Posted on April 14th, 2014
I read Bernard Porter’s review of Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East over the weekend with interest, because the book had been on my to-read list.
To say Middle Eastern history used to be a…hobby is wrong. Or at least not right. An interest, I guess, but I stopped reading much about it fifteen years ago. Imperialism is shameful, especially when it’s your country bombing wedding parties and your siblings being bombed in return. In any event, I’ve always been fascinated when East and West collide, whether it’s the First Crusade or the 1953 Iranian coup.
But, back to Lawrence. No one knows British Imperialism like Bernard Porter, and his review is worth your time. (Subscription required.)
One thing sticks out, however. T.E. Lawrence, whatever you may think about his role in opposing the Ottomans, was captured by the Turks in Syria in 1917, was tortured, and may have been raped.
One puzzle for the psycho-biographers is what happened in Deraa in south-western Syria in November 1917, when he was captured and tortured by the Turks. Part of that involved attempted rape. Was he in fact raped? Did he resist? Or did he submit willingly? He never made this clear. (Anderson suspects the last.) ‘Decent men don’t talk of such things,’ Lawrence wrote much later to his confidante, Charlotte Shaw (wife of GBS). Whatever the truth, it left him with a feeling of shame for ever after.
Well, no shit. That’s part of what rape does to a person.
Rape 101. Rape is when a person is forced to have sex because they do not wish to have sex or because they cannot consent to have sex. Inability to consent may mean the victim is unconscious, drunk, or drugged. It may mean the victim “wants” to have sex but is unable to consent because of age. (E.g., a 14 year old girl and a 35 year old man, at least in most states, or as I’ve heard a defendant claim, that four year old was “asking for it.” Yeah. Not making this up.) It may mean the victim is unable to consent because of the power differential.
Like, say, being imprisoned and tortured.
To say Lawrence “willingly submitted” to rape while imprisoned indicates neither Porter nor Anderson–provided the review accurately states his position–understands rape. Sure, maybe Lawrence liked men. Maybe he liked anal sex. It doesn’t matter. He was completely incapable of consenting to a sexual act when he was imprisoned.
Of course he felt shame. Every victim I ever worked with felt shame. Every victim, male and female, asked me, “What did I do to make this happen?” Why do you think most rapes are never reported? “No one would believe me.” “I didn’t want to tell my story to anyone else.” “I was…[drunk][high][flirting with him][went to his house] so I must have wanted it.”
(Because sometimes it’s easier to believe the lie that it was something you wanted to happen, than it is to believe you were so viciously violated.)
“Refreshingly,” Porter continues, “Anderson doesn’t dwell on this personal side.”
Decent men don’t talk of such things.
Maybe not. Maybe not then. Maybe not now, not always. But decent men and women should.