Peter Houlihan breaks down the defining assumptions of rape culture, its gendered state, and asks that blame not be placed on all men.
I was asked to write this article after I wrote an, unfortunately angry, point-by-point response to this piece by Soraya Chemaly. When I wrote my response I felt somewhat hurt by what I perceived as her, probably unintended, marginalization of male victims of assault.
I highly prize calm and reasoned discussion of gender and I’d like to take advantage of this space to explore some arguments and constructs commonly associated with rape culture theory that seem to me to be problematic and in some cases contradictory. Some of them are mentioned in the above article; others are drawn from elsewhere. I don’t wish to represent them as the specific views of Ms. Chemaly, or any other commentator, but they are ideas I have seen used on several occasions to support the concept of rape culture.
I also don’t wish to present myself as an expert on the subject, but my objections are sincere and I believe that they are both relevant and logically sound. I understand that many definitions of rape culture exist, but for the purposes of this piece I’d like to present the following definition from wikipedia.
Wikipedia: “Rape culture is a term which originated in women’s studies and feminist theory, describing a culture in which rape and sexual violence against women are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media condone, normalise, excuse, or tolerate sexual violence against women. Examples of behaviors commonly associated with rape culture include victim blaming, sexual objectification and rape apologism.”
Rape is something that happens only to women: Unfortunately this, and any discussion concerning rape, is something of a semantic argument. In many jurisdictions, rape is legally defined in such a way that nothing done to a man can ever be considered rape, regardless of whether the same act, performed on a woman, must be.
Even in legal systems which recognize the rape of men, the definition often focuses on the penetration of the victim, meaning that PIV sex, and other common sex acts that don’t involve penetration, cannot be considered rape when performed on an unconsenting male. The presence of an erection is also used as evidence of consent, even in cases of diminished responsibility and mental disability.
Interfering with a woman’s right to control her reproduction (such as falsely claiming to use a condom) is also often regarded as rape, but despite that this form of assault is also perpetrated against men, I know of no legal system which attributes such violations against men with similar gravity. Many gender theorists also define rape, and even sexual violence in general as specifically something men do to women.
Regardless of what we call it, and whether we wish to make hierarchical distinctions between different groups of sexual assault victims, sexual violence can and does happen to men and boys.
Rape is something perpetrated only by men: Again, this is a somewhat semantic argument. Where rape is legally defined as something that can only happen to a woman or girl, or something that can only be committed by a man, the statistics will uniformly show that only women are victims and men are perpetrators. Added to this are cultural and ideological biases within which men are not permitted to be recognized as victims, particularly of sexual violence, and women are uniformly constructed as non-agressive, non-sexual people. Given these two tendencies, the dismissal of male victims, and the existence of female perpetrators, by courts of law, policing forces, researchers in the field of sexual violence, and society in general is inevitable.
Women are raped more than men, men rape more than women: Given the above issues, with the recognition of male victims and female perpetrators, we simply cannot know how sexual violence breaks down by gender. But I’d go a step further: it’s not relevant. If we are willing to accept that women can victimize and men can be victims, then solutions focused on gender difference are clearly missing the point. I sometimes question the motivation of gender commentators who can’t seem to mention rape without emphasizing the gender gap in current statistics. It almost seems as if they are attempting to establish a moral high and low ground for each gender respectively based on crimes performed by individuals against individuals. Even if men rape more than women, it is still a human issue, and divisive tactics aimed at blaming an entire group of innocent humans are highly counterproductive.
Masculinity, and all men, are fundamentally rapacious: At this point I would like to quote an article from The Guardian:
What Facebook and others who defend this pernicious hate speech don’t seem to get is that rapists don’t rape because they’re somehow evil or perverted or in any way particularly different from the average man in the street: rapists rape because they can. Rapists rape because they know the odds are stacked in their favour, because they know the chances are they’ll get away with it.
