they sent an open letter to the editor lambasting it. Their argument is our subject, for it epitomizes some of what's wrong with political discourse in the United States.

Before grappling with it, let's read the passage that provoked them:  

There are a lot of guns in Haiti. Guns on security guards in front of banks and gas stations. Guns on kidnappers who make a living snatching rich people, guns on rich people who are afraid of kidnappers. Guns on the gang-raping monsters who prowl the flimsy encampments of the earthquake homeless. Guns in the hands of the 12,000 United Nations peacekeepers, who sometimes draw them too quickly in civilians' faces and always sling them carelessly across their laps in the back of UN trucks, barrels pointed inadvertently at your face while you drive behind them in traffic...
Last September, the first time I went to Haiti, I spent my first day out accompanying a rape victim we'll call Sybille to the hospital. The way her five attackers had maimed her in addition to sexually violating her was unspeakable. The way the surgeon who was going to try to reconstruct the damage yelled at her, telling her she'd got what was coming to her because she was a slut, was unconscionable. And the way Sybille went into a full paroxysm when we were on the way back to the post-quake tarp city she lived in was the worst thing I ever saw in my life. We were sitting in traffic and saw one of her rapists, and she started just SCREEEAMING a few inches away from my face, her eyes wide and rolling in abject terror.

This part is relevant too:

...one of the upstanding pillars of the Haitian elite, who insisted he was a gentleman because he loses his erection if a woman starts to fight him off, started to stalk me. On the third day, one of my drivers cornered me in an abandoned building, and I had to talk him out of his threats to touch me.

The reader is told nothing more about Haiti. And that upset the signatories of the letter. Their reaction is understandable: they care about the country, and want the public to conceive of it fully, rather than imagining that it's an irredeemable hell hole where no one laughs and people are unlike us. Most of all, they don't want it to be seen as a place so far gone that outside help is pointless.

Here is what they might've written, had they been feeling charitable toward a traumatized woman trying to share her story:

Dear Editor,

We read with interest the essay, "You're Gonna Have To Fight Me On This." In recounting her experiences in Haiti, the author focuses very narrowly on the worst things she saw in the country. That's understandable. Her subject is post traumatic stress disorder, and she couldn't help but focus on her trauma.  The piece is very much in keeping with journalistic convention. An article about a traumatic date rape on a college campus wouldn't focus on rendering its cozy student center, pastoral quads, or the many students who were never victimized.

What concerns us is the fact that, unlike life on a college campus, the average American has no broader knowledge of life in Haiti to inform their opinion of it. We'd hate for your readers to get the impression that life here is all violent crime and misery. There are safe neighborhoods too: we've lived and worked in them for many years among Haitian men and women who've enriched our lives tremendously. They're doing their utmost to recover from a devastating earthquake. There's an opportunity to significantly improve lives for sums that are small by our standards. In fact, donating to one of the international organizations helping Haitians to get back on their feet is one way to help address the country's rape problem, which we're eager for Americans to be accurately informed about. Amnesty International offers what statistics are known, testimony from victims and context in this report.    

Instead, the 36 women published a harangue that condemns McClelland for her "sensationalistic and irresponsible" use of Haiti as a backdrop for her victim narrative.

An excerpt:

In writing about a country filled with guns, "ugly chaos" and "gang-raping monsters who prowl the flimsy encampments," she paints Haiti as a heart-of-darkness dystopia, which serves only to highlight her own personal bravery for having gone there in the first place. She makes use of stereotypes about Haiti that would be better left in an earlier century: the savage men consumed by their own lust, the omnipresent violence and chaos, the danger encoded in a black republic's DNA.

This is what a hit piece reads like when it's cloaked in liberal arts school vernacular. If you scoffed when Pres. Obama was smeared as having a Kenyan anti-colonial mindset, witness the other side's answer to Dinesh D'Souza: in their telling, we're to understand the writer by presuming that she has a colonial mindset. How dare someone travel to refugee camps plagued by an epidemic of gang rape, get cornered by her driver, develop PTSD, and focus an essay about her ailment on "ugly chaos"?

Their tactics are especially galling because McClelland never mentions race in her piece, but that doesn't stop the signatories from using loaded terms to imply that she is racially unenlightened (a "heart of darkness" dystopia with "savage" men). It's easy to make a writer look bad when you impute to her ugly sentiments she never actually expresses. To address just one example, McClelland's essay specifically says she is describing the chaos that developed in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. That's the opposite of saying that violence is baked into the republic's genetic material. Yet the letter has McClelland insisting that violence is part of "the black republic's DNA," rephrasing what isn't actually her characterization in the most racially provocative terms possible.    

