Fifty shades of rape culture


Transforming a Rape Culture, book coverThe rape and murder of a Melbourne woman last week was a psychological jolt to the public who had hoped and prayed for her safety. Yet my conversations with other women about the crime include the admission that we too may have risked the short walk from the pub to home in the small hours of the morning.

Very few men would see it as a risk, and in an ideal community it should not be a gamble for women either. So it is not that helpful when commentators counsel women to walk or travel late at night only with company (though a more appropriate recommendation might be that all people travel with company at night).

Some scholars argue that this kind of instruction is an indicator that we exist in a 'rape culture'. As Buchwald, Fletcher and Roth describe it, 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 ... A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

It is only when sexual harassment or assault is perpetrated on a man, by a man, that most men sympathise with a common experience of many females: the menace of a gaze that loiters or a hazardous tone of voice; the constant awareness of the ways in which one's voice, words, walk or gestures can be interpreted; the knowledge that some males consider their impulses to be uncontrollable.

Few men understand this 'continuum of threatened violence' that innumerable women encounter with distressing regularity. Many women I know have experienced harassment or threats, if not sexual assault, molestation or rape at some point in their life. But few have taken action.

Women who do not tolerate at least the narrow end of the wedge of threatened violence are seen to be lacking a sense of humour, oversensitive or uncooperative, which in educational settings or the workplace can have material as well as emotional and psychological repercussions.

This enables perpetrators to psychologically push the envelope, breeding detachment, muting humanity and silencing conscience, rendering power over women not only acceptable but intrinsic to cultural interplay and apparently fulfilling the indicators of a 'rape culture.'

Such a culture is emboldened by bad fiction marketed as erotica for women, where a female protagonist submits physically, emotionally, sexually and financially to the control and abuse of the male 'hero'. It is boosted by 'celebrities' who see sexually suggestive or offensive remarks as compliments or insults. It is bolstered when reports of sexual assaults by sportspeople or military personnel are dismissed or ignored. It is buttressed by famous actors declaring that it is a woman's fault if she is raped if she wears a certain dress.

In fact, years ago, an older woman told me that women should not dress with a skirt above the knee because it is likely to provide a sexual temptation for men. In hindsight, I wish I'd pointed out that the figure-hugging long dress she wore would not be acceptable in some cultures for the same reason. With sexual violence and rape in mind, potentially every female image becomes provocative.

I suspect this view underpinned the internet meme circulating a couple of years ago which celebrated feminism because 'Society teaches Don't Get Raped rather than Don't Rape'. In researching it further, I was drawn to an article quoting a sexual assault counsellor who challenged victims to not wonder 'if I hadn't ...' but who instead encouraged society to notice the attacker's choice to take advantage of someone vulnerable.

The rape culture paradigm is disputed. Yet even accepting the premise of its pervasion in our society, there is hope for cultural transformation. Buchwald, Fletcher and Roth note that while a rape culture assumes sexual violence as 'inevitable', it is 'neither biologically nor divinely ordained'. They reassure readers that 'Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.'

Moira Byrne GartonMoira Byrne recently completed a PhD in political science at the Australian National University, and works part-time in social policy and as a researcher. 

Topic tags: Moira Byrne Garton, rape, Jill Meagher



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Brilliant text............"neither biologically nor divinely ordained" ........... yet we tolerate sock jocks and their diatribe, males who denigrate the PM with the butt and nose issues in political discussions. The attitudes are rampant and continue from generation to generation. Why do we have such a misogynistic society and why is it tolerated here as being acceptable?
GAJ | 02 October 2012

Three weeks ago, on a Saturday evening, the presbytery doorbell rang, at 10:15pm. Myself and visiting, retired Archbishop Frank Carroll, had just watched the footy and were about to go to bed. Answering the doorbell, I found three young ladies, they needed money for petrol because the other two passengers in their car, who were supposed to provide the money, had disappeared into the night. Ok, one could presume much and maybe give a lecture and ask questions that may have elicited some admissions about preparedness and safety, but I gave them some money and said a prayer for them. How would I have felt if I had not assisted and then woken up to news about three young women being assaulted, or worse? That's the question everyone needs to ask themselves, not when it is convenient, or just when brutal murders like Jill's happen. Our culture must ask itself the question. Moira, in quoting, in your last paragraph, Buchwald, Fletcher and Roth, that "sexual violence is 'neither biologically nor divinely ordained'" our culture must come to the point of acknowledging the existence of both, societal and personal evil. Without such acknowledgement and consequent redeeming actions, rape culture will flourish.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 02 October 2012

there is a continuum between the two very different things called touch and violence and a heck of a lot of shades of grey in between
geoff fox | 02 October 2012

