The excuses society makes for rape

The caption from Getty Images where this picture was purchased reads: "A jubilant American sailor clutching a white-uniformed nurse in a back-bending, passionate kiss as he vents his joy while thousands jam Times Square to celebrate the long awaited-victory over Japan. " (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/Pix Inc./Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

The caption from Getty Images where this picture was purchased reads: "A jubilant American sailor clutching a white-uniformed nurse in a back-bending, passionate kiss as he vents his joy while thousands jam Times Square to celebrate the long awaited-victory over Japan. " (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/Pix Inc./Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images) Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt

Rape culture. Is there any feminist topic more guaranteed to provoke an indignant reaction? One recent commenter on this site, Jb88, summed up the views of many with a curt, ‘Our society as a whole vehemently rejects rape and that is why, after murder, rape is considered the most heinous of crimes and can carry jail sentences comparable to murder or manslaughter.’ 

Jb88 has completely misunderstood the concept. Rape culture is not a culture in which every man is a rapist or every citizen runs around exclaiming how wonderful rape is. It is a society that pays lip service to the ‘heinous’ nature of rape even as it fosters an environment in which sexual assault flourishes by excusing certain types of sexual violence, laying at least partial responsibility on the victims, and downplaying the prevalence of rape.

The attempts of feminists to discuss this contradiction are frustrated because of this widespread refusal to acknowledge it.  Another commenter on this site, purporting to be one Tyler Durden, had this to say:‘Please stop using the term 'rape culture'. It's not actually a thing.’ Durden’s moniker could not be more apt because, as many feminists would recognise, the first rule of rape culture is ‘don’t talk about rape culture.’

As long as we don’t talk about it, it’s easy to pretend it doesn’t exist. Take the photograph above.

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Most of us know this iconic image. A moment in time capturing both the elation felt at the end of WW2, and the heady romance of Young Love.

Except that nurse and that sailor were never in love. In fact, they were complete strangers. This year they were finally identified as George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer-Friedman. This is how Greta describes this ‘romantic’ kiss: ‘It wasn't my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed!’

Last month feminist blogger ‘Leopard’ earned herself a place in the hall of fame of Feminists Who Ruin Everything when she suggested that, by our standards today, the Kissing Sailor actually constitutes a sexual assault. Naturally, her assessment was met with outrage that she could turn something so romantic into something sinister.

Yes, this is rape culture but not because of the act itself. Mendonsa, who saw a girl on the street and felt entitled to grab and kiss her without asking, behaved in way that was more or less acceptable at the time (the grinning woman in the background was his date and later became his wife). No one is suggesting he be retroactively arrested a la David Hicks.

No, as Leopard pointed out what makes this an example of rape culture is the refusal to discuss what is actually happening in the photograph. Even in this more enlightened age when we ostensibly agree that a woman should be in charge of her own body, not only was Leopard vilified for her contrary view, but no major media outlet took seriously the suggestion that the photograph was anything other than wistfully romantic. They did this even as they acknowledged that both the nurse and sailor publically admitted that he kissed her without consent.

It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed!

It’s easier to deny sexual assault than admit we live in a society that often treats women’s bodies as public property. Getting angry at feminists for pointing out sexual assault is akin to getting angry at people who point out racism. As if calling someone a ‘racist’ is worse than actually being a racist. Rather than confront the widespread existence of rape, we do the exact opposite, we pretend ‘real’ rape, like ‘real’ racism is a rare thing.

The University of Miami recently found itself subject to unwanted publicity after a flier entitled ‘Top Ten Ways To Get Away With Rape’ was discovered making its way around campus.  The ‘funny’ manual included such side splitting instructions to would-be rapists as climb through windows, slip drugs into women’s drinks, and prey on women walking alone at night.

Such displays from college age young men seem to be par for the course these days. This latest incident follows in the footsteps of the Sydney Uni pro-rape Facebook Page (which described itself as ‘anti-consent’ and challenged us to ‘Define Statutory’), and the Yale incident (more on that later).

What did Miami University do when faced with proof of this leaflet’s circulation? What society does best, they pretended it was an aberration. Clearly in damage control mode, a spokesperson claimed 'All of our evidence shows it was confined strictly to McBride Hall.’ In other words, ‘Nothing to see here folks, move right along.’ No mention that at least 27 sexual assaults have been reported at Miami University since 2009.

First rule of rape culture: don’t talk about rape culture.

A similar situation erupted at Yale last year after a bunch of frat boys thought shouting ‘No mean yes! Yes means anal!’ during an initiation would be a swell idea. That led female students to launch a complaint about how sexual assault claims were handled on campus, which in turn prompted a student by the name of Julia Fisher to pen an editorial demanding feminists just shut up because ‘There is no rape culture at Yale.’

First rule of rape culture: don’t talk about rape culture.

For how much longer can we continue pretending rape is an aberration when all evidence suggests the contrary? In her book Body Wars, Margot Maine cites some frightening but not surprising statistics.

•30% of surveyed US college men said they would rape if they could get away with it.

•58% said they would rape if the term was changed from ‘rape’ to ‘force a woman to have sex’.

