Book Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape

After surviving gang-rape at seventeen in Mumbai, Sohaila Abdulali was indignant about the deafening silence that followed and wrote a fiery piece about the perception of rape — and rape victims — for a women’s magazine. Thirty years later, with no notice, her article reappeared and went viral in the wake of the 2012 fatal gang-rape in New Delhi, prompting her to write a New York Times op-ed about healing from rape that was widely circulated. Now, Abdulali has written What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape — a thoughtful, generous, unflinching look at rape and rape culture.

Drawing on her own experience, her work with hundreds of survivors as the head of a rape crisis center in Boston, and three decades of grappling with rape as a feminist intellectual and writer, Abdulali tackles some of our thorniest questions about rape, articulating the confounding way we account for who gets raped and why — and asking how we want to raise the next generation. In interviews with survivors from around the world we hear moving personal accounts of hard-earned strength, humor, and wisdom that collectively tell the larger story of what rape means and how healing can occur. Abdulali also points to the questions we don’t talk about: Is rape always a life-defining event? Is one rape worse than another? Is a world without rape possible?


author: Sohaila Abdulali
year of publication: 2018
page count: 224
genre: nonfiction, feminism, essays


This was such a powerful read. Obvious trigger warnings for rape and abuse, so if you’re sensitive to those triggers, be prepared to set this one aside if it gets too overwhelming.

For those of you who might have trouble reading nonfiction, as I did for so long, Abdulali’s writing is extremely accessible and easy to read. It is not dry in the slightest, thanks to her hopefulness and scattered bits of humor, though it can be difficult to read due to all of the personal accounts of rape and sexual abuse throughout. Abdulali is honest, and even blunt at times, which is exactly what is needed when talking about serious topics such as rape. However, these personal accounts, the things that make it so difficult to read, also make the book extremely relatable, since Abdulali includes interviews and conversations with men and women from around the world, instead of just focusing on her own story or those belonging to women in the United States. Through them, we see different types of violence, which prove that rape is not solely a random act committed by strangers.

This book isn’t just for those who have been sexually assaulted. It would be a great attempt at understanding by those of you who know (or even don’t know) someone who has been raped. You’ll learn some of the things they might be struggling with, and you’ll also learn how to respond when someone is open with you about their assault.

I found one section particularly interesting, which was about how to incorporate lessons about sexual violence into our conversations with children. I have always hated how sex education classes in primary and secondary school (at least around here) never include lessons about rape or other forms of abuse. When I have children in the future, I will definitely be incorporating these lessons. Talking about this subject should never feel embarrassing or taboo, and I hope that changes in the future.

I will say that if you are looking for a more historical or scientific book about rape, I would find something else. What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape feels more like a conversation with someone who has been through it, more like a memoir with other people’s stories thrown in the mix. However, if that’s what you’re looking for, I definitely recommend giving this book a try.

rating: ★★★★★
buy the book: amazon | book depository | books-a-million
Sohaila Abdulali: website | goodreads

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