Rape is in the news again this week with another widely-publicized gang rape in India and a 31-day sentence for an American teacher who raped a 14-year-old student (she later committed suicide). In the Guardian I’m writing about how certain cultures abet rape and keep reporting rates low:
Rape isn’t perpetrated only by members of one religion, race, nation or belief system. But rapists are particularly abetted by cultures in which women are second-class citizens, where women’s bodies are intensely politicized, where social hierarchies outlandishly privilege certain members and where there’s a presumption of male authority and righteousness.
Rape is a particularly difficult crime because it’s about both power and violence. Rapists use sex organs as the locus of their violence, but rape isn’t about sex, at least not in the sense of being motivated by sexual attraction or an uncontrollable sexual urge. Rape is about sex in the sense that rapists not only commit acts of sexual violence, but that the pervasive threat of sexual assault is used to limit women’s sovereignty and justify sexual assault itself. The reality is that men are much more likely than women to be victims of violence outside of their own homes, yet I know far more women than men who internalize certain supposed violence-avoidance methods: qalk with your keys in your hand, take cabs at night, don’t accept drinks from strangers, be careful what you wear, don’t walk alone after dark. When women are the victims of rape, there’s an immediate assessment of what she did wrong and which of her perceived mistakes made her vulnerable to an assailant. An eleven-year-old girl is gang-raped in Texas by a group of grown men and the problem was that she wore make-up and “provocative” clothing. Women in Egypt are stripped and assaulted and their brightly-colored underwear is evidence of immodesty.
Rapists don’t rape because they can’t “get” sex elsewhere. Rapists don’t rape because they’re uncontrollably turned on by the sight of some cleavage, or a midriff, or red lipstick, or an ankle. They rape because they’re misogynist sadists, and they flourish in places where misogyny is justified as tradition and maleness comes with a presumption of violence.
Combating rape and sexual assault goes beyond just criminalizing and prosecuting it. It requires an understanding of how many misogynist puzzle pieces fit together – that a cultural belief that the female body is inherently tempting and dirty cannot be separated from actions that do violence to female bodies; that a conceit of eliteness or purity means perpetrators within special elite or pure groups will get away with committing crimes; that community policing is useless for enforcing gendered crimes when community norms privilege men; that the politicization of female sexuality sends a message that the female body is public property and that women are less deserving of basic rights than men.
Rape happens in every society, and nowhere in the world has perfect gender equality been achieved. But rapes are more likely to be reported in places where men and women are more equal. And rapists are enabled by misogyny, whether it comes in the form of politicians and religious leaders deciding it’s the right of the state to regulate reproduction or modesty warriors declaring the female body itself inappropriate. Political violations of the female body abet physical ones; cultural narratives that women tempt men into bad behavior abet legal ones.