If you’ve never heard the term ‘rape culture’ before, you might be forgiven for thinking it alludes to the kind of dystopian future found in a Margaret Atwood tale. Unfortunately, the truth is somewhat more frightening.
To refer to a ‘rape culture’ means to acknowledge a social system that has slowly normalised rape and sexual assault through the bombardment of images, language, laws and social attitudes. At best, it views such violations as an inevitable part of life and therefore considers all efforts to try and stop it futile. At worst, it’s a culture in which victim-blaming is not just present but common, and standard caveats are invoked to excuse perpetrators for being unable to help themselves. It’s one that has media personalities calling women ‘strays’ on national television or saying that you don’t go home with someone at 3am for a cup of milo. It’s a culture that sexualises rape in the movies and it’s also one in which elected representatives can apply qualifying descriptors to describe the kind of rape they feel more comfortable with acknowledging.
Some people (lots, in fact) hold that no such culture exists, preferring instead to clearly distinguish rape as something that only a small handful of ‘evil monsters’ do.
If this sounds like you, I have this to say: you are part of the problem.
There are literally hundreds of examples I could delve into to illustrate just how deeply ingrained rape culture is and the associated apologism that goes hand in hand. Instead, I want to cover just two: the expectation that women are failing in their responsibility to ‘protect’ themselves; and how combating rape starts with all men, even the ones horrified at the thought of such a crime.
1. Women, protect thyselves!
Meet Well Meaning Advice Person. More than anything, he just wants you to be safe. Because there are some evil monsters out there and they’re unscrupulous. Sure, it would be great if we all lived in an ideal world but alas, we don’t. The responsibility therefore falls to you to take the necessary precautions. If you don’t…well, no one’s saying you deserved it, but you WILL be used as a cautionary tale for other women foolish enough to walk around the streets as if they have a right to be there.
There are two things manifestly wrong with this. The first is that the majority of sexual violence occurs in the home, perpetrated by people known to the victim. Very few instances of sexual violence follow the Law and Order: SVU model. So short of eschewing the nuclear model entirely, how exactly are women expected to protect themselves from the inevitable statistics of their own lives?
But the thing that really grinds my gears about hand wringing ding-dongs urging women to PLEASE take more care because WHEN WILL YOU LEARN that the world is DANGEROUS and you have to stop being so STUPID is that, in waffling on about reality versus idealism, it doesn’t even take into account the reality of how life is for women everyday.
Rejecting the concern troll model a few weeks ago, I asked women on Twitter to share with me their ‘precautionary tales’. I wanted to demonstrate that the last thing women need is to be told by sanctimonious men (and some women) that they need to protect themselves because it’s a reality that they live every day.
Women shared stories of using keys as preemptive knuckle dusters (a popular favourite), walking in the middle of the street rather than the pavements, texting Driver IDs from taxis to their friends, hunching over in hoodies to look more like men…the strategies poured in, one after the other. And perhaps not so surprisingly, men following the conversation expressed astonishment at the level of conscientious planning it takes for women just to leave the house.
But this is what the world looks like to women. It looks like a series of potential assaults and split second decisions that could mean the difference between getting home safely and not. Women don’t need to be told these things - they understand them to be a) the reality of a culture that not only refuses to do anything tangible to combat sexual assault but b) also assumes women are just really, really stupid while c) siphoning all responsibility away from the people actually in a position to make a difference.
Which leads me to:
2. Men, check thyselves!
There seems to be a popular misconception that, due to the aforementioned rape culture, assault is an inevitable if unfortunate part of life. Nothing can really be done to stop it other than creating a super race of human women with Barbie vagines and a debilitating allergy to the night.
Very rarely do anti-rape campaigns focus on teaching people to, you know, not rape. Instead, we hear about these abstract monsters who are somehow not like the rest of us but that are dangerous enough that all women need to be on guard from them at all times, everywhere. All of those men who would never dream of raping women are allowed to carry on as usual, safe in the assumption that because they aren’t part of the problem, they can’t possibly be expected to be part of the solution.
Let me introduce you to Schrodinger’s Rapist. Schrodinger’s Rapist posits that the only option in a culture which tells women they must protect themselves from rape from strangers is for women to treat every stranger as a potential rapist. The onus therefore falls on men - particularly those who insist that they pose no threat to women - to behave in a way that, you know, poses no threat to women. This includes not approaching them at random, feeling entitled to a portion of their time and attention. It means not sitting next to them on public transport and ignoring their discomfort. It means not calling them bitches because they won’t talk to you.
It means not assuming that women have a responsibility to protect themselves from everyone else, except you. Because you’re a Good Guy.
This is one of the key ways men can be part of the solution, rather than perpetuating the idea that it’s everyone else’s (women’s) problem to solve. Because it’s not just assault that we women have to contend with - it’s also the infiltration of our space. It’s being unsurprised when car loads of men drive past to yell sexual insults out the window or call us fat. It’s having men sit down, uninvited, and expect to be indulged or entertained and call us ugly lesbians if we don’t let them. It’s having men grab you in pubs and tell you to lighten up when you get angry with them. It’s the assumption that women’s space is publicly owned, and any attempts to try and assert otherwise is just the actions of ball-breaking bitches who can’t take a compliment or a joke.
Let me be clear about one thing - the most relentless kind of assault and harassment women experience every day is non-criminal. It’s the kind of harassment that police officers will refuse to even record because they consider it a waste of police time. It’s the kind of harassment that chips away at women’s ideas of what’s okay and what’s not, to the point where they leave the house armed to protect themselves while simultaneously questioning whether or not they’re overreacting or being hysterical or being indirectly insulting to a man who’s just trying to be nice.
This is also rape culture: the kind of society that tells women they need to protect themselves from assault, but they have to make sure they don’t hurt men’s precious fee-fees in the process.
If more men would commit to understanding what it’s like to be Walking While Woman, we’d be able to actually clear the debris of harmless noise and make it a lot easier to identify these so-called ‘evil monsters’ that women need to ‘protect’ themselves from. If you’d stop yelling at women from cars, or invading their space, or trying to make them talk to you when they don’t want to - in short, if you’d commit to seeing them as autonomous beings who do not have a responsibility to make you feel good about yourselves - we’d actually be so much closer to creating a society where real danger became a lot easier to spot.
And if it’s easier to spot, it stands to reason that it’s easier to avoid.