Review: Rape New York by Jana Leo
Title: Rape New York
Author: Leo, Jana
Length: 144 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Crime
Publisher / Year: Feminist Press / 2011
Source: Friends of Feminist Press subscription
Why I Read It: It sounded really good.
Date Read: 04/05/11
Jana Leo was raped in her apartment in Harlem, New York and in this book she discusses it. She calls it a non-violent rape because even though the perpetrator had a gun, he didn’t have to use it on her – she gave in to his requests because she knew that she wanted to live. As I discussed in my discussion of Lucky by Alice Sebold, there is really only one type of rape that we are allowed to talk about and acknowledge, and that is the kind that is committed by the stranger in an alley. In this book Leo takes on one aspect of that myth in talking about the fact that so many rapes occur in and around the home, and that there isn’t always force involved (though there was still the presence of a weapon in her case, and it was still committed by a stranger).
This book does a fantastic job of not only blowing some of the myths out of the water, of discussing crime as a political and developmental strategy, and of discussing the police ineptitude around crimes of this nature but also does us all a great service by discussing rape which is so often kept in the dark. I believe that only through discussing and acknowledging rape can we bring it from being something secret and shameful to something that is a legitimate crime that is not pushed back onto the victim through shaming and blaming.
Leo begins by describing what happened to her, giving us the specifics and laying out the exact crime as it happened. In this section she simply gives us the story. In doing so, she lets us into her mind and lays out her thoughts for us, this is so important I think as it gives the information behind why a woman would ‘allow’ this to happen and how rape can often be seen as, during the moment at least, better than dying.
In the next section Leo talks about the reaction of the police and of the specific neighbourhood she lived in (Harlem). She talks about crime and development and how the two go hand in hand. On page 41 she explains:
Introducing crime into an area is part of a crude development strategy. The more sophisticated and perverse approach is to simultaneously clamp down on street crime while forcing it into specific buildings targeted for speculation. Containing crime in specific buildings reduces their value so developers can purchase them inexpensively. Not only were developers able to buy property on the cheap, the scam also made short-term, low-income rentals much more profitable than high-income rentals. Contained within targeted buildings, crime was facilitated by a lack of security in the common areas, encouraging a rapid turnover of tenants. Agents kept the security deposit, increased the rent, and charged illegal brokers’ fees, thus quickly realizing a profit from the quick turnover of tenants. … Eventually the building would fall completely vacant, and was no longer subject to rent stabilization laws. It would then be demolished or converted into luxury housing.
This may seem far-fetched but in actuality Leo and her boyfriend were both students who ended up studying these trends and the facts really back it up. This section was eye-opening and interesting.
When it comes to rape and the home, Leo says on page 49 and 50:
The idea that rape happens at night, in dark alleys, in alien locations, is false. It is a myth that nourishes the image of the house as a safe place, offering comfort and suppressing the threat of rape from the mind. … The idea that rape is a rare event, occurring beyond familiar places, dissociated from the ordinariness of the everyday, is an illusion. In reality rape is not associated with risk, adventure, or the unknown; 94 percent of rapes and sexual assaults occur within fifty miles of the victim’s home. It frequently occurs in the home, and is often committed by those with whom the victim feels comfortable.
On page 52 she says:
Despite these statistics and facts, rape remains shrouded in secrecy. The sanctity of the home and the body, and the fear of the ultimate invasion of privacy, is perverted by society distancing itself from the victim. The crime occurred in your home, not mine. Shrouded in secrecy and silence, the victim is implicated as at fault.
She continues to discuss the myth of home as a safe place and why that myth exists. She also talks about the safety in rent housing and how “There is a building department code that provides strict fire protection, but no crime protection codes exist.”. She also talks about the economic and ‘dream’ elements of owning a house and how that contributes to both the crimes and the booming prison populations in the US (an interesting link given that I had just finished reading Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis) saying on page 85:
The increase in uprooted tenants – transitory, house-less, and homeless – is directly related to the unsustainable price of property, and the celebration of wealth as the only social value.
Related to this, on page 89 she says:
Less violent or “nonviolent” rape often occurs when the objective for the rapist is “being at home”: both sex and self-affirmation are sought. The sex appears consensual, something earned through negotiation or seduction; the rapist seeks approval. Violent rape is a challenge to this idea of home: excitement comes from the violation of norms, and from the other person being reduced to their difference, appearing as an enemy or an inferior. In other words, nonviolent rapes place an emphasis on the search for home, whereas violent rapes emphasize revenge, destroying the body and home of the other.
Through this discussion she talks about the links between crime and poverty and how although statistics often link crime and race, they rarely link crime with poverty. If such a link were made (again as Davis discussed in Are Prisons Obsolete?), then we would be forced to do more to combat poverty. Instead we can pretend to not know this and continue with the status quo which imprisons many but does nothing to reduce crime.
She also talks about punishment and how in areas where rapists are punished more harshly, statistics show less rapes but more murders – and how these may be related. So although clearly a lot needs to be done to work toward a society with less rape, this might not be the best solution. She says on page 54:
I tried to see it from his perspective; since there was no visible aggression, he could say the sex was consensual. Perhaps this was a convenient fantasy for him, one that would have been impossible to maintain if there would have been a murder, in which case, the body would have been unquestionable evidence of a crime.
In the final chapters Leo talks about how her rapist was caught and how the police treated the whole case – from not processing the DNA results to the tenuous ways that rapists are caught with current practices. In this section she also talks about how the rape affected her current life and the ways in which she thought about it. She talks about things like why she took her time before deciding to press charges, the fact that although others might find her fears irrational, to her they were very real, how unconnected and isolated she became, and the anxiety of waiting.
I apologize for the extra long review today but I just couldn’t stop 🙂 This was a fantastic book that I’m glad to have read, I highly recommend this book to all.