Commentary like this is very hard to ignore, or accept, especially since I am a member of the group she is talking about. If a commentator were to focus on statistics claiming that black people commit more violent crime in the US than any other group and subsequently use these facts to imply that all black people and black culture were fundamentally violent and criminal by nature, their commentary would be quite correctly labelled as a hate speech.
Even if we ignore female perpetrators of sexual violence, rape is only committed by a minority of men. Those men often themselves have a history of abuse and other psychological problems. I by no means wish to imply that all victims of abuse become abusers, but if we examine the psychology of perpetrators of sexual crime it quickly becomes clear that they are usually very different from the average man in the street. It is also quite clear that the opportunity to commit rape does not turn an ordinary man into a rapist, if it did then rape would occur without exception every time a man and woman were alone together.
All rape jokes directly contribute to rape and misogyny: Personally I am highly critical of the Facebook pages mentioned above. In the context of Facebook, with widespread anonymity in a somewhat serious atmosphere, it’s not unreasonable to assume that some people who clicked “like” may have been doing so out of genuine feelings of misogyny. This said, I do know at least one rape victim who “liked” them, so I think we can also assume that many users took them as they were probably intended: as jokes.
What makes those jokes unacceptable, at least to me, is that they have the potential to be taken seriously. They’re also being broadcast in a manner by which they have a definite chance of reaching a victim of rape. While Facebook isn’t intended as a safe space, it still seems unreasonable to me that victims of rape should fear all public spaces on the basis that they may be reminded of their ordeal.
I don’t agree, however, that these conditions are true of all spaces. When intimate friends joke in private, they do so in the knowledge that those present don’t intend offense and don’t hold opinions, which imply that their jokes are serious. Assumptions can be made about a friend making a racist joke in private that cannot be made about a stranger making the same joke in a public bar. Equally, some public spaces, such as a stand-up comedy club, specifically allow a suspension of offense (in much the same manner that cinema allows a suspension of disbelief) and require a suspension of suspicion regarding the motives of the comic.
People likely to be sensitive to jokes on a particular subject are also empowered to decide whether or not they are exposed to them by such humour being confined to private or “humor safe” spaces while equally allowing other people to explore such humor in freedom. I also find the tendency of some gender commentators to put jokes about rape in a separate category to jokes about other offensive topics such as racism. If we were to adopt a zero-tolerance policy to any humor found by any group or individual to be offensive, we would quickly find that all humor would be off limits, except perhaps for jokes involving ducks crossing roads.
Personal safety advice puts the onus on victims to prevent rape: While victim blaming does exist, and is by no means confined to sexual assault, it should not be confused with genuine concern for the safety of others and the dissemination of information empowering people to make safe decisions.
Only one group of people is responsible for rape: rapists. This said, we live in an imperfect world and we can all take measures to protect ourselves from violent crime. There are many streets in Dublin that I would be unwise to walk down after dark. While I absolutely assert my right to do so, it would be foolish of me to exercise that right absolutely. If I were assaulted while passing through such a space (and I have been) only one person would be responsible for my assault: my attackers. But I was nonetheless responsible to myself for putting myself in an unsafe situation which I could have avoided.
Rape, and other crimes, cannot be completely prevented by playing it safe, but we can take measures to reduce the chances of it happening to us. The distribution of information allowing people to make their lives safer shouldn’t be opposed on the basis that it somehow blames victims.
Rape is incomparable to other forms of assault or sexual assault: All violent crimes are individual, and the experiences of their victims are individual. Some victims of rape are left incapable of functioning normally and endure psychological scars which darken the rest of their lives. Other victims are able to more effectively deal with their trauma and move on to live full and happy lives. This doesn’t imply any culpability of victims who can’t do this. Every human being is individual and has different strengths and weaknesses, it follows that every victim of sexual assault will react in a variety of different ways.
