Rape culture

Polite Ire critiques rape culture, where the use of women as objects is normalised.

Rape culture is more than a society in which the physical act of rape is evident. Rape culture is a culture in which it is a societal norm for women to be objectified, for the fear of rape to be ever present, and where it is accepted that it is not possible to conceive of a society in which rape does not exist. For a more thorough descriptive list of what a rape culture entails, this blog serves as a good guide.

The expectation and acceptance of objectification, harassment, and thus also the potential for rape, is highlighted by a study in which a high percentage of women, working in male-dominated professions, reported experiencing sexual harassment. However, rather than blame the perpetrators, the victims questioned their own sensitivity, and attributed the behaviour to just ‘men being men’ (Fine 73-75). Binary expectations of gender thus contribute to a culture of victim blaming, where it is not the responsibility of men to behave with respect but of women to overcome a perceived weakness in how they respond. For women working in a male dominated workplace failure to accept such a culture could mean losing their own position, thus the choice is either to be a perpetually harassed victim, or an unemployed victim.

The everyday acceptance of such a culture would suggest that ‘the rapist’ is not an exotic and unusual individual, but someone whose behaviour mirrors the expectation of male domination within society. Indeed empirical research has failed to find the “typical” rapist, instead evidence suggests that an environment in which men are expected to prove their manliness, that is to prove their dominance over women, results in a society in which rape is more prevalent.

In our society, men demonstrate their competence as people by being “masculine”. (p.49)

The social requirement for males to perform masculine qualities is thus indicative of a socially constructed gender binary. Where human attributes are divided in two, where men suppress the “feminine” and women suppress the “masculine”, rape becomes “the logical outcome” (Herman 52). Therefore in order for rape culture to be overcome, it is necessary for our society to be transformed into one where both sexes are equally able to access the multifaceted and contradictory human qualities that have thus far been halved.

Much socio-biological research into rape has however concluded that rape is a biological rather than social behaviour. Yet this research has been criticised for basing its conclusions upon extrapolations made from studies upon animals. A study carried out by Thornhill et al concluded that rape had an evolutionary function, serving as a way in which men could reproduce should attempts of “co-operative bonding” or “manipulative courtship” fail. While the study recognised that there are more proximate causes of rape, e.g. the desire to dominate etc, the evolutionary instinct for reproduction is claimed to be the ultimate cause. As a consequence, the conclusion, such as it is, is shown to be utterly facile when met with any degree of contrary evidence, stubbornly repeating “evolution did it”, as examples of other causes, unrelated to reproduction, continue to present themselves (Fausto-Sterling 193).

By accepting a biological cause of rape these studies accept rape as an unchangeable part of our society, and has potentially dangerous consequences when considering how rape should be dealt with, both in terms of the potential punishment of the rapist and in regard to rape-prevention – the onus is upon potential victims to avoid rape, rather than upon the perpetrators to not commit it. The responsibility thus falls upon the victim, and examples of this will not be unfamiliar. Women are told how to avoid rape by changing their own behaviour, whether that means not going out alone or not drinking as much; they are told to avoid strangers, and to avoid strange places; they are told to leave extra lights on when home alone, to drive with the doors and windows locked. To avoid being raped a woman must live as if every man she meets is a potential rapist. The message is such that the behaviour of the rapist is effectively ignored. This culture of victim blaming is evident in the 2008-9 anti-rape campaign by South Wales Police, a campaign which included a poster aimed at women that stated “Don’t be a Victim”.

Not only does this poster, and indeed all of the advice described, place responsibility of rape onto the victim, it also ignores the crucial statistics that show clearly that the vast majority of rape is perpetrated by men known to the victim (often partners or husbands) and thus the “advice” is both irrelevant and in fact actively harmful, as it creates belief that rape could be avoided if only women were more careful.

The theory of a biological cause of rape is a convenient conclusion for those who do not wish to see social change. It is a theory that allows men to continue their domination over women and for patriarchal norms to remain unchallenged, as rape is considered an innate evolutionary behaviour. The evidence however is weak, and the counter-argument, that the socialisation of gender roles create norms of masculine dominance that are learned, is far more convincing. Thus rape culture can be challenged, but it must be done on the systemic level; if we truly want to see the end of rape patriarchy cannot be allowed to survive. Rape culture thrives in our society because of the entrenchment of binary gender roles. And it creates a paradoxical situation where men who are kind, considerate, and loving can state with the best of intentions that men should protect the women in their lives, an intention derived from the gender norms that allow men to be a threat. In the words of Mary Edwards Walker:

‘You are not our protectors… If you were who would there be to protect us from?”

Sources
Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender
Anne Fausto-Sterling, Myths of Gender
S. Rose, R.C. Lewontin & L.J. Kamin, Not in our Genes
Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race & Class
Diane Herman, The Rape Culture