Thanks for this article Moira. Cultural paradigms are so often understood to be 'just the way it is'. We seem to have taken so many steps backward in our moves to equalise the status of women and men. Yet it seems we all accept this so easily, without question. It is indeed refreshing to know that with a few cultural tweaks here and there we could achieve a harmonious and non-violent society. Sounds good to me.
Liz Hamper | 02 October 2012

Very eloquently written, Moira. Thanks for that timely reminder of what is the issue at heart.
Pip | 02 October 2012

This is a very interesting essay that should provoke men to think of ourselves and our behaviour.I suspect only few of us can plead not guilty of being part of the continuum referred to. Fr Mick has often rather irritated with his absolutism. Let me applaud his contribution today
Brian Poidevin | 02 October 2012

I meant to finish my last cooment with the following. The last sentence of the essay quoted from Buchwald et al may have rational truth. But I fear reflecting on human behaviour down the many centuries does not leave us without many fears that any change will be long coming.
Brian Poidevin | 02 October 2012

Thank you Moira,
We have all been shocked and grieved by the recent rape and death and disposal, brutal violence, of a young woman in Sydney Road.Silenced with fear for Jill's safety , and privately praying I think and then the horror, presumably the evil intent captured on cctv, made this act so real and personal.

On Sunday,thousands of men felt compelled to act, to make a statement, and quietly walk in sorrow and find again some dignity after a male had destroyed community freedom and spirit. I felt a strong protective presence, and I feel this will be lasting in men's lives. Peace and goodwill always has evil to contend with.As humans we are all vulnerable..we all need love and protection and respect shown at all times. The strong must take care of the weak.These ideals are always worth standing up for, we have been reminded how important true male strength is.
Catherine | 02 October 2012

An excellent article, Moira. We are certainly living in a culture which does trivialise and objectify women as people and mitigates against a normal, healthy and safe relationship between the sexes. I think more needs to be done as far as looking at the Australian situation goes in regard to success on the sporting field and the virtual deification of male sporting heroes, especially in NFL and AFL, with the consequent female hangers on and the appalling treatment of many of them. This area would be as bad an influence as the revolting sadomasochistic pornography you mention. Perhaps the two reinforce each other in certain instances. I think there is something sick about the way some of my fellow men look at women. Mick is always practical: there are little things anyone can do which might prevent assault and rape. I think we need to redefine the current paradigm of male/female relationships in this country. It will be an enormous and uphill task but I consider it an urgent necessity. I don't think we can describe Australia as a civilised society if this sort of attitude and behaviour remain untouched and unchanged.
Edward F | 02 October 2012

Thanks for this great article, Moira. I think that the rape culture is not as prominent as it used to be a couple of decades ago. I don't know of any of my (male) friends who have not reacted with disgust and anger at what has happened to Jill. Rather, I think we are now faced with the problem of having too many psychopaths on the loose in our community. Whatever your dress, if you are in a vulnerable situation and encounter one of these psychos, chances are that you'll get hurt. Feminism has helped us make inroads in getting rid of our malestream culture, but it can't very well protect us from sick and brutal predators.
Dan | 02 October 2012

Thank you Moira. The public is outraged by violence towards women. Yet many of the same members of this 'public'go home in the evenings to watch one of the many versions of NCIS, or laugh at Two and a Half Men, or watch bromantic comedies that hinge on vile attitudes to women and their sexuality, all in the name of 'a bit of fun'. There will be no end to violence against women while the community tolerates such rampant misogyny and disrespect.
Helen | 02 October 2012

