This morning I read an article, “The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture”, which relates to the iconic photograph of the sailor bending a nurse over and kissing her passionately at the end of World War 2. While this photograph is beloved of many, the article actually says that it is a marker of “rape culture” because in all the interviews post-kiss, the woman in the photograph says that the sailor was actually drunk and forced himself on her, a far cry from the scene of romance, passion, and triumph over Nazi Germany that it was originally meant to symbolize.
You could almost make the troubling assertion that knowing what we know about how it came about, it’s actually a scene of triumph over a woman’s body, the sailor as conqueror of her being, representing America’s victory over the Axis powers. But that is a topic for another essay altogether.
Yet while I found the article to be an interesting commentary on the photograph, and it definitely gave me food for thought about how women’s voices are overridden by men’s, especially in war narratives and historical accounts of war, it made me wonder whether the term “rape culture” and how it has come into common parlance in the feminist discourse has been beneficial for women’s empowerment, or whether it has hampered women in the fight to move away from permanent victimhood.
Rape culture is the feminist concept that “rape and sexual violence are common and that prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalise, excuse, tolerate, or even condone sexual violence.” It is not a physical place that you can find on a map, but a state of terror that exists everywhere, according to its experts. The concept has been discussed in feminist academics since the 1970s, where second wave feminists declared all of America to be a rape culture, but it has only become a popular term since 2011’s SlutWalk movement, a worldwide protest against women being blamed for getting raped because of the clothes they wear.
The elements identified in creating a culture of rape are hard to deny: victim blaming, sexual objectification, the trivializing of rape. It’s explained well in the extract from the book Transforming A Rape Culture:
A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.
In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.
This culture of rape is not exclusively a Western problem, either. India’s own Besharmi Morcha, or “Protest Action of Shameless Women” was meant to take place in coordination with similar protests in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong (but was stopped by the government). Before that, the Pink Chaddi campaign specifically addressed the same idea, with activists sending pairs of pink panties to government officials in Mangalore to express their disgust at the moral policing taking place in 2009. It has its parallels in Muslim countries, including Pakistan, where women are encouraged to stay silent about sexual assault or commit suicide if it happens to them; where they can be raped if they go to a police station to report sexual assault; where sexual molestation is given the euphemism of “eve teasing” and women who don’t cover themselves head to toe in burqas, veils, and chadors are blatantly seen as inviting sexual assault.
Rape culture concerns itself not just with the physical act of rape, but with the conditions that allow it to be perpetuated and even encouraged in society. You could say that all of Pakistan, too, is a rape culture, with columns appearing in the newspaper questioning whether marital rape exists in Islam, where four eyewitnesses are needed to substantiate a woman’s claim of rape, thanks to the Hudood Ordinances and their remnants in our society; where girls and women are exchanged as compensation in feud settlements; where underage girls are married; where women are married against their will.
But here’s where my first question arises: Where in the world, our physical space – or in minds, our psychic space – does rape culture not exist? There is no neighborhood, community, society, country in which rape does not take place. It is not a question of laws and attitudes, because even in places where anti-sexual assault laws are strictly enforced, and where violence against women is treated with the contempt and punished with the severity it deserves, rape still happens. Witness the Julian Assange case, where Sweden, one of the most progressive countries in the world, was the setting for two rapes (I am not going to discuss the political ramifications etc. here) committed by the same man. Pornography, sexual trafficking, domestic violence and all other forms of violence against women also take place in Scandanavian countries, which are the best places in the world in terms of legally guaranteeing equal rights for women.
Prominent feminist and scholar bell hooks makes the argument that looking at rape culture in isolation is unhelpful because we are divorcing rape from a more expansive culture of violence, and rape does not happen without a background or a context. If transformation of rape culture is to occur, it will happen within a larger movement of transforming culture from violence to non-violence. I remain unconvinced that rape culture is a distinct and boundaried territory, either in the physical world or in the phenomenological one.
My second problem is with the actual phrase “rape culture”. There is something within me that rebels against its use. It brings to mind the idea that rape is so prevalent in our cultures, our ways of being, that rape is inevitable. That all women are fated to undergo some experience of rape, just by the default of living in a rape culture, even if they are not technically or physically raped. (Some feminists have held in the past that all sex is rape and all men are rapists. I do not agree with this notion.) There are huge problems with this assumption; it is meant to evoke anger to the point where people are inspired to transform the rape culture. But before it evokes anger, it evokes something larger and more immediate: fear. It turns all women into victims, in potential and in reality. We are all rape victims; it’s just a matter of time before the theory of rape turns into a physical reality, and we can do little to escape it.
This way of thinking is both defensive and damaging. It places women squarely back into the role of victim, which is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve: empowerment, strength, transcendence of victimhood. I understand that rape is always a possibility for any human being, man or woman. Depending on where you live, it is a probability – if you live in the Congo, or you were a woman in Bosnia during the Yugoslavian war, or if you are in Syria today. But it is psychologically unhealthy to restrict and define the world according to the paradigm of rape. On the other hand, we are all going to die, but if we were to see the world in terms of that physical inevitability, we would completely break down and be unable to live our daily lives.
So, for these reasons and probably more that I haven’t been able to articulate just yet, I am opposed to the unconditional use of the term “rape culture”. Rape doesn’t happen in a vaccuum, nor was the concept of rape created in one. We will probably never know who the world’s first rapist was. According to some feminists, it was the first man. But to condemn all women to the role of rape victim, either by a man or by culture or society, is a chilling indictment of the potential of humanity, and a prison that women do not deserve to be placed in by any academic, no matter how visionary or passionate about feminism and violence against women.