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Review: Rape New York by Jana Leo

June 23, 2011

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
Rating: 5/5
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.

35 Comments leave one →
  1. June 23, 2011 8:14 am

    Thanks for the review, Amy, really interesting. I specially enjoyed the part about forcing crime into certain buildings to lower their value. That’s a really unusual concept.

    I temped for a while in a rape crisis clinic in London, as a receptionist, a very distressing experience. Rape conviction in the UK is 5%, and what I found most saddening about the clinic was the fact that there was so little emphasis on capturing the criminal. The staff really cared about the victims, and provided health care, couselling, etc, but clearly everyone involved had more or less given up on the idea that the criminal justice system was going to be involved. It’s incredible to think that at least 95% of rapes go unpunished. It’s a completely minimal risk crime.

    • June 25, 2011 4:47 pm

      Yes, isn’t it a new concept Sarah? I certainly hadn’t considered it before but it does seem quite logical. And unfortunately it is similar over on this side of the ocean. So few rapes are reported and of the ones that are, so little is done and cops just give stupid excuses to escape having to do anything. It is saddening and also disgusting. We clearly need to do something about our criminal justice systems.

  2. June 23, 2011 8:23 am

    This does sound like an interesting book. It is sad how rape it swept under the carpet and not treated very seriously by a lot of people. I’ll be keeping an eye out for this book now. Thanks for drawing it to my attention.

    • June 25, 2011 4:48 pm

      Yes, it really is sad Jackie. Glad I could alert you to the title.

  3. June 23, 2011 8:58 am

    I am intrigued by that term, Non-Violent Rape and I would like to read the effects this had on her. Wonderful review today.

  4. June 23, 2011 9:58 am

    I too am perplexed that rape is a crime that isn’t treated as seriously as it should be, considering how the person who has been raped usually takes years to deal with what has happened and may never recover. There is still a lot of stigma attached to rape and not enough attention is given to the fact that it takes a lot of courage to even admit it has happened in the first place. So any book that discusses this gets points from me and I’m very glad you reviewed it.

    • tammie permalink
      June 23, 2011 11:05 am

      You know, the funny thing is that after you’ve started talking about it, it becomes way less shameful. And the more you talk, the more that it becomes part of your story, and less of the piece that defines you. I often wish this little secret was let out more.

    • June 25, 2011 4:50 pm

      Thank you Sakura, it is frustrating and also upsetting how little attention and seriousness rape accusations are given, and how little platform there is to both seek justice and to seek recovery. And I definitely agree with Tammie – talking about it helps and really reduces the stigma. I too wish that both more people knew and that we were given the opportunity to speak!!

  5. June 23, 2011 10:10 am

    This sounds like a book that deals with some very important issues, and also like a book that has a varying list of subtopics that relate to the main. I would love to read this one, as this is an issue that I am interested in and it sounds like it is handled extremely well. Great review, Amy!

  6. tammie permalink
    June 23, 2011 10:59 am

    I agree with her about there being violent and non-violent rape. I tend to define it a little differently though. I’ve been told “all rape is violence” so many times, and I understand what they mean. But of my two rape experiences, I feel that one was violent and “rape” in the truest sense of the word (ie he knew I didn’t consent but went forward anyway) while the second is one of those little known loopholes where he decided to go ahead while I was asleep. I knew there was something wrong with it, but neither of us realized it was legally rape. In fact, I didn’t know until late last year (more than six years after the fact).

    I also tend to feel that we can’t enforce the law too strictly until all of these loopholes are fully explained. We need to work harder to define rape to everyone.

    • June 25, 2011 4:54 pm

      Yes Tammie, it is a tricky concept. It is all violence but some is definitely *more* violent than others. I tend to think the presence of a gun raises the violence level even if it isn’t used, but this is still one of those types of rape that gets discussed less often so it was great to see it. I definitely think that more education is needed in so many ways so that we can all understand and know and there can be no more excuses.

      As always, thank you for being brave and sharing your stories. I know we think the same way – that talking about it and being open takes away any shame (well, puts it where it should be, i.e. with the rapist!). I just want a world where police would take both / all types of rape reports seriously.