Moira, I agree with the sentiment of your article. Unfortunately, Australia has become one of the most anti-feminist and mysogynist societies in the modern world. Most of our institutions (government, public service, business, media, religious and sports)do not treat women equally. Our society has become one that is dominated by an individualist masculine secular materialist philosophy. I believe that the most important issue facing our Australian society is it's anti-intellectualism - most people do not have a good knowledge and understanding of things such as moral philosophy and ethical behavior plus history, literature, cinema, religion, the visual arts and the performing arts.
Mark Doyle | 02 October 2012

On Sunday night, quite drunk at the pub, I was strongly advised not to ride my bike home alone (on bike-paths, I hasten to add) just 'in case'. Not that I fell off, but 'in case' I was attacked. It made me quite angry that I should even be expected to think of such things. I rode home and enjoyed it.

Given the way things are, I think it's a good idea for all women who are able to do some self-defence, though. Obviously, if a man (or men) target a woman, she is unlikely to win, but being able to punch, or perhaps just react in a 'non-feminine' way may mean the difference between an extremely unpleasant experience and rape.

Of course, this is not possible for all women, and young girls, old women and the disabled are also raped. But being as strong as possible is not a bad thing. I know I feel more confident since doing weights in the gym. Perhaps I'll ask a trainer to hit me to see how it feels, so I won't be as stunned should it really happen.

Cheery stuff.

Shame a man hasn't written about rape as well.
Penelope | 02 October 2012

As I said previously, I think Moira's article was excellent. The real problem, as I see it, is the current appalling attitude towards women in our society. I think it has become culturally ingrained. Something which also needs fixing is the attitude of Australian men towards themselves which impacts on this. There are people, like the psychologist Steve Biddulph, who have looked at this and written very effectively about the need for change in the way we bring boys up. I think this is a problem for both men and women in this country to deal with together: it is not an "us" and "them" situation. Can you engender men who are brave and noble with all the traditionally positive male characteristics who are not ignorant, violent yobbo rapists? Of course you can but it does take conscious effort. We definitely need to change the paradigm of what a man is and how he should behave in this society.
Edward F | 03 October 2012

Thanks for this article Moira! Sunday's march for Jill Meagher in Brunswick on Sunday reminded me of another march against rape held in Melbourne 35 years ago:
Marg Hutton | 03 October 2012

Once again it's an opportunity for men to organise against rape. The marching men with their placards 'Only cowards and bullies rape', 'Real men don't rape' 'No woman is asking for rape' etc are long overdue in all societies.
Bernadette Duffy | 03 October 2012

I haven't read "Fifty Shades of Grey/Gray", yet, however, after reading this, I think I've heard it all! To my mind, this is growing evidence of what my Dad terms the "proliferation of sex", and it beggars belief, that this has, thus far, been as successful as it has been. It's a real concern, as it should be to any decent homosapien. As or the "Twilight" series, apart from what you mentioned, I didn't actually mind it, but having read this, I should've have seen the coercion that occurs in the films, in that, the last two"New Moon", and "Eclipse". I guess this is further proof of what is termed in some quarters as the "proliferation/commodifcation of sex, and I agree totally with the first respondent, Gaj"Why do we have such a misogynistic society, and why is it tolerated here as being acceptable? It beggars belief!
Phillip | 03 October 2012

I haven't read "Fifty Shades of Grey/Gray", yet, however, after reading this, I think I've heard it all! To my mind, this is growing evidence of what my Dad terms the "proliferation of sex", and it beggars belief, that this has, thus far, been as successful as it has been. It's a real concern, as it should be to any decent homosapiens. As or the "Twilight" series, apart from what you mentioned, I didn't actually mind it, but having read this, I should've have seen the coercion that occurs in the films, in that, the last two"New Moon", and "Eclipse". I guess this is further proof of what is termed in some quarters as the "proliferation/commodifcation of sex, and I agree totally with the first respondent, Gaj"Why do we have such a misogynistic society, and why is it tolerated here as being acceptable? On one hand, I look forward to seeing any reference as to what Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen has to say about it, but on the other, I'm not going to hold my breath!
Phillip | 03 October 2012