A cursory perusal of headlines demonstrates that in focusing on Haiti's rape epidemic, McClelland is hardly alone. "Rape Flourishes in Rubble of Haitian Earthquake," the Los Angeles Times reports. "Rape at Crisis Level in Haiti Earthquake Camps," says the BBC. "UN Launches anti-Rape Campaign in Haiti," says CBS News. It certainly seems as if "an earthquake that shook the country into ugly chaos," as McClelland put it, and that the surfeit of guns there and the presence of "gang-raping monsters" are accurate characterizations more than "stereotypes from another century." It is one thing to say McClelland paints an incomplete portrait, and quite another to say, against all evidence, that her essay is inaccurate and rife with racist stereotypes.

The letter goes on:  

Sadly, these damaging stereotypes about the country are not uncommon. But we were disturbed to find them articulated in Ms. McClelland's piece without larger context, especially considering her reputation for socially conscious reporting. Ms. McClelland's Haiti is not the Haiti we know. Indeed, we have all lived in relative peace and safety there. This does not mean that we are strangers to rape and sexual violence. We can identify with the difficulty of unwanted sexual advances that women of all colors may face in Haiti. And in the United States. And everywhere.

It isn't fair to say that this paragraph is loaded with the pathologies of left-leaning political discourse. A journalist writing in The New York Review of Books or The Nation or The American Prospect would seek to correct alleged misinformation about the prevalence of rape in a country by providing the most accurate available statistics about the prevalence of rape there.

Instead, these critics proceed with a style of argument that has no name, but is most commonly found among undergraduate petition writers at academic institutions where feelings matter more than ideas. They offer no statistics about rape in Haiti, or statements about how crime is geographically distributed. And what is meant by their vague statements that the signatories have lived "in relative peace and safety," but that they are not "strangers to rape and sexual violence"? Nothing very informative. The locution is intended to evoke a benign Haiti without seeming to diminish its rape victims. In this style of rhetoric, the whole point is to convey maximum sensitivity and empathy while minimizing the amount of offense that might be taken.
 
Another reason for their lack of specificity is soon clear. In the very next sentence, they craftily stop talking about rape - the writer's subject - and replace it with the term "unwanted sexual advances" so that they can assure us they "identify" with its victims in Haiti "and the United States." Depending on your point of view, they're either enlightened enough in their anti-colonialism to point out that Haiti isn't the only country where many sex-related transgressions happen... or else they're being intentionally vague and evasive about rapes in Haiti to obscure the glaringly obvious fact that the problem there is different in kind and degree than it is here.

As if that weren't bad enough, they conclude:

Unfortunately, most Haitian women are not offered escapes from the possibility of violence in the camps in the form of passports and tickets home to another country. For the thousands of displaced women around Port-au-Prince, the threat of rape is tragically high. But the image of Haiti that Ms. McClelland paints only contributes to their continued marginalization. While we are glad that Ms. McClelland has achieved a sort of peace within, we would encourage her, next time, not to make Haiti a casualty of the process.

Note that this isn't offered as a corrective. McClelland never asserted that Haitian women can escape sexual violence. So why do the letter's signatories mention that Haitians aren't offered escape "in the form of passports and tickets home"? They're trying to diminish McClelland's standing by pointing out her privilege, a particularly unsavory tactic when it amounts to implicitly criticizing someone for being traumatized even though she had the ability to escape being raped.

Even more insulting is the notion that McClelland's personal essay on Good Magazine's Web site is contributing to the continued marginalization (that is, violent rape) of Haitian women! (Notice that its incidence is suddenly "tragically high" for "thousands of women," - when it serves their purposes, they're perfectly willing to evoke displacement camps that are little "dystopias" of "omnipresent violence.")

It's absurd that a group of people, castigating a writer for losing sight of the big picture, proceed to insist that she is personally responsible for the marginalization of Haitian women, and for making the country of Haiti itself "a casualty." But it isn't surprising. The signatories are putting forth rhetorical statements driven by politically correct feeling much more than logic. As they read McClelland's essay, I have no doubt that they really felt as if it made a "casualty" of Haiti and marginalized its women. As we always put it back in my liberal arts school days, "I feel like they're wrong." I'm all for the American public having as robust an understanding of Haitian society as possible. In our political discourse, however, there should be space for writers to tackle fraught subjects in personal essays without having to ensure that every place name they mention is fully rendered.

There should also be space for letters to the editor saying, "I'd like your readers to know a bit more." What should be verboten are attack letters that rely on guilt more than logic. The letter at issue may be grounded in the understandable concerns I tried to address above. But its execution amounts to little more than vague anecdotes and a poorly argued claim that McClelland is politically incorrect. Why not try again with actual facts about crime rates in Haiti?


*Cynics who say the piece is sensationalistic, or imagine that the piece was published for the traffic that accrues to headlines mentioning sex, are probably unaware that these are some of the gender taboos that Friedman has long been  eager to break down. In this case, the traffic is icing.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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