Review of What It Feels Like: Visceral Rhetoric and the Politics of Rape Culture.

Review of What It Feels Like: Visceral Rhetoric and the Politics of Rape Culture.

Peitho Volume 24 Issue 3, Spring 2022

Author(s): Rachel Smith Olson

Rachel Smith Olson is a PhD student in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her research focuses on digital rhetorics, identity, and the writing classroom. 

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Larson, Stephanie R. What It Feels Like: Visceral Rhetoric and the Politics of Rape Culture. Penn State University Press, 2021. 

For the past five years, we have lived in what some have termed the ‘Me Too era,’ a large-scale recognition of sexual assault and harassment and the people who perpetrate it. Stories of actors, politicians, journalists, and others with considerable power have garnered considerable media coverage and national debate. Situating her work within these high-profile cases and the carceral feminist logics that fuel them, Stephanie Larson makes an astute point: despite all of these events, we still lack adequate means to discuss and theorize rape culture. What It Feels Like makes a crucial contribution to this ongoing conversation by illuminating how mainstream discourses about rape culture work to contain the stories, feelings, and bodies associated with sexual violence. Connecting to the larger ecology of scholarship and activism focused on rape and sexual assault, Larson suggests that in order to effectively confront rape culture, we must first properly recognize and value the embodied accounts of rape victims. To do so, Larson offers the term ‘visceral rhetorics,’ which describes how the body responds to words or actions with “thick, material, bone-deep, gut-felt sensations” (14). She seeks to re mind scholars that bodies are more than just a site of rhetorical invention; rather, bodies – in the most material sense – play a critical role in the felt experiences of rhetoric. In the same vein as feminist rhetorics’ historical attention to women’s silenced voices, Larson examines how women’s bodies, as well as their affective and rhetorical capabilities, are suppressed by rape culture. Working from this point of understanding, What It Feels Like is an essential read for those committed to disrupting rape culture.  

In Chapter 1, Larson begins by establishing the existing frameworks for theorizing sexual violence, with particular focus on which bodies are able to be recognized within these frames. She traces historical constructions of social norms surrounding sexuality and sexual violence by examining the Meese Commission, an undertaking of the Reagan administration meant to determine the impact of pornography on modern society. Analyzing letters written to the commission by concerned citizens reveals palpable fears regarding threats to the nuclear family structure, the correlation between pornography and male violence, and the state of female sexuality in the US. Larson asserts that, more broadly, the commission exposed desires to protect the systems of inequity that undergird the neoliberal nation-state, proliferating instincts to blame vulnerable people for the violence they experience, including sexual assault. She then draws a connection between the Meese Commission and the 2018 confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh, showing how white supremacy, masculinity, and heteronormativity continue to be protected and upheld at the expense of those victimized by these structures. Larson’s read of the commission reveals that national conversations around rape and sexual assault are constantly shaped by “a desire to contain the nation-state and its neoliberal imaginary” (27). This section provides the historical context and inherited legacies that shape the modern intimations of rape culture discussed further on.  

In Chapter 2, Larson explores the bystander discourses prevalent on college campuses by examining two rape prevention campaigns, It’s On Us and 1 is 2 Many. These campaigns are significant because they emphasize male action and responsibility in combatting rape and sexual assault. In doing so, they decenter the lived experiences of real rape victims, instead invoking cultural conceptions of the archetypal victim: a “heterosexual, college-aged, cis, white, able-bodied, US American, middle-class, educated woman in need of protection from a male body and male gaze” (58). Thus, to analyze these campaigns, Larson employs a methodological approach she terms ‘patriarchal spectrality.’ She explains that, just as ghosts may be present but unseen, “rape victims and perpetrators, too, are absolutely there but unable to be heard or seen as clearly due to the modes of vision that inform US rape prevention discourses today” (60). Larson shows how prevention programs and other public discourses surrounding sexual violence may erase rape victims even as they seek to save them or bring them justice. Discussing victims in hypothetical terms or only platforming stories that align with the larger narrative of rape culture enables audiences to erase bodies that do not fit the archetype based on their identity and/or actions. Larson connects this to a historical precedent, describing the United States’ legacy of permitting and facilitating sexual violence against Black women, a legacy that is still not recognized on a national scale. With this in mind, productive future discourses must attend not only to what is there, but what is silenced, excluded, and made invisible. Following Jacqueline Rhodes’ call for a critical feminist rhetoric, Larson asks readers to more effectively disrupt rape culture by recognizing the specters of patriarchy and critically imagining what has been strategically left out of the conversation.  

Chapter 3 focuses on rape kits and the role they play in shaping public perceptions of victim testimony. Larson begins the chapter with a brief narrative that quickly gets at the heart of the matter, recounting the story of a woman who endured a rape kit exam after being raped on her college campus. The woman waited a year and a half for the kit to be processed and another six months for her perpetrator to be found guilty, even though she “knew and named him from the beginning” (86). Larson uses this story to illustrate the perceived power and importance of the rape kit, even in cases when the assailant need not be identified using DNA evidence. Extending onto recent discussions of the rape kit backlog, Larson interrogates the rhetorical function of medico-legal tools, arguing that the way rape kits are employed serves to silence victims and create public distrust in visceral testimony. Examining legislative responses to the rape kit backlog, Larson identifies three major problems: the proliferation of the archetypal rapist as a stranger with a violent criminal history; the emphasis on scientific innovation over victim testimony; and the implementation of rape kits to logically assess a victim’s visceral experience. All together, Larson asserts that rape kits and other medico-legal tools “partake in conditioning publics not to believe victims,” most especially when these tools are treated as more credible than first-hand accounts (89). Throughout, Larson weaves in rape victims’ accounts of both the violence they endured and the additional trauma and discomfort of the rape kit exam, providing examples of how visceral rhetoric conveys the deeply-felt sensations and emotions connected to sexual assault. While acknowledging the usefulness of rape kit technology, Larson holds space for the way rape kit exams can further harm victims by attempting to sanitize their feeling bodies and curtail rhetorical means of describing their experience. Drawing connections to the use of police body cameras, Larson points to a troubling trend where technology is used to fix deep-seated issues rather than confront the culture that produced the conditions. She encourages us to wonder “what it might mean to listen to an individual’s account of what has been done to their flesh…especially when that body is in pain” (111). 

