Is Rape a Crime? A Conversation with Michelle Bowdler

Yona Zeldis McDonough: You wrote this book many years after your attack; why did this feel like the right moment? 

Michelle Bowdler: I had been working on this book for a number of years when I had the opportunity to take an intensive writing program at the iconic Grubstreet in Boston. It was right after the 2016 election and I was still dumbfounded that a man who was caught on tape bragging about how he could sexually assault women because “he was a celebrity so they don’t mind,” had been elected president.  And as more women came forward and he brushed aside each additional sexual assault accusation with a simple denial, my rage and despair grew. It was time to try and finish the book and think expansively about the core message it could offer. 

This was not a book I could have written one moment sooner than I did – it took years for me to gather perspective and heal sufficiently to write it.  I wanted and needed to write a story not just about my own experience, but one that is, unfortunately all too common and yet seemingly tolerated by our society.  My public health degree, the work I do at the university at which I work and the advocacy work I engage in all gave me the perspective that led to the book in its present form. 

YZM: How did the assault affect your life, both short and long term?  

MB: People talk about a before and after moment with rape and sexual assault. I truly felt like my prior self had died the night of the home invasion, and I had to begin again with no idea how. Experiencing the terror and violence of that night and believing it would end with my death, undid me for a long time. In the immediate aftermath and for a few years after, it was hard to work, concentrate, believe in a future, read, or sleep.

I had been an English and American literature major in college and hoped to pursue a career as a writer and editor. In fact, I was working for a magazine as an assistant editor when the attack happened and had to quit my job because I couldn’t function as I once did and needed time to recalibrate. My former career aspirations were gone as I pivoted to a brand-new life for a brand new person, someone who no longer felt confident, focused, or optimistic. Eventually, I was able to work again, go to graduate school, fall in love and create a family, and have meaningful work. It feels amazing and unreal that when I decided decades later that it was time to pick up my pen and start writing again, I’d publish a book soon after.  

I will tell you that no matter how happy I am in my present life or how much I want this book and its message to be heard and I am heartened when I think about the coming year, what happened will always be with me and I am forever changed. 

YZM: The title is deliberately provocative; care to comment? 

MB: I suppose it might seem that way to some, but I think of it more as intentional – a real question victims have the right to ask given the shocking statistics of how many of us have had our cases dismissed outright, ignored and uninvestigated, as if rape isn’t really the felony crime it is categorized as.  A recent reviewer wrote of the title that it “is neither a trick nor a rhetorical question. It is an indictment of one of the most glaring contradictions of the US criminal justice system.” I think she’s right and that was my goal.  In fact, it was an actual question another rape survivor asked me as we pondered the reality of the hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits that represented cases that had been reported to the police for a reason – so that their violent felony crime would, at a minimum be investigated – and were not. Given that many rapists are serial rapists, what does this further say about law enforcement’s will to further work to protect the public when it comes to rape and sexual assault, specifically? If someone feels surprised or offended by the title, I hope and trust they will understand it and support it after reading the book. The reason for the title is addressed in the first paragraph and throughout.  

YZM: Let’s talk about the structure, which is unusual.  Why did you choose to set the book up this way, and what do you hope will accomplish? 

MB: The book was never just a memoir. It was always meant to find a way to tie one person’s experience to those of so many other victims of sex crimes who live with the aftermath of traumatic violence juxtaposed with inaction and silence from law enforcement and the tolerance of this inaction by society at large.  In many ways, the whole book contains all three parts throughout; it is a memoir, an investigation and a manifesto over its three hundred pages, but I wanted to divide it up in this way to focus and amplify certain aspects of each of those parts as I wrote.  

YZM: Although the investigation and prosecution of rape has improved in recent years, more work still needs to be done.  Can you talk about what you’d like to see happen in the future? 

MB: I’m not sure I agree that investigation and prosecution of rape has improved in recent years.  I do talk in the book about how some truly awful things that never should have been tolerated are better – spousal rape is illegal; most states disallow “parental rights” for rapists when a pregnancy from this act of violence results; rape kits are being tested in some cities because of legislation saying they must. But we have a very, very long way to go in a broken system.   

As to what I would like to see happen – 

  • I believe that all police training must be trauma-informed and that this training is a core element of academy learning nationwide, not an optional extra seminar offered occasionally.

  • Law enforcement has to acknowledge its biases and collect data on how officers are responding to sexual assault complaints and hold them accountable. How can a case be dismissed as unfounded before it has been investigated? How is it possible that victims still report that they are treated with suspicion as they relay the details of the violent sexual act they endured?  

  • We as a society need to understand that there is nothing funny about rape that would make it a routine joke; that we must all speak up when sexual violence is characterized as he said/she said or otherwise minimized; and hold politicians responsible for legislation and public statements that show a disregard for the seriousness of sexual violence. 

  • And we need to take a serious look at reforming our criminal justice system and not be afraid to look critically at the behaviors, biases and laws that disproportionately affect people of color, victims of sex crimes, and other marginalized populations.  

YZM: What do you see as the most important takeaway for your reader? 

MB: That we cannot be satisfied with incremental improvements for a state of affairs that never should have been tolerated in the first place and that we must hold law enforcement accountable.  I hope others will raise their voices and demand change in the way officers are trained, sex crimes are investigated, victims treated, and evidence ignored.  I also was explicit about my own experience because I wanted people to really see how the impact of sex crimes is life-altering, so that we as a society can no longer minimize them and continue to tolerate the current ways they are addressed. 

I also hope the story moves them and that they feel a sense of hope, of what might still be possible even when someone has life challenges that can feel insurmountable.

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