Jen Thorpe
Jen Thorpe

Rape culture — bad for you, bad for me, bad for everyone

I would argue that most South Africans have endured rape culture which allows violence to persist with little resistance. It’s undeniable that things aren’t right in South Africa when it comes to sexual violence. Last year’s crime stats show 68 332 reported “sexual offences” and this doesn’t account for the many offences which aren’t reported. There are other reasons why these stats aren’t great, but that’s a talk for another day.

What is rape culture?

“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” (Melissa McEwan)

Sounds like a scary place to live for women, but it is also a scary place to live for men. Rape culture affects both men and women negatively. Apart from the obvious reasons that if South Africans buy into rape culture more people will be raped, there are some subtle reasons why it is bad for men and women in a Hegelian master-slave dialectic kind of way, and in the other obvious kind of way that limits people’s freedom.

Why is rape culture bad for women? Well, this quote from Melissa McEwan should clear it all up.

“Rape culture is the way in which the constant threat of sexual assault affects women’s daily movements. Rape culture is telling girls and women to be careful about what you wear, how you wear it, how you carry yourself, where you walk, when you walk there, with whom you walk, whom you trust, what you do, where you do it, with whom you do it, what you drink, how much you drink, whether you make eye contact, if you are alone, if you’re with a stranger, if you’re in a group, if you’re in a group of strangers, if it’s dark, if the area is unfamiliar, if you’re carrying something, how you carry it, what kind of shoes you’re wearing in case you have to run, what kind of purse you carry, what jewelry you wear, what time it is, what street it is, what environment it is, how many people you sleep with, what kind of people you sleep with, who your friends are, to whom you give your number, who’s around when the delivery guy comes, to get an apartment where you can see who’s at the door before they can see you, to check before you open the door to the delivery guy, to own a dog or a dog-sound-making machine, to get a roommate, to take self-defence, to always be alert, always pay attention, always watch your back, always be aware of your surroundings and never let your guard down for a moment lest you be sexually assaulted and if you are and didn’t follow all the rules it’s your fault.

South Africa’s rape culture makes it hard for women to act without entering into a situation where they might take the blame for rape. South Africa’s rape culture takes away women’s freedom of movement, speech, action and their ownership of their bodies. It transfers the ownership of women’s bodies to the public space, and sustaining this rape culture makes it OK to do what you need to, to a woman’s body because it is not her own.

So why is rape culture bad for men? Rape culture makes violence against women, and against men who are seen as effeminate, an essential part of male bonding. Rape culture increases sexual bullying in schools, male rape in prison and gay bashing. Rape culture skews the perspective of young boys towards women, and towards other men. Rape culture makes it scary for men to admit that they have been raped, because they are unlikely to receive support, are unlikely to be believed, and because they feel that to be raped is to be un-manly.

I think perhaps one of the critical reasons that rape culture also harms men is because it makes men afraid of talking about rape. If they bring up the subject people wonder what they are thinking, why they are asking, or what they have done. Not all men rape, but rape culture makes it seem as though they do. Rape culture builds up myths and norms about who a rapist is, and who a rape victim might be. As Melissa McEwan says:

“Rape culture is the idea that only certain people rape — and only certain people get raped. Rape culture is ignoring that the thing about rapists is that they rape people. They rape people who are strong and people who are weak, people who are smart and people who are dumb, people who fight back and people who submit just to get it over with, people who are sluts and people who are prudes, people who are rich and people who are poor … people of every race and shape and size and ability and circumstance.

Rape culture treats surviving rape as something to be ashamed of. Rape culture doesn’t shame rapists — it instead tries to find justifications for what they did.

So what’s my point? The point is that South African rape culture is stopping us all from talking about rape. We are all afraid that people hearing us talking about it will be wondering whether we have been raped, or whether we are a rapist. Rape culture treats people who talk about rape as oversensitive when in fact it should be treating people who don’t talk about rape in a country where every minute someone is raped as insensitive.

I think what we need to be doing is talking more. Talking more about rape. Talking about what we can do to stop it. Talking about what we can do to stop it being socially explicable. Talking about how we can support male and female survivors. Talking about how we, and the criminal justice system, need to support survivors better.

Essentially we need to break the silence around this rape culture. Because being raped is never your fault, and no culture is immutable.