In the next two chapters, Larson begins to answer that question by identifying instances of visceral rhetorics within protests. In Chapter 4, she examines the public performances of two high-profile rape victims who sought to push back against rape discourses and protest the inadequacies of their institutional proceedings, constructing what she terms ‘visceral counterpublicity.’ These embodied performances challenge narrow definitions of rape, ones that prioritize male anatomy and action, by offering visceral experiences of rape and encouraging felt experiences of the accounts. Drawing on the work of Jenell Johnson, Larson argues that affects, like the ones shared through these performances, may disrupt publics in the same way they may construct or coalesce them. She first analyzes the victim impact statement read by Chanel Miller during the trial of Brock Allen Turner. Through this letter, audiences may understand Miller’s experience through her own recollection and from her own perspective. This visceral account of violation centers her embodied experience, offering a different perspective compared to how Turner’s lawyers focused on delineating between rape and sexual assault. Larson then examines the work of Emma Sulkowicz, best known for their performance art piece in which they carried their dorm mattress around Columbia University in protest of the university’s response to their reported rape. Larson focuses on Sulkowicz’s piece Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol (or This Is Not A Rape), a video that seemingly shows the reenactment of a rape while simultaneously assuring the audience that the actions they are watching are consensual. This performance calls upon the audience to “grapple with the experience of rape beyond the discursive assertion that violation did not occur,” invoking the lived experiences of victims whose rhetorical accounts are denied by powerful institutions (131). In these instances, Larson asserts, Miller and Sulkowicz “expose threatened bodily boundaries and encourage affective responses” by giving their audiences the means to understand rape as something experienced, not just theoretically defined (122). Larson connects their work to other modern forms of protest that highlight the body, including athletes kneeling during the national anthem and the use of the phrase “I can’t breathe.” Through these visceral counterpublic tactics, audiences may better understand instances of violence, even when those in power seek to deny them. This in turn creates greater opportunity to recognize harm done to any body—especially marginalized bodies—rather than only acknowledging discourses that are safely contained.  

Chapter 5 explores another tactic of public disruption by focusing on #MeToo. Beginning with Tarana Burke’s original concept of the Me Too Movement as a part of Just Be Inc., Larson discusses the phrase’s viral moment, describing the now-famous tweet by Alyssa Milano that sent #MeToo out into the digital world. Temporally aligned with the emerging allegations against Harvey Weinstein, the hashtag caught on overnight and rapidly constructed a new site of protest for victims and supporters. Larson theorizes the body of #MeToo as a form of megethos, which took the shape of a feminist list. Using the functionality of the hashtag, audiences could read one tweet after another, experiencing the magnitude generated by these brief messages as a “bone-deep, felt assurance” that sought to disrupt normative discourses regarding rape culture (138). Larson points out #MeToo’s success compared to previous hashtags and online campaigns, as it gained considerable traction beyond Twitter and beyond the digital sphere entirely. Not only did the magnitude adequately convey users’ experiences of rape culture, but it also invited audiences to feel these tweets in a visceral way, change their previous beliefs about rape culture, and be moved to action. In closing, Larson acknowledges that #MeToo was intrinsically linked to white female celebrities and fueled by the public disclosure of trauma. Thus, she prompts us to look deeper at both historical and contemporary contexts to find useful protest tactics within the #MeToo movement, ones that may be reconfigured to operate in more nuanced and intersectional ways. Returning to an idea introduced in the preface, Larson reflects on the “methodological hope” offered by #MeToo, which “must not be hastily or uncritically idealized but constantly interrogated” (154). 

At times, I wished this book approached the issue of sexual assault and harrassment from a more intersection perspective; however, perhaps one of its strongest arguments is that how we address rape culture on a national scale is not intersectional. As Larson explains, her consistent use of ‘woman’ functions “not to ignore femmes, queer women, people from trans or nonbinary communities, or men, who most certainly experience rape and sexual assault, but rather to acknowledge a public obsession with focusing solely on cis, white women in predominant rape prevention discourse” (10). By examining the subject matter through governing structures that have emerged from the oppressive foundations of the US, Larson reveals how this focus on certain victims with privileged identities has come to control all aspects of conversation regarding rape. As someone who perfectly fits the description of the ‘archetypal victim,’ this research moves me to reflect on my own positionality and work to dismantle harmful structures meant to protect me and others like me. As Larson makes clear, until we reckon with the normative approaches to rape culture that function to contain bodies and maintain the nation-state, we will always lack adequate methods for rape victims outside of the archetype to be seen and heard, thus perpetuating rape culture for all.  

What It Feels Like offers a new entry point for understanding rape culture by examining its function in everyday contexts—legal, medical, institutional, public—and how it works to suppress the visceral rhetoric of rape victims. Nearly five years after the phrase ‘me too’ gained widespread cultural significance, we are still searching for new and meaningful ways forward, and Larson’s scholarship is a much-needed contribution to that endeavor.