by Soraya Chemaly
Warning: This post contains graphic depictions of sexualized violence.
The same small part of me that still wants to believe in faeries wanted to think that I could avoid thinking or writing about rape for at least a few weeks. But, it’s impossible. Not with laws in California that say single women can’t, in effect, be raped and when the night-long gang-rape of a 16-year-old unconscious girl “divides” a community dedicated to its football team. Definitely not when ongoing details about the death of a 23-year-old in Delhi, whose rape to the point of disembowelment and multiple organ failure, are spurring protests all over the world.
No matter where you are in the world, the result of rape — “date rape,” “gang-rape,” “easy rape,” “emergency rape,” “war rape” — is the same: oppression. Women are not free to live without the constant threat of assault and violence or without being treated like objects and property. When I last checked there were at least four “rape capitals” of the world. You know what that makes the rest of us? “Rape Suburbs.” Girls and women aren’t idiots. On the contrary, we understand perfectly: we’re supposed to “be careful.” Don’t do something we might “regret.” “Stay home.” