February 2, 2018, 10:16 pm.

For me, the problem with A Clockwork Orange is not that its protagonist is a rapist.

The problem is that the book tempts the reader to forget that he's a rapist.

In the first act of A Clockwork Orange, the anti-hero Alex rapes several women — some no older than ten. After occurring, these events are never dealt with again; the narrative charges on, undeterred.

Thereafter, Alex only mentions sexual assault when he is criticizing other men for doing it. By looking down on these men, he separates himself from the role of an assailant — and thus, his own crimes become weightless. He doesn't feel connected to the crimes he has perpetrated. Thus, by chastising other men for sexual violence, he distances himself from his own sexual crimes. And the fact that he does not carry his crimes with him invites the reader to do the same.


When reflecting on the actions of others, Alex holds sexual assault in disdain. As he wanders down his street one night, he notices a pair of girls' underwear "doubtless rudely wrenched off in the heat of the moment." He acknowledges that ripping off a girl's underwear is rude — but he himself has done exactly this. By admonishing this action, he turns sexual assault into something that other men do, not something associated with him. Alex doesn't walk through the world identifying as a rapist; he feels entitled to reprimand other men.

And because we hear his story alone, we subconsciously let him off the hook in the same way. He does not feel any connection to his sexual crimes, and slowly, this connection ceases to weigh on our minds as well.

By dissociating from other rapists, Alex frees himself from the memory of his crimes — and this prompts us to do the same.

Fundamentally, Alex views himself as different from the other sexual assaulters he knows. When talking about his cellmate Jojohn, Alex says, "Although he like specialized in Sexual Assault he had a nice way of [talking]." He's surprised that Jojohn is a smooth talker, which implies that Alex assumes sexual assaulters to be crude. He subtly chooses not to identify himself as a rapist — if he did, he wouldn't marvel at a rapist being so eloquent. Instead, he chooses to create an arbitrary distinction between Jojohn and himself, classifying Jojohn as dirty for sexual violence while letting himself off the hook.

Alex paints for us a world full of perverts, yet conveniently chooses not to include himself. And since his worldview is the only one we are exposed to, we naturally construct his society in the same way, placing him slightly above all the other sex offenders.


By dissociating from other rapists, Alex frees himself from the memory of his crimes — and this prompts us to do the same. The sexual violence he has committed is not something that he narratively carries with him at all times, and so it slips away from our consciousness. When people talk about A Clockwork Orange, their conversations roam freely from topic to topic, unrestricted by the plight of Alex's victims.

And I understand the reasoning behind this exercise; I understand the argument that it's important to confront the limitations of our empathy.

But I don't think Alex actually tests the limits of our empathy.

I think we've already been trained to dismiss rape.

This exercise in overlooking sexual violence is not new to us, because we pardon the actions of rapists every day. The narrative of the annoying feminist who complains about rape has been drummed into our heads, as has the narrative of the poor football player whose career was ruined by that one silly rape scandal. And I think this is perfectly evidenced by the characters we can relate to. When my male friends read Pride and Prejudice, few of them can empathize with Elizabeth — yet almost everyone who reads A Clockwork Orange can empathize with Alex at one point or another. We would sooner identify with a rapist than with a woman.

From this perspective, Alex's character doesn't truly challenge us. Rather, he's yet another example of a man whose crimes we willingly forget. I believe that when we talk about A Clockwork Orange, we must continually hold Alex accountable for his actions. We must not allow the Alexes of the world — fictional and otherwise — to walk away from the damage they deal.