What needs to happen for us to take rape seriously?

Indian activists from the Social Unity Center of India (SUCI) protest against violence against women in June 2014.

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.

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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. 

 

24 comments

  • "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."

    I think you'll find that this is a common trait for quite a few type of crimes and reflects a general societal belief that we have some responsibility for our actions. It doesn't excuse the perpetrator for their actions but does place an onus on individuals to take a risk management approach to their lives.

    Take the recent "king hit" and violence issues in Sydney's kings cross. A lot of commentary was suggesting that people shouldn't be in those areas at night. The result? A legislative reaction placing a lockout on licenced venues in the area.

    Isn't that the ultimate "you shouldn't have been there are you shouldn't have been drinking"?

    Commenter
    Freddie Frog
    Date and time
    July 16, 2014, 8:15AM
    • The lock outs was to avoid drunken violence so was aimed squarely at the perpetrators and to stop innocent people from being victims. New criminal laws on 'one punch' attacks was also to punish the perpetrator. The victims actions or place-and-time does not even factor. This should be the same for sexual assault and rape.

      Commenter
      Ripley
      Location
      Hunting Aliens
      Date and time
      July 16, 2014, 11:51AM
    • Risk Management? So the 16 year old should not go to parties, she was not drunk,she had her drink spiked? The young girls in India, what do you propose would be good risk management for them? Maybe not being born. Oh and the unlucky lady who was asleep in her own home when her rapist broke in. What? Keep one eye open when you're sleeping? I was raped by my first boyfriend, we were in, what I thought, a loving relationship. I did not want to have sex with him as I had only started on the pill several days beforehand and was scared it had not started working. I never went to the police. Why? because of attitudes like yours Freddie - I wish I lived in your world. I know several women who have been either raped, molested and one who suffered unbearable domestic violence and only the one who suffered DV went to police and that was only after an intervention by her family.

      Commenter
      P
      Date and time
      July 16, 2014, 12:28PM
    • Ok, Freddie, let’s take the recent violence in King’s Cross.

      Swift, decisive legislative change has seen an increase in the mandatory sentence to eight years non-parole to be meted out to these coward-punching thugs. That is not sending a message that “you shouldn’t have been there and you shouldn’t be drinking”; it is sending a message that the government and community care about our young men and expect that they should be able to be out in public without the threat of violence and death.

      What similar legislative changes have taken place after violence targeted at women? Well, after Jill Meagher's murder, they made breach of parole a separate offence....for which you can be sentenced to three months jail and recieve a fine of $4200.

      These new laws are also sending the message that young women should be able to be out in public without the threat of violence or de.....oh, wait....

      Commenter
      Donna Joy
      Date and time
      July 16, 2014, 12:49PM
    • Freddie,

      That is a very spurious argument, I have never seen a single commentator blame Thomas Kelly or any of the other "king hit" victims. The response from the media and public has quite rightly been outrage that a person could be so victimised. Nobody has seriously suggested that they are at fault simply for being in Kings' Cross. We've certainly not seen that used as a mitigating factor in the perpetrator's defence.

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      July 16, 2014, 2:09PM
    • Freddie Frog, what part of the lockout laws prevent a victim from being in those areas at night? The lockout part of the law prevents entry after 1:30 am and the last drinks means that alcohol can't be served in non-exempt venues after 3am.

      Commenter
      Public Joe
      Date and time
      July 16, 2014, 2:55PM
    • Ripley there is sometimes going to be some context to what happened (eg both parties are too drunk for consensual sex etc), but I agree 100% that what the victim was wearing, how drunk they were, where they were etc shouldn't be part of that. I find the explanation of the UK judge absolutely abhorrent.

      P unfortunately there is no risk management plan that will guarantee you 100% safety, that's the reality as you are obviously aware. The perfect is the enemy of the good though, and just because risk management doesn't protect you 100% doesn't mean it isn't worth doing at all. And if women aren't reporting these crimes to the police or any other agency then how are they going to get any help or justice? I'm aware it's not easy and that the behaviour of some of the defence lawyers is absolutely vile but not reporting it won't help solve the problem.

      Commenter
      Hurrow
      Date and time
      July 16, 2014, 2:59PM
    • I think that alcohol lowers inhabitions and self control - ban alcohol from bars/night clubs, perhaps implant limits?

      I think that low lighting creates a environment where visibility is poor and tripping could occur (perhaps on another patron-which would be unwanted) - ban low lighting (perhaps 7-11 lighting in night clubs)
      I think having a large amount of people in a small spot could increase the incidence of accidental touching which could have the potential to be understood as unwanted sexual advances. - limit audience to ensure accidental touching cannot occur (say a hoops distance between each patron)

      Commenter
      night out 2020 style
      Date and time
      July 16, 2014, 3:38PM
  • Not only do we judge women who dress in "sexy" clothing, we also judge women who don't. How often do you hear the phrase "she's let herself go" and then see that same woman the subject of mockery? Women can't win. If she dresses in attractive clothing she's "asking for it". If she doesn't dress that way, then she's a frump and fair game for ridicule.

    Commenter
    Meg
    Date and time
    July 16, 2014, 8:41AM
    • It gets even better Meg - being female, we can lose on both counts. Four months ago, I had a guy try to grab me off the street. At the time, I was alluringly clad in a tracksuit and a pair of steel capped boots. I mean, how could someone resist an overweight, middle-aged woman, parading around dressed like that? Letting myself go *and* asking for it, all in one...

      Commenter
      andilee
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      July 16, 2014, 1:14PM

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