•83% claimed ‘some women just look like they are asking to be raped.’

When surveys continue to reveal that people think rape victims often bear some of the responsibility for their assault, that’s rape culture. When judges tell victims they wouldn’t have been raped if they’d just stayed at home, that’s rape culture. When journalists emphasise the sexual history and clothing choices of victims, that’s rape culture. And when police officers suggest that women should dress a certain way to ‘stay safe’, that’s rape culture.

It doesn’t matter how much society says it hates rape. It matters what it does to stop it, and at the moment, we are not doing nearly enough.

12 comments

  • Thanks for the great article Ruby. Very enlightening. And scary.

    Commenter
    Miffy
    Date and time
    December 07, 2012, 10:02AM
    • I'm so glad someone is talking sense. Saying rape culture doesn't exist is like saying feminism is obsolete, and equally as damaging to society. Good on you Ruby!

      Commenter
      Kitty
      Location
      melbourne
      Date and time
      December 07, 2012, 10:51AM
      • According to the survey quoted, 21% of women and 18% of men thought that women bore partial responsibility for being raped. For rape victims walking alone at night 12% of women and 8% of men thought women should bear some responsibility. Ignoring the fact that it is at most about 20% of people in total who think that a woman should bear some responsibility, it seems that it is more likely to be women rather than men who blame the victim which seems rather curious.

        Commenter
        Hurrow
        Date and time
        December 07, 2012, 10:58AM
        • I suspect that has something to do with women needing to find a reason it won't happen to them. If you can convince yourself that something the victim did caused or increased the chances of rape happening, then you can make yourself feel safer by saying "I won't walk around late at night in a short skirt, and this will never happen to me."

          Commenter
          sewingbones
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          December 07, 2012, 11:34AM
        • @Hurrow- but, you see, that is the entire point of the article! It should be 0% of people who think it is the victim's fault for walking alone at night. It is not.

          It doesn't matter how many women or men think it's the victim's fault. It matters that anyone thinks it. When society can start blaming the perpetrator and not the victim, rape culture will no longer be the buzzword, it'll be that distant time in history that people thought something horrible and inhumane was OK (ref: slavery, the crusades and Adam Sandler movies).

          Commenter
          At Work
          Date and time
          December 07, 2012, 1:04PM
        • Absolutely sewingbones. I think that the idea of finding a reason it wouldn’t be you/someone you love is at the heart of victim blaming. It also forms the basis for the well intentioned cautionary tales – which are usually told with the assumption that no one in earshot has experienced sexual violence.

          Commenter
          Vic
          Location
          Richmond
          Date and time
          December 07, 2012, 1:15PM
        • @sewingbones - that's possible for the walking along at night question I suppose although it wouldn't really explain why a higher percentage of both men and women thought that a women should bear some responsibility for a woman being raped.

          It would also be useful to have more facts in the discussion. From reading Daily Life comments it seems that most rapes are actually at home by people known to the victim, family member, friends etc and that very few are actually random attacks by strangers, in which case the argument about where women walk alone at night and whether they are wearing skimpy clothing would be even more irrelevant than it already is.

          Commenter
          Hurrow
          Date and time
          December 07, 2012, 2:31PM
        • @At Work - I'm sorry but I see it as unrealistic to think we're ever going to get to 100% acceptance on this, simply because it's almost impossible to get to 100% of people to agree on anything. The fact that less people think that a woman walking alone at night is partly responsible is a lot better (in a relative sense) than the fact that almost double the number of people think that women should bear some of the blame for being attacked.

          Commenter
          Hurrow
          Date and time
          December 07, 2012, 2:59PM
        • @Hurrow

          I do think it's applicable to both statistics you quoted, particularly with respect to why women hold that view. If you can believe that the victim is in some way responsible for her rape, then it's easier to believe it won't happen to you.

          You're absolutely correct that most rapes (and violent crime against women) are perpetrated by people close to the victim, but we're raised with the idea of 'stranger danger' and it's also very hard for a lot of people to believe that someone close to them could hurt them.

          Commenter
          sewingbones
          Date and time
          December 07, 2012, 3:33PM
      • I have a bit of a question around rape culture that popped into my head after reading this article.

        Now, I understand that a part of rape culture means saying things like "She shouldn't be dressed like that" is a statement in victim blaming - one's outfit can not and should not be taken as an invitation to sex. But it seems assumptions about one's desire for sex is made regardless of gender. Guys are assumed to be "on the prowl" all the time.

        So is the underlying problem that we should not make an assumption about someone's desire for sex, or is it more about addressing the acceptable responses to perceived invitations? In other words, is it okay to make the assumption that a young woman is out looking for sex, so long as you actually acknowledge and respect the fact that actually having sex is completely something she must clearly consent to, or is it just plain bad to be making such assumptions both about men and women?

        Because I think a lot of the conversations about exploitation/objectification of women don't naturally make this distinction. My impression has generally been the message is more "You should be ashamed of ogling".. Is it about what you see, or is it more about the different behaviours that are encouraged?

        Commenter
        Lucid Fugue
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        December 07, 2012, 12:14PM

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