Like almost everyone else in the world, I read Stieg Larsson's trilogy about a bisexual computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander, who suffers sexual abuse and is out for revenge.
Salander, a brilliant woman with a photographic memory, is wrongly locked up in an asylum for violently attacking her father, a Russian spy, to protect her mother. Her legal guardian violently rapes her, but Salander gets him back by, among other things, tattooing "I am a sadistic pig and a rapist" across his chest -- giving readers a vicarious thrill. Despite a poor translation and some pedestrian prose, I enjoyed all two thousand pages of the tale, in three volumes.
Then I caught myself. Okay, my wife caught me. "This book minimizes the brutal rape, torture and murder of dozens of women," she said after reading "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," the first book in the series. "It seems entirely inconsistent that Larsson would allow his 'principled' character (journalist Mikael Blomkvist) to conceal all of the murders from the police and the families of the victims." The next time I saw a little old lady clutching the yellow paperback (among a dozen others on my subway train), I thought twice about the amazing popularity of Larsson's books.
Americans are obviously enthralled by the topic. But rather than simply being voyeurs, we should use the book's popularity as a way to initiate a real discussion about sexual assault -- a pervasive problem we, as a culture, don't talk about enough.
The U.S. Justice Department recently estimated that only 26 percent of all rapes or attempted rapes are reported to law enforcement officials. 17.6 percent of women in the U.S. have survived a completed or attempted rape. (Of these, 21.6 percent were younger than age 12 when they were first raped, and 32.4 percent were between the ages of 12 and 17.)
With the "Millennium Trilogy" rivaling "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" in popularity, the recurring theme of sexual abuse, and its relationship to real life here in America, has gone largely unacknowledged in the public discourse. Domestic abuse rarely makes headlines -- unless a celebrity is caught beating up his girlfriend -- and yet we can't seem to get enough of Salander. As my wife points out, it's hypocritical to remain silent on sexual abuse while slurping up graphic fiction that exploits our curiosity about the issue.
"I found the polemical concern for women to ring quite hollow," David Greene, the executive director of "The First Amendment Project", told me. "If Larsson really wanted to write about sexual abuse, perhaps he could have chosen a male hero (Blomkvist) that was not seemingly irresistible to women of all ages. To me, the book read as a condemnation of the most atrocious acts -- Nazism, serial rape, exploitation by a guardian -- but not of the more subtle forms of exploitation and abuse." Blomkvist, the savior and detective, sleeps with every likable female character, undercutting the feminist sentiment that Larsson sets out to express.
"I do think that Larsson's goal was to raise awareness about the issue," Amanda Wolfe told me. She is an education and prevention specialist at Casa Myrna Vazquez, and speaks across the state about domestic abuse. "The attack of Salander by her guardian was graphic, but I don't think it was done to be titillating. It was definitely trying to show the severity of the violence within that rape."
Salander is portrayed as childlike in appearance, but possesses powerful sex appeal to men and women, young and old. It leaves open the question whether readers are getting off on reading about a woman whose promiscuity can be seen as resulting from her abuse. Wolfe doesn't agree. "As a bisexual, I wasn't offended by [the portrayal of Salander's sexuality]. I just thought [it portrayed] her as a strong female who's not afraid to take ownership of her sexuality."
Jenny Efimova, manager of SafeLink, a statewide domestic violence hotline, adds, "I agree with your wife: There's a lot of misconceptions about sexual violence perpetrated by men against women. [It] isn't really talked about in our society the way it should be talked about, and particularly the dynamics of power and control."
Larsson himself once witnessed a gang rape of a young girl that he was unable to stop -- an event that shaped him as a feminist and as a novelist. Efimova points out, "Salander doesn't just get raped -- she gets raped by her guardian. So I think [Larsson] was also trying to shed light on the power imbalances that are inherent, not just in the sexual assault, but on the power imbalance that their relationship had to begin with, and that she had no power in that society and he had all the power in the society."
"People think the victims [of domestic violence] are staying because they want to, and the victims are choosing their partners, so thereby it's their fault," Efimova says. "We need to connect the dots for people, to talk about what this is all about, and the power imbalances that are inherent in our society. We consider that to be an individual thing, and we think rape is about sex, and domestic violence is about somebody who has used too many drugs or alcohol -- we attribute it to individual factors."
Larsson gives his readers a window on sadistic rape, and yet we really don't want to make the association with reality. "It would be a very scary world for people to live in if they felt [rape] could happen to anybody," says Efimova. "And so, as a defense mechanism we say, This can't really happen to me because I don't do this, this, and this."
But ignoring the problem won't make it go away -- by choosing to remain voyeurs, we are, in effect, making the world safer for violent predators. Sexual abuse is rampant and the real victims don't have Lisbeth Salander's ability to fight back. They are depending on the rest of us to do the right thing, by stamping out a culture of abuse and holding perpetrators accountable. "Social change will happen," Wolfe points out, "when more people stop choosing the route of saying nothing and acting like it's not happening."
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