I totally disagree with the notion of a rape culture and that there's a continuum of violence against women starting with erotic touching - or any touching. I think this way of explaining it actually whitewashes the true situation - that the overwhelming majority of society is respectful to each other and has no evil intentions. In the same we we've become an anti-human contact society in response to child sexual abuse, we're now becoming a mistrustful, cynical mob that perceives potential violence in everything. I think our kids are worse-off now because they can't even get a hug from a teacher when they're sad, and eventually every time a man looks at a woman's behind he'll be seen as a rapist. Why can't we see the truth - that someone with the capacity to rape is severely deranged, probably sociopathic and is not your everyman on the street type?
AURELIUS | 04 October 2012

Aurelius you are quite wrong. The average rapist is just very ordinary. It's the new boyfriend Mum brings home that takes a shine to the teenage daughter. It's the boss who fancies a bit extra at work. It's the husband who decides he's been neglected by his wife. It's the group of teenage boys who get drunk and decide the hitchhiker is asking for it. It's the judge with a penchant for children. All decent pillars of society generally. It's the bloke who's taken a girl out for dinner and a movie and reckons he's paid for sex whether she wants it or not. It's the one whose advances have been spurned and decides to take his revenge when opportune. It's the father who uses his children for sex because he can. There are of course the serial rapists who fit the rape monster guise, but mostly it's just ordinary men, doing what has been ordinarily done to women for centuries.
Bernadette Duffy | 04 October 2012

Penelope, if you want a man to write about rape, here it is...
'Men, don't rape.
Men, don't kill.
Men, treat all human beings with respect.
Men, treat other people the way you would like them to treat you.'
Edward - really, bring boys up differently? I was never taught anything about rape or how bad it is - it was obvious to me that males and females are equal right from a very young age when I was put in my place by sisters who stood their ground when my father and I suggested that washing dishes was the girls' job and mowing the lawn was for the boys.
AURELIUS | 04 October 2012

The article was intelligent and incisive one, Aurelius and designed to make people think about what is a serious problem. I'm unsure what your simplistic personal anecdote in response to my contribution is supposed to do. Or, to be honest, I do. I am utterly underwhelmed.
Edward F | 04 October 2012

This article was well worth reading as it was thought provoking and underpins our society's attitude in condoning male violence against women. the sad fact is how do we change these.
sally heath | 05 October 2012

Is the kind of attack perpetrated against Jill Meagher really attributable to a 'culture' that accepts rape? There are always going to be people who want to dominate others and inflict pain. This is not really a cultural phenomenon. I think it's wrongheaded to assume that we're somehow going to dispel human malevolence by altering cultures. This is the human condition: as individuals we're capable of the vastest extremes of kindness and cruelty of any animal on Earth. Acting en masse, we're capable of destroying the very thing that sustains us.
Ben Haskin | 05 October 2012

My simplistic anecdote about this serious problem is trying to point out that targeting men and boys in general is not going to stop rapes. Just as educating people about how wrong murder is, will not stop murders. Society does NOT condone male violence against women. Rape is a criminal offence and rapists are sent to jail. But rapists, as well as men who use women for sex in a consensual arrangement, know that if a pregnancy results, society does not regard the resulting foetus as a human person with rights, and so it may be aborted.
AURELIUS | 05 October 2012

Of course a foetus resulting from rape should be aborted, if the woman wants that. I really get sick of people dragging abortion into everything on this site, like it's the only issue that matters. Get over it; it's legal and necessary. As to rape (which is what we are addressing here) part of me thinks it will always be here, just because there will always be evil men. And most men are stronger than most women. And some men obviously like inflicting pain on women. But that doesn't mean that speaking to young men and saying 'probably best not to have sex if she's really drunk' or 'don't assume she means yes if she doesn't in fact say so' might have some effect in some cases. Not all, but some. And your easy assertion that usually results in criminal convictions is not borne out by the facts. Another reason I'd try to punch on; the courts find it easier to believe someone doesn't want their nose broken, than that they didn't want a penis forcibly inserted in their vagina, mouth or anus. Your sisters' ability to mow the lawn, while admirable, is quite irrelevant to the fact that woman are raped every day.
Penelope | 05 October 2012

Typo in my last comment: 'And your easy assertion that usually result in criminal convictions is not borne out by the facts' should read 'And your easy assertion that rape usually result in criminal convictions is not borne out by the facts.'. Posting while appalled is not good for accuracy. Wait until it sinks down to mere bemusement.
Penelope | 05 October 2012

