Indian activists from the Social Unity Center of India (SUCI) protest against violence against women in June 2014. Photo: DIBYANGSHU SARKAR
If we are to overcome rape culture we need to understand how and why it flourishes. The first step is to acknowledge that no matter where rape occurs, it is the outcome of the widespread notion that women’s bodies exist not their own sake, but for the benefit (and use) of men.
India has again become a focal point for horrified but salacious discussions of sexual assault following reports that a village elder ordered a ten-year-old girl be raped as a punishment for her father. The father’s crime was allegedly beating an intruder who had broken into the family’s home with the intention of sexually assaulting the girl’s mother.
And, even as I write this, news is emerging that the rape of another 13-year-old Indian girl was proscribed by a village council as retaliation for her brother’s crime. He was accused of sexual assault.
These two cases spell it out loud and clear that women’s bodies are regarded as the property of men.
As gruesome as these are, India is far from alone when it comes to rape culture. And yet, there is a palpable air of superiority in the way we discuss rape when it happens in India. So confident are we that we take crimes against women seriously, so much do we believe our own platitudes that our own society “abhors rape,” that, underpinning all our discussions of India’s “rape crisis” is the subtext that we would never be so blasé about such egregious crimes against women.
How then, do we explain the rape of a 16-year-old girl from Texas, “Jada”, who was drugged at a party, and assaulted as she lay unconscious?
Not only was Jada’s rape filmed (as seems par for the course for victims of rape these days), but the footage spurred young men on social media to post pictures of themselves in mock “Jadaposes.”
This is not the sign of a society that takes rape seriously, nor is it the mark of a culture that genuinely abhors all gender based sexual violence. What it is is a warning that the message about women’s bodily autonomy simply isn’t getting through.
When it comes to sexual assault, our sympathy for the victim hinges on her behaviour before, during, or after the crime. In Jada’s case, the mere fact she was at a party was enough for many to believe her rape wasn’t actually rape.
Women shouldn’t have to pass a sympathy test in order to qualify as a “real” rape victim. And yet, here we are, once again witnessing not only men, but young women flocking to defend her rapist.
Why do we refuse to acknowledge that the enlightened west has a problem with rape too? The answer is as simple as it is galling. As a society, we are blind to our own rape culture because we cling to the notion of a “classic rapist”, as described by a UK judge, who reluctantly sentenced a man to five years jail for raping a sleeping woman:
“I do not regard you as a classic rapist. I do not think you are a general danger to strangers. You are not the type who goes searching for a woman…you just lost control of normal restraint. She was a pretty girl who you fancied. You simply could not resist. You had sex with her.”
These words reveal two things about our culture at large. First, how much we overlook the true nature of rape in favour of the outdated model of strangers lurking in the bushes. And second, that men can’t be expected to help themselves around “pretty girls”, as if girls are objects that exist for men’s enjoyment.
So normalised has objectification become, so dependent is a woman’s value on her appeal to straight men, that a major magazine like Esquire can publish, presumably with a straight face, an article claiming feminism’s greatest achievement to be that the polished and toned bodies of certain 42 year old women are now fuckable, whereas they used to be just “sad.”
Combine the idea of a “classic rapist” with the widespread objectification of women, and you get a society that simply refuses to acknowledge sexual assault when it occurs. Of course, to deny rape we have to blame the victim instead. What we don’t realise is that this very mentality -that certain girls are fair game- is exactly what also underscores rape in other countries, including India.
Yes, sexual gender-based violence manifests in different ways depending on the culture of the society in which it occurs. However, all rape stems from the very basic idea that women’s bodies are not really their own. It’s easier to spot this when it happens in India, because the patriarchy is so explicit.
But, like it or not, the same attitude underpins sexual assault in our own society. If we, generally speaking, didn’t think that the primary function of a woman’s body is to sexually satisfy (or at the very least appeal to) men, then we would recognise a woman’s right to wear whatever she likes, to party wherever she likes, and to drink whenever she likes.
But we don’t. We place qualifiers on her behaviour because we implicitly accept the notion that men are entitled to sex and to women’s bodies. Men “can’t resist” you see, therefore when women enter into certain situations, what happens next is their own fault.
If we want to understand and combat violence against women, we need to let go of our sense of cultural superiority. We need to lose the horrified fascination with which we regard crimes such as honour killings, even as we appear content to live with the fact that one woman in killed in Australia by her partner or former partner every week. And we need to stop tsk tsking over India’s “rape epidemic” even as our own judges sympathise with rapists.
All over the world, rape occurs because the bodily autonomy of women is not respected. And all the while, rape culture continues right under our noses, even as we pretend it doesn’t exist.