A Nasty Woman's Survival Guide
Mel Reeve talked to us about revenge fantasies, why current consent education sucks, the myth of the survivor, & more...
Article by Niamh Macdonald and Emma Olsson
Content warning: rape, sexual and emotional abuse
"I can either keep getting drunk and telling my friends about these awful things that happened to me, or I can talk to a professional person about this. That’s why I went to Rape Crisis. And from there, maybe six months into that, that’s when I started thinking about writing it. I thought:
Okay. I know what happened, I know how I feel about it, I’m angry about it, and I want to talk about it."
Mel Reeve is a writer and archivist living in Glasgow. In addition to self-publishing her writing in zines, she has been published on multiple websites and online publications, as well as in the hit book of essays, Nasty Women by 404Ink. She is also part of The Respite Room, an online collective dedicated to addressing mental health issues in a safe space. When Mel submitted three poems for our third issue, we knew we had to hear more.
Nasty Women: A commercially and critically important independent project collating voices from women all over the world. Together, they sum up what it means to be a woman in 2017. To say the book has been a success would be an understatement. I mean, Margaret Atwood read it. And loved it. And tweeted about it. Could you imagine? Margaret knew and we knew that this needed to be talked about; these experiences that seep into Mel’s poems like coffee spilling over a page, that have given her a voice on a worldwide level. An experience which impacts so many people in different ways around the world. It’s fucking important. Many of us are angry, we all should be. So let’s talk about it.
“I am a survivor of rape and emotional abuse, but I do not fit into the ‘right’ definition of someone who has been raped. I was drunk, I told him I loved him, I hid my tears, I told him it was okay afterwards, I didn’t call the police…Now that I am free from him and starting to understand my pain, I refuse to be hurt in a way that is easy to look at for the convenience of others.”
The opening sentences of Mel’s essay, “The Nastiness of Survival,” instantly sets her tone. She is a nasty woman, speaking out when we are told it is polite to shut up, using her voice to fight the normalization of sexual abuse as well as question how we as a society expect a survivor to be.
With abuse, for these purposes employed as an umbrella term to include everything from rape to emotional abuse, our society has created a well-structured narrative arc, in which we place our victims.
The victim is hurt, experiences a period of grieving and struggle, and emerges on the other side stronger for it. Some may even call it a ‘learning experience.’ One particular narrative is that of revenge. The victim is able to get pay back and right the wrongs of their past. This is something Mel discusses in her essay. When we ask if these revenge fantasies have disappeared, she laughs.
Mel: Not at all. It gets easier, but that can be quite a consuming thing because it feels like that should happen, that’s what the narrative is supposed to be in a lot of these stories – mostly fiction – where someone goes through something really hard and then by the end of it she gets her revenge, and it’s hard to accept that that might never happen.
Emma: Then I feel like the narrative can also be that she’s stronger and better than that and doesn’t care anymore, when really you’re allowed to be angry.
Niamh: There shouldn’t be a narrative at all, it should just be that everyone has had a different experience. You mentioned this in your essay and I think it’s important to bring up, that a lot of people have had these experiences but didn’t at first realise that what has happened to them was actually abuse.
Mel: Yeah, there was a time that I didn’t know and people find that really hard because it makes them question the legitimacy of what you’re saying. “I’d know if that happened to me, how could you not know?” But if you haven’t been in that situation, you don’t know.
That’s where the lasting trope of the “strong woman” makes its sweeping return, an idea which over time has crafted an uneasy and unwelcome bond with feminism. A strong feminist stands up for herself. A strong feminist knows how to say no.
Mel: The “just say no” education isn’t necessarily helpful, nor is having polite conversation about it. Consent education is good and useful, but I also think it suggests that it is an accident, just a misunderstanding. It’s not. It’s a malicious, conscious decision that people make and they do it because they want to do it, and it is a result of culture and society and that makes it easier, but it’s not an accident.
I saw some graffiti in a toilet yesterday and it said “Consent is sexy!” “Sex without consent sucks!” and I was like, has anyone got a pen? I need to make an amendment here. Sex without consent is rape.
