Rape culture in life and theory


'The most famous kiss in history' - sailor kisses girl during parade after warAbout two weeks ago, the internet exploded with new information about the most famous kiss in history. In an interview, the woman in the image revealed that the photo captured her being accosted by an intoxicated sailor. 'It wasn't my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed!' The image became a talking point about 'rape culture' and our selective blindness to sexual violence.

And then, a column appeared in the The Vine criticising the misappropriation of the words 'rape culture'. Author Luke Ryan wrote that 'everyone who is using the phrase rape culture needs to stop ... To my mind, it's a bland and egregious cheapening of the rhetorical playing field that does as much damage to the cause of anti-rape politics as do the jokes and articles and images that cause these writers so much angst in the first place.'

What he's talking about is the utility of language, and that we ought to think carefully before we bandy about words as loaded as 'rape'. If everything is rape then nothing is rape, the logic goes. I understand how this could be seen to endanger a volatile topic. But the terminology is deliberately confronting. The reality of living in such a culture is a daily confrontation to girls and women. It is real, and we are naming it for what it is.

The only time I have decisively called out a man for touching me inappropriately, he reacted aggressively, shouting at me as if I had done something inexcusable. This was not a random bloke on the street, but a peer of mine: ostensibly educated, and employed by a reputable media company. This naming of sexual harassment was taboo, it was all a bit embarrassing.

There are many reasons why women don't call out this behaviour more often: fear of injury by the perpetrator, or of being forced into an unwanted legal proceeding, or the unrelenting thought that maybe they didn't mean it like that. The burden should not be on the victim to redress injustice.

If this particular man's sense of entitlement was so unshakable, even when I confronted it directly, I don't feel optimistic about these cultures changing any time soon.

Language is a powerful weapon, and calling a rose a rose is the first step in a long journey. 'Smaller' acts of sexual violence that all women experience, including leering, wolf-whistling, hollering, touching, intimidating, and being followed, all make the larger crimes against women possible. By labouring the distinction between harassment and actual rape, we openly dismiss their cultural correlation.

It bears repeating the facts: the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimate that fewer than 20 per cent of rapes are reported, and, since 1993, fewer than 3 per cent ended with a conviction. In the vast majority of cases, these crimes are committed by a person known to the victim. A government survey in 2000 found that 59.3 per cent of women and 25 per cent of men in Australia had experienced at least one sexual assault.

I think these figures are more confronting than women's linguistic choices around how they talk about this.

It bears repeating too that this crime can have devastating and life-long affects on survivors, their families, and other women (and men) whose bodily security is threatened by this reality.

It is no exaggeration to call this a culture of rape, in the same way that it is not an exaggeration to say that young men are exposed to a culture of violence. A lot of men compare the fear women have walking alone at night to their fear of walking alone at night. Men are attacked by other men, and while the nature of such attacks is usually different, sometimes the violence they experience is irreversible.

These experiences are relevant to the discussion: if we all feel threatened by the possibility of packs of men in the street, perhaps there is something about packs of men in the street that needs changing. And considering it is men that we all fear, perhaps men could stop feeling alienated by the language feminists use to identify rape culture, and begin campaigning against rape culture itself.

Ignorance can be a violent thing: it is not simply that you don't know, but that you don't know you don't know. And if you are unwilling to identify the means by which we all make a rape culture possible, then you are probably a part of the problem. 

Ellena Savage headshotEllena Savage is a Melbourne writer who edits Middlebrow, the arts liftout in The Lifted Brow

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, rape culture



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Thx Ellena, well done.
Patricia Bouma | 26 October 2012

Great article Ellena on a sensitive topic. i've had occasion recently to reflect on a similar dilemma, whether the term 'birth rape' is a helpful one in the context of intervention in childbirth, an issue that is somewhat belatedly coming to be seen in a feminist context. My initial perception was that the phrase was unhelpful, tending to suggest that those who complained about birth rape might be at best overreacting and at worst echoing their own earlier experiences. But I have come to see that the underlying pattern is the same. Put simply society still does not recognise, let alone affirm, a woman's right to say no. I agree; we still have a very long way to go.
Margaret | 26 October 2012

