The Mardi Gras parade in Sydney.

The Mardi Gras parade in Sydney. Photo: Janie Barrett

Last month a male Belgian university student, on his way to an initiation ceremony ‘dressed as a woman’, was robbed and gang-raped by a group of young men. The University’s response to his ordeal was to issue a statement advising its students against dressing as a member of the opposite sex because ‘certain groups perceive wearing drag as being provocative.’

This stunning incident of victim blaming provides a prime opportunity to explore intersectionality, a feminist and social justice theory that explores how various forms of oppression intersect, drawing on each other to create overlapping forms of discrimination, the result being a society that is systematically unequal.

The Belgian University incident is not an anomaly.  Earlier this year, the school board in the US State of Virginia’s Suffolk county issued a proposal seeking to ban cross-dressing because of what the board termed its associated ‘safety risks, disruptions and distractions.’

According to the board, the issue was raised after teachers spoke of threats by students to male students who wore wearing makeup, wigs and dresses to class.

Rather than address such issues of bullying or educate its students on gender identity, the board instead decided to follow the age-old tradition of blaming the victim, instructing the bullied students to change their behaviour. It’s a message most women are familiar with, the responsibility shifted from the perpetrator to the victim.

It has long being argued that cultural attitudes contribute to violence against women. According to the social ecological model , a person’s behaviour can only be understood if the individual is considered in the context of the social system in which they belong. In other words, our attitudes and behaviour do not exist in a void but are a product of our cultural environment.

There is no doubt we live in a social system that normalises sexual violence. Many studies have already revealed that both men and women are susceptible to rape myth acceptance. That is to say, they engage in victim-blaming where responsibility is shifted from the perpetrator to the victim.
Rape myth acceptance means that a significant portion of our society believes that it is within the control of the victims of sexual violence to avoid assault. The Suffolk school boards’ decision follows on from the case of 15-year-old schoolboy, Larry King, who was shot in the back of the head by a classmate during a high school science class. His murderer, Brandon McInerney, was sentenced to 21 years jail last year, but not before his defence attorneys claimed sexual advances from King provoked him. The defence also cited the school’s ‘permissiveness’ in allowing King to wear make up and ‘female attire.’ McInerney, his attorneys claimed, ‘ultimately snapped when he heard that King wanted to change his first name to Latisha.’

That these defences were actually considered by the court highlights the need to look at oppression through the lens of intersectionality. When men who choose to dress in clothes deemed suitable only for women are punished for it, this clearly demonstrates how sexism intersects with homophobia and transphobia.

Patriarchal society is skewed towards men. But when men behave in a way that goes against the perceived ‘natural’ order, they too suffer discrimination. King suffered firstly for being gay, which in itself is a direct rebuke to traditional gender roles, but also because he dressed as a woman. This ‘provocative’ attire caused him to suffer the type of discrimination traditionally and liberally meted out to women: punishment for chosen mode of dress.

In 2006, a landmark study on societal attitudes towards rape explored the correlation between rape myth acceptance and other forms of oppressive belief systems including racism and homophobia. This study is worth exploring in some detail as, whilst many studies have examined victim-blaming, it was the first to link rape myths to other forms of intolerance.

The researchers, Alison Aosved and Patricia Long, found that intolerance to one group is a good indicator of intolerance to another. Those who expressed negative attitudes to homosexuals, for example, were found to be more likely to accept rape myths. This indicates that these attitudes are part of a larger belief system that is in itself intolerant. That is to say, that racism, homophobia and sexism share a common source.

And what is this common source? According to the authors, it is the emphasis society places on masculinity:

‘In particular, what it means to be masculine in our society often includes being young, strong, powerful, heterosexual, and a part of a majority group….cultural ideas about masculinity are directly related to rape myth acceptance in individuals who have internalized the cultural message about masculinity as a set of oppressive or intolerant beliefs.’

In other words, the patriarchal model of masculinity leads to negative attitudes against anyone who doesn’t fit the model of the ideal man.

Since various forms of oppression have their roots in patriarchal gender roles, we can’t truly understand one type of discrimination without exploring others. By examining discrimination through the lens of intersectionality, feminists, LGBT advocates and other social justice movements can not only gain a better understanding of how patriarchy works against them, but can work towards forging greater alliances to combat it.

As Aosved and Long conclude, because all these intolerant attitudes are linked, sexual violence prevention programs that target victim-blaming could reduce homophobia, racism and other negative belief systems. Likewise, social education programs that focus on diversity and tolerance may also reduce sexual violence and rape myth acceptance.

One thing is for certain, blaming the victims for their own attacks, whether they are men, women or transitioning, will not do anything to reduce either sexual violence or society’s willingness to accept rape myths.

* Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by calling Lifeline 131 114, Mensline 1300 789 978, Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.