  7. June 23, 2011 9:10 pm

    Why would you even try to stop?! I love the extra-long review…particularly with a book like this which so clearly deserves such attention! The books you get via your subscription sound just amazing.

    • June 25, 2011 4:55 pm

      I’m glad you don’t mind reading the long reviews BuriedInPrint 🙂 My worry is always that people will skim or skip the extra long reviews and as those are usually the books that I am most excited about / think are the most important… it is a tricky situation! And yes, the subscription is fantastic!

  8. June 23, 2011 9:16 pm

    I usually don’t read non-fiction but I might give this one a shot. It sounds like a great read about a horrible part of our world.

    • June 25, 2011 4:56 pm

      It really is a part of our world that we tend to ignore and bury celawerd. I would definitely recommend it, though it is a hard read.

  9. June 24, 2011 7:53 am

    Wow, sounds intense. I can’t even begin to imagine her experience, and am impressed she was able to write about it.

    • June 25, 2011 4:57 pm

      Yes, it is impressive and brave and as I keep saying, the more we make it open, the less shameful I think society will see it Kim 🙂

  10. June 24, 2011 8:55 am

    I woud love to read this book. It reminds me of “All My Fault”, a book wriiiten some 20 odd years ago. It’s a book about domestic violence which includes rape in some cases, and it covers the stories of a few women. It’s kind of academic but its informal style makes it a good read too.

    • June 25, 2011 4:58 pm

      I’m now adding that title to my wish list – thanks Adura!! Do you remember the author of it?

  11. June 24, 2011 2:21 pm

    I find it fascinating that she talks about poverty, crime and her building in relationship to the rape, sounds like it’s a really well fleshed out book about such a personal experience. I’ll have to keep my eye out for this one.

    • June 25, 2011 4:58 pm

      Yes, definitely an interesting read Rhiannon. Would you like to borrow?

  12. June 25, 2011 3:02 am

    As someone wrote up-thread, I don’t often read non-fiction, but this does sound like a truly fascinating and important book. I’m glad the writer had the courage to write it. Great review!

    Hope you’ll stop by mine…

    Cindy at Cindy’s Book Club

    • June 25, 2011 4:59 pm

      Definitely both interesting and important Cindy. Thanks for the visit and comment.

  13. June 25, 2011 4:52 pm

    Amy, I’m thrilled that you reviewed this book, because it sounds right up my alley, especially after reading that the author blows some of the myths surrounding rape out of the water. I would have never heard of it if I hadn’t stopped by today, so thank you!

    As someone who volunteered at a local rape counseling center for several years, I am glad to see this type of book written, especially by a rape survivor. It sounds like she has written a fantastic book that I need to read someday in the near future.

    • June 25, 2011 5:10 pm

      Anyone who writes about rape as it really is blows stereotypes our of the water in my opinion Amy 😛 Sad but true right? I hope you read and get a lot out of the book.

  14. June 26, 2011 7:40 am

    Wonderful review, Amy! I couldn’t believe the connection between crime and development, but after reading the passage you have quoted and your thoughts on it, it looks very logical. It is still difficult to believe! I also can’t believe that though there are many studies on crime and race, there are not as many studies on crime and poverty. It is really sad. Thanks for introducing new books like this to us readers 🙂 Everytime I read a post in your blog there is a new addition to my ‘TBR’ 🙂

    • June 27, 2011 8:57 am

      Thank you Vishy. It is ridiculous that so few studies exist on crime and poverty, it isn’t just sad it is ridiculous and wrong. Why do we persist in trying to explain things solely with race? Argh. And yay, I’m glad I can add to your tbr 😀

  15. June 27, 2011 9:31 am

    Amy, it’s “All my Fault” by Dee Glass. I think It’s probably out of print (1995) but you can get used copies on Amazon. (I checked). It’s more about domestic violence and why women find it hard to leave abusive relatioships. It’s an old book but definitely still worth a read:-)

    • June 27, 2011 9:53 am

      Great thank you so much Adura! I do see some used copies available yes.

  16. June 27, 2011 9:35 am

    Dee Dee Glass is the author. (Don’t know where the second ‘dee’ disappeared to after I posted my comment)! 🙂


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