Rape Culture comes to mind, a term internet anti-feminists love to mock. In making light of a serious issue, what nay-sayers are doing is minimizing a survivor’s experience. How ironic, then, that the same people to claim a rape culture doesn’t exist, or that saying no is easy, or that rapists don’t look like the people they know, are often quick to apologize after being called out and having their views questioned. One of our editors was once part of a large group chat where three men were complaining about a woman suggesting that the university's union impose a compulsory consent class during freshers week. They claimed it was insulting to assume that men didn’t understand consent. When she questioned their beliefs, however, they instantly changed their tune, backtracking and minimizing what they had said. Deep down inside, they know that their behaviour is wrong. It’s frighteningly easy for them to hide this truth from themselves.
Mel: I think a way to improve this sort of consent education is to make people aware, make them [rapists, abusers] aware that we know what you’re doing and this is what’s going to happen to you. There’s a quote saying it has to be as abhorrent to people as cannibalism. It has to be that deeply ingrained that this is wrong. I actually had a fight, a verbal fight, with someone who is friends with my abusive ex. He was saying, “Oh, you guys had kind of a rough breakup” and I said “No, that’s not what this is about. This is about someone who did something illegal.” As soon as I said that he was like “oh, shit.” Because they just don’t think about it like that.
Which leads us to how the Nasty Women essay began in the first place.
Mel: I think the essay came from the anger of when I told people in Glasgow and they were just like, "no, he didn’t do this," and when I moved here I lost quite a lot of friends, actually.
"It felt a bit like I was telling people off in the essay. I guess those conversations are difficult to have directly because people don’t want to hear about it, don’t want to know about it. That was the nice thing about the format, that I was able to yell above everyone else."
The commitment to silence and denial seen by both the greater public and those close to us is shocking. Scrolling through Twitter recently, you will have seen memes about R. Kelly’s sexual abuse scandal, read jokes directed towards the young female victims, and we’re sure you wouldn’t have to listen too closely to catch snippets of “Ignition” remixed in some club this weekend. In a recent Fader article, Aimee Cliff wrote something that struck us as very true:
“Watching these stories drift away over and over again sends out a message to women everywhere: our suffering is less important than the reputations and profit of powerful men. That’s the message sent by Sony’s complicit support of R. Kelly, and by Casey Affleck winning his Oscar, and by Johnny Depp being given a platform at Glastonbury festival this year. That’s what I feel when I read that Kesha is still fighting to be released from contractual obligations to her alleged rapist.”
And it doesn’t start and stop with powerful men only; time and time again we find victims are forced to explain themselves to the people meant to be their close friends, those you trust to stand by your side.
Mel: I think people immediately start rationalising it. “Oh, it was your boyfriend, that’s different,” or “I’ve met him! He’s fine.” That’s going back to what we can do, we need to instill this culture where if someone tells you what someone has done to them and you become aware of that, you listen and believe them and take action.
It’s difficult because there are some arguments for not just cutting these people out, but I really believe that what happened to me would not have happened to me or would have ended sooner if the people around that person had behaved differently, because I would have noticed that something was wrong. Afterwards they were all like “Aw yeah he’s rubbish, god his poor ex-girlfriends” and I just thought, nobody else is holding him to account except the people they aren’t listening to.
And when you do hold him to account, you become a crazy lying bitch. There’s this really powerful image of the crazy ex-girlfriend who’s just trying to screw you over.
"The person who is saying what happened gets forgotten, and I guess that’s part of what the issue was for me. I said these things happened and they’ve all gone “you’re a crazy bitch” and I’m still here and I’m still saying it, and my experiences carry on. I’m still dealing with this and I will be forever, because that’s how bad it is."