Thank you for this piece, Ellena. We all, male and female alike, need to understand and respond to the reported and unreported instances of sexual harassment and rape. If I understand your conclusion correctly, you are wanting to provoke people out of passive roles as bystanders? Perhaps in one sense, then, we are making progress as a society, if we have moved from 'blaming the victims' to 'blaming the bystanders'. I personally would be much happier blaming the perpetrators and making them accountable for their actions, words and attitudes. In July this year Australia's sex discrimination commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, launched a research report entitled 'Encourage. Support. Act!: Bystander approaches to sexual harassment in the workplace'. The report explored how bystanders can stop or help to reduce 'the incidence of sexual harassment'. Ms Broderick said that 'If we don’t support and encourage the targets of sexual harassment, and any bystanders, to take action, we run the risk of creating cultures that tolerate sexual harassment...It is up to organisations to provide this support and encouragement, thereby making it clear that sexual harassment has no place in our workplaces or in our society.' I agree with Ellena, actually, that sexual harassment is already present and sometimes (often?) prevalent in our society and workplaces. I do contend, however, that co-opting men as partners against sexual harassment through an education and encouragement process, as with the annual national White Ribbon Day, is a better strategy than some other strategies, which seem to demonise all males as potential rapists. Male alienation isn't going to be addressed by demionisation, especially as you show that men are also experiencing sexual assault. We should name and 'call out' inappropriate actions and actors, regardless of gender. Thanks again, Ellena, for a challenging piece, especially in a cultural morass that offers up 'edgy' pieces such as Sasha Baron Cohen's 'The Dictator', a film that makes light of rape and repeatedly riffs on themes such as the abuse of power and sexual conquest/domination.
Barry G | 26 October 2012

Well said Ellena Your reasoning is born out by so much evidence in the media over the past few weeks Why do our men feel the need to denigrate and trivialise women Is there a fear inherent in this behaviour. The issues have to be addresed in the home, school workplace...........wherever the misogyny occurs and by women who have had enough of it. Are we women confident to do just that!
GAJ | 26 October 2012

"was sich liebt, neckt sich" a saying I believe from Goethe meaning: "people who like each other tease each other". There is a fine line between "rape" or unwanted "touching, acting" and the frequent and socially acceptable "flirting". Between the "protection" of the burka and the flaunting of bare flesh lies an enormous variety of "acceptable" or "frowned upon" behaviour and clothing. Good article but a bit onesided.
Theo verbeek | 26 October 2012

BARRY G, questioning people's passivity/apathy on this issue is not "blaming them" as you seem to think, and neither is it the meaning I got from Ellena's story. It's not about workplaces, or societal culture - it's about individuals snapping out of their apathetic/pathetic burueacratised view of life and having some balls (or ovums) to say something and actually care.
AURELIUS | 26 October 2012

Could the writer please continue the theme of rape, and write an article on marital rape. This event is alive and well here in Australia, among the literate and illiterate; among long-established Aussies and some immigrant groups. The veil of silence and disbelief must stop -- marital rape is a secret crime.
Ann Daly-Windsor | 27 October 2012

More on the role of bystanders, who are partially making a difference, with today's posting of a phone survey and comments calling for an all-of-community response from the sex discrimination commissioner. 'The research shows that one in four women (25%) and one in six men (16%) have been sexually harassed in the workplace in the past five years. If a person's entire lifetime is considered, the gender gap is even more profound with a third of women (33%) and less than one in ten men (9%) experiencing sexual harassment. 'Targets of sexual harassment are most likely to be women under 40 and harassers are most likely to be male co-workers. Women are at least five times more likely than men to have been harassed by a boss or employer. Men harassing women accounts for more than half of all sexual harassment, while male harassment of men accounts for nearly a quarter. 'Commissioner Broderick said that one of the most encouraging parts of the research concerned the role of bystanders - people who witnessed or later became aware of sexual harassment."Fifty-one per cent of people who were bystanders took some action to prevent or reduce the harm of the sexual harassment they were aware of," she said...."' The point I tried to make previously in response to Ellena's poignant article is that a deliberate and constructive engagement with men (as per the White Ribbon Day campaign), rather than a alienating labelling of the male gender, is more likely to be an effective strategy towards addressing this abuse of power and privilege, committed (as noted by Ellena and recorded in the survey) largely by men against women. link follows: http://www.probonoaustralia.com.au/news/2012/10/workplace-sexual-harassment-%E2%80%9Cextraordinary%E2%80%9D?utm_source=Pro+Bono+Australia+-+email+updates&utm_campaign=4b17b95a96-news_october_3010_30_2012&utm_medium=email
Barry G | 30 October 2012


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