“Particicution” and Rape in the Handmaid’s Tale
I was really fascinated by the scene of the Women’s Salvaging in “Handmaid’s Tale,” and the comments it inspired in the “Historical Notes” section at the end of the book. It is described as
“not only a particularly horrifying and effective way of ridding yourself of subversive elements but that it would also act as a steam valve for the female elements in Gilead. Scapegoats have been notoriously useful throughout history, and it must have been most gratifying for these Handmaids, so rigidly controlled at other times, to be able to tear a man apart with their bare hands every once in a while.”
Those singled out for “particicution” are labelled as rapists, despite the fact that they are generally politically prisoners. It is clear that while the state nominally labels rape as the most heinous crime of all, the fact that Salvagings are used strategically to misdirect the anger of the Handmaidens from their own experiences implies that they realize how violating and deadening “The Ceremony” is (to everyone involved, I do not hesitate to suggest that men involved are being just as violated, for their will has also been stripped by the society, despite the fact that they may have helped to build it.) At another point in the book, Offred remembers a conversation she had with Moira in college:
“What’s your paper on? I just did on on date rape…Date rape, I said. You’re so trendy. It sounds like some kind of dessert. Date rapé.”
I had a hard time figuring out what Atwood was exactly getting at, except to think that she was drawing a parallel between Offred’s previously flippant attitude toward’s her mother’s strident second-wave feminist views on porn etc. and her subsequent sexual slavery. But I also think it’s more complex than that, because obviously Atwood doesn’t think societies which ban pornography and nominally worship femaleness to the point of repression turn out awesome, either.
In any case, what the Salvaging really reminded me of was the witch-hunt aspect of much discourse on sexual violence and exploitation in the mainstream media. Although we don’t engage in state-sponsored public lynchings, extra-judicial punishment is evident in the attitude of shows like “To Catch a Predator” and even some of the actions taken by cops on the show “Law and Order: SVU.” Often, sexual violence on television is shown not through the experiences of victims or through considering the cocktail of sexual politics and gender roles which contribute to the lack of accountability for perpetrators but through a kind of revenge scenario, in which a father/brother/boyfriend/husband takes it upon himself to stage a particictution. Vigilantism of this kind (which I’ve also seen referred to as “country justice” in various news sources) often misdirects anger which could be focused on dealing with systemic issues.