Friday, January 04, 2013

E.J. Graff on Rape Culture

Content note:  Sexual violence.

E. J. has written an interesting piece on the connection between purity and rape, in terms of cultural beliefs.  She quotes one article about the culture in India:

I’ve now read a number of commentaries exposing India’s, particularly New Delhi’s, culture of street violence against women. The most memorable, by Sonia Faleiro in The New York Times, talks about the fear that was instilled in her during her 24 years living in Delhi:
As a teenager, I learned to protect myself. I never stood alone if I could help it, and I walked quickly, crossing my arms over my chest, refusing to make eye contact or smile. I cleaved through crowds shoulder-first, and avoided leaving the house after dark except in a private car. …
Things didn’t change when I became an adult. Pepper spray wasn’t available, and my friends, all of them middle- or upper-middle-class like me, carried safety pins or other makeshift weapons to and from their universities and jobs. One carried a knife, and insisted I do the same. I refused; some days I was so full of anger I would have used it — or, worse, had it used on me.
The steady thrum of whistles, catcalls, hisses, sexual innuendos and open threats continued. Packs of men dawdled on the street ... To make their demands clear, they would thrust their pelvises at female passers-by.
Such endemic street harassment is not about sex; it’s about threatening women for daring to leave the private sphere. It’s a form of control over women’s ambitions and lives. And when such a culture is widespread, it gives men permission to use women as the target for any excess anger they might have.

She then discusses the Steubenville rape case (which I have followed since August, without writing about it here):

Or consider the recent rape in Steubenville, Ohio, allegedly by members of the football team, which was reported on in excellent detail by the Times—primarily because of the shocking way it was was celebrated via social media. Here's how Prospect contributor Amanda Marcotte summarized the case at Slate:
The alleged crime: Witnesses, some also on the football team, testified at a probable cause hearing that Mays and Richmond spent most of the night of Aug. 11 standing over, directing, transporting, and otherwise controlling the blacked-out drunk victim, who they carried to three separate parties. According to the New York Times, witnesses claim that Mays and Richmond tried to coerce the victim into oral sex, exposed her naked body as a joke to other partygoers, penetrated her digitally, and exposed themselves to her. Other Steubenville students on Twitter and YouTube say they witnessed even worse violations, including urinating on the victim and anal rape, though these are not official statements. (And sadly, these students were more delighted than upset by what they allegedly saw.) While it appears that multiple students taped and photographed the alleged assault, officials claim they haven't been able to turn up much in the way of evidence, because the evidence has been deleted.
Football players like these two can almost always find young women who will have sex with them willingly. Taking a drunk and helpless girl and urinating on her, humiliating her, fingering her publicly, violating several orifices—that’s about rage and power, not sexual pleasure. That's sexual assault and enforcement of the rape culture's idea that a woman's job is to protect her purity.

And she points out the connections between purity and rapeability (for the lack of a better word):  Either women are pure which they can prove by staying at home, by covering up, by not going out at night or whatever the rules of a particular culture might be, and then they shouldn't be raped, OR women are not pure in which case they are free game and in a very real sense cannot be raped at all because they are assumed to be available and therefore ultimately willing.

I agree with that.  I'm currently doing a lot of thinking and reading about the concept of a "rape culture" and what it might mean or not mean, and I hope to write on all that in the near future.  The division of women into good and bad is an essential part of such a culture.

But the Steubenville rape case and the American culture are not the same as the Delhi rape case and the Indian culture.  The amount of street harassment women face varies by country and how common victim-blaming is in the case of rape also varies by country.  The consequences of rape vary.  In some places a raped woman is urged to marry her rapist, for example.  If she does not, she might never be able to marry.

An article in the Guardian criticizes the Western treatments of the Delhi gang rape as implying that rape is unheard in England or America, for instance, and it has a point*.  At the same time, we are not going to get very far if we argue that the situation is identical all across the world or that different cultures wouldn't differ in how they define women's rapeability.

It is those very differences which give me hope.  Should the situation be exactly the same all over the world I might start believing that rape is something we can never tackle, never make rare.  That different countries show differences is a good thing and therefore shouldn't be ignored in the discussions.

*A partial one, because the rape statistics are not directly comparable.  We need to know what percentage of women in each country go to the police in the first place, out of the total number of women who have been raped.  It's likely that this percentage is higher in the UK than in India, given what I've read about the silence concerning these matters in the latter country.