I'm not saying that rape results in criminal convictions, I'm saying that is the law and that men know that will be the result if and when they are found it. And if not, they will carry that around with them for the rest of their lives, even if it takes until they are old like some paedophiles who are convicted 30 years after the event, or after knowing their victims have committed suicide. I myself am a victim of rape - no conviction has been made on the perpetrator. And I no longer seek help/counselling - when I told my story a couple of times, the response from psychiatrists and counsellors (including religious) was 'Well maybe if you didn't drink so much it wouldn't have happened.'
AURELIUS | 06 October 2012

Bernadette and Penelope, your criticism of Aurelius' comments is really quite misplaced, and indicative of a strain of activism that, I think, actually contributes to the problem by continuously focusing on alienating men. Are you saying that the behaviour of a few psychopaths is representative of all men in society? Are you really saying that rape is a common and widespread thing that men engage in? The rebuttal of anything that a man has to say in empathy and as an apology to women on behalf of those of us that abhor such acts disgusts me. This is because people with fringe views take advantage of horrific acts against women to push their own agendas. Women and men together make society, and though I certainly agree that men still have a long way to go in making society a safe place for women to be in, I think we are nowhere near where we were thirty, twenty or even ten years ago. Give us some credit, we're trying hard, not least because we're also fathers, husbands, grandfathers, brothers ... do you really think that most of us were not thinking, 'what if' Jill was a sister, a wife, a daughter, or a granddaughter?
Dan | 06 October 2012

Dan, the average rapist is just that - average, unremarkable. We all have the idea that a rapist must be a monster of some kind. The research shows this to be totally false.
Bernadette | 11 October 2012

Correct me if I'm wrong, and just to say from the start I'm not saying this with any political or personal agenda - merely trying to understand the issue better - would I be wrong in saying there are degrees of rape? I know a certain Republican politician in the US made a controversial remark recently - and I don't want to be mistaken for holding his views - I think he talked about "legitimate rape" - but what I'm saying is degrees - similar to degrees of murder (ranging from premeditated vicious murders, down to manslaughter). Discussing this with regards to rape might be helpful in trying to find solutions to educating different sections of society - and maybe point out that it's not always the type of horrific case like the one recently in Melbourne. I'm not trying to downplay the seriousness of rape - and I expect many say "rape is rape" - but unless we discuss the degrees of rape, I think we're all communicating in different levels.
AURELIUS | 15 October 2012

We do have a misogynist and sexually violent culture which is revealed by the language we use. From childhood I have heard/experienced: 'You're stuffing around like a gin at a Christening' and sexual abuse of myself and a sister; in the army apprentice school at Balcombe: 'Only pregnant women and poofters have their hands in their pockets, which are you?' and all you need to know about women is the five 'F's- 'Find them, feed them, finger them, f*ck them and forget them"; in various work sites and social situations - 'That's a c*nt of a thing to do', 'F*ck you!', 'Up your arse!' and so on. Add alcohol or enough rationalisation and words and attitudes morph into actions. To simplistically paraphrase Freud, our basic drives are sex and agression and they are mutually interchangable. Porn in one form or another is the one of the largest uses of the internet. The bulk of what I have seen is a dominant male and submissive female behaving in a stereotyped way which I consider demeaning to the woman and women in general. Surely the above reflects our society, not just the individuals who act in 'antisocial' ways.
Hakim Oerton | 17 October 2012

Well said Hakim!
B3rnadette | 22 October 2012

Thank you for this great important article and for mentioning this horrible,sexist,dangerous,woman-hating,violent,pornographic novel Fifty Shades Of Grey and how it totally has a lot to do with rape culture
CG | 03 November 2012

Hakim, you talk of the Army Apprentices School at Balcombe and I agree with you. I was there in the late 1960's and it was an extremely brutal place. It taught 16 year old boys that women were nothing, that they were only good for one thing and anyone who respected women was a lesser man. Anyone who had an opposing view was beaten until they changed their view and "conformed". Is it any wonder the Military and parts of society is what it is?
Clyde | 07 November 2015


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