The trope of the psycho ex-girlfriend is dangerously prevalent within our society, where women are often portrayed as mystifying creatures, prone to possessing a whole spectrum of emotions (who knew?). Not forgetting the psychotic outbursts and (prepare yourself for this one, guys, because it’s a real shocker) - periods!! It is of course just one large conspiracy agreed upon by women to emotionally confuse men. This notion is only perpetuated by the media. A quick google search reveals “27 Guys Share The Most Insane ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ Stories You’ve Ever Heard.” which yes, of course includes the story of an ex-girlfriend who lied about being raped. Now, we aren’t saying that in this case that wasn’t true - no evidence is given either way. However, pages such as these only place the idea into people’s minds - if one ‘psycho ex-girlfriend’ lies about sexual abuse, it must be a common occurrence.
Mel: I think to know that you can have someone that’s not going to question anything is really important.
Whenever someone reaches out to Mel on Twitter, asking for help from a similar abusive situation, the first place she’ll point them to is such a place: Rape Crisis.
It’s an amazing supportive place to be, they have candles and tea and give you tissues when you cry and laugh when you make jokes about your horrible experiences. You can talk about all this very complicated stuff that comes out of trauma and you might be afraid to say to just a normal therapist or psychiatrist, because here’s someone who understands the very specific kind of trauma. I’m so grateful for that. I hope I win the lottery so I can give them a lot of money.
There isn’t a resolute end to trauma; it lives with you and manifests itself in different ways throughout different points of your life. Often it manifests through mental health struggles, another topic Mel is vocal about. Having a place where you can speak out and take in the experiences of others – learn, find solace or common ground – is important. That’s where The Respite Room comes in, a project Mel is part of with several other women, created by Halina Rifai with the aim to create a healthy and informative online space, something more relevant than ever with the internet and social media sometimes being triggers for mental health struggles, or at the least liable for providing faulty information.
Mel: I remember when I was younger reading things on Tumblr telling me “if you don’t like something, you don’t have to do it.” But I do actually have to pay my rent! I don’t like it, but I do have to pay it.
Anyone with teen years spent on Tumblr will remember questionable posts like this, or even outright vicious blogs such as ones promoting anorexia or glorifying self harm. An online resource with an empathetic, useful and positive angle on mental health rather than one that romanticizes it or gives problematic “advice” is a commodity the internet needs more of.
Mel: The first podcast [for The Respite Room] has been recorded. We spoke about and shared our experiences, and hopefully it will be a regular thing. At the moment we’re doing blog posts and inviting people to write about stuff, with lots of exciting stuff coming up. I think it’s important when writing about mental health not to just to talk about depression and anxiety, I think there’s still a lot to be said about those things, but I think there are also mental illnesses that are still more stigmatized than others, for example BPD. I think it’s important to talk about that as well.
"We’re not professionals, but we have our experiences we want to share, and I think the ultimate goal is to have physical meetings with people. I’m really keen at some point to hopefully do art classes which will be a nice space that’s very aware of things that are helpful if you have anxiety, making it clear that if you want to come by yourself people will talk to you, but not if you don’t want us to (laughs), making it a very comfortable and enjoyable space. And if you want to talk about your mental health out of that, then that’s a good thing as well."
If there is one idea that pushes its way to the forefront of our discussion with Mel it is this - that if and when a person is ready to talk, it is our responsibility to hear them. Our attitudes towards mental health, trauma, and abuse can help to educate and to promote understanding of ourselves and others. To feel understood during mentally difficult and often confusing times can make everything feel just that little more manageable. Our attitudes towards sexual abuse victims can change the way in which society as a whole treats the abuser. Knowing that there are serious consequences for rape and abuse, both legally and socially, may deter people from choosing to commit this crime in future, while also paving the way for better victim support. Whether it be through an online platform, a counselor’s office, or an after party at 4 am, the way in which we choose to respond makes all the difference.
Thank you, Mel, for being part of our voice.
Stay Nasty xo
ARTWORK by Hellen Millington www.helsmillington.com
Mel can be found on Twitter and Instagram @melreeve, and via her website PCDYT.tumblr.com
The Respite Room: https://www.therespiteroom.com
Fear of Making Art Press, a zine Mel contributes to: https://twitter.com/fomapress
For more information on sexual violence and where to get help, visit Rape Crisis.