While accepting this, it is also reasonable to note that certain symptoms and illnesses, such as PTSD and depression, are often observed across rape victims. Just as they are often observed in victims of other forms of sexual assault, non-sexual assault, and exposure to extreme violence.
The reason that it is important to establish this is to break an unfortunate tendency on the part of some gender commentators to enshrine rape as the ultimate crime and rape victims as the ultimate victims. This is especially problematic when rape is not a closely defined term and is, sometimes, strictly defined to the point where very few victims are considered victims at all and other times expanded to the point where women who have been forced to have sex at knifepoint are directly compared to women who chose to have sex while drunk with an equally drunk partner.
The impact of violent crime cannot be scientifically measured or neatly sorted into categories. What emotionally cripples one person for life is easily shrugged off by the next. While it is often necessary for legal systems to categorize crimes in terms of their characteristics and assign gravity accordingly to ensure fairness, I propose that outside of the courts it would be more compassionate to accept each victim as an individual and avoid comparing, elevating, debasing or otherwise ranking their victimhood in terms of other peoples experiences.
Believe the victim: This stance has huge and obvious problems. We do not live in a world where truth and falsehood can always be absolutely determined. On this basis, our legal systems, in principle, allow the benefit of the doubt to fall to the accused of any particular crime. This gives rise to such constructs as innocence until guilt is proven and reasonable doubt. Unfortunately some people have and do lie about their victimhood and falsely accuse innocent people of crimes they have not committed.
The call to believe the victim is a perfectly reasonable one, except that prior to any given trial, and sometimes even after it, we are completely unaware as to whether the victim is the accused or the accuser of rape. This uncertainty also means that the examination of the motives and actions of the accuser is appropriate within the context of establishing whether reasonable doubt exists as to whether the rape actually occurred. This should not be interpreted as victim blaming, any more than cross examination of the accused should be, as there is every possibility that the accuser is not the victim.
Unfortunately, the policy of believing the victim is enshrined in some laws such as the rape shield laws that have in the past prevented innocent men from introducing relevant evidence. In some cases this evidence subsequently proved that they were, in fact, the victim when their case was appealed. Similarly, laws protecting the accuser, but not the accused, from public scrutiny unfairly assume the victimhood of the accuser over that of the accused.
Rape is condoned by gendered cultures: It is commonly claimed that gendered culture condones and accepts rape as part of the natural order. If this were so, it is difficult to imagine why accused rapists are so avariciously pursued by law enforcement authorities, condemned in the media, and their guilt often assumed prior to their trial.
Victims of false accusations of rape, and even their family members, are subject to intense media scrutiny, threats of assault and arson, expulsion from their educational institutions, actual assault or even rape itself.
Ask any man who has been falsely accused of rape whether society condones rape, and you will very quickly find how shallow the truth of this idea really is.
Only men can prevent rape: This is hugely problematic. From the point of view of someone who attributes all rape to all men and is fighting what they perceive as a tendency on the part of society to place to responsibility of rape prevention on women, all of whom are victims, this is perfectly reasonable. If, however, you accept that at least some of the people coming forward and reporting sexual victimisation at the hands of women are telling the truth (and some of these people are very close friends of mine) then you would have to accept that the responsibility for rape falls at least as heavily on women.
In reality, the only people who can absolutely prevent any crime are the criminals who perpetrate it. In the case of crimes such as rape, which are often the product of a twisted and warped psychology, a call to reason is ineffective to the point of comedy. We don’t produce posters calling on violent offenders not to commit assault, if a person is of such a disposition that they intend to do so the call will be ignored, if they aren’t inclined to do so then they won’t. Equally, calls for men not to rape won’t reach the ears of actual rapists, male or female. They can however reach the ears of innocent men and falsely imply that all men are potential rapists.
A far more realistic approach is to equip people with as much information as possible as to how situations in which might render them vulnerable to violent crime can be avoided, and for the police to do their job. These measures won’t end rape, but they’ll do a lot more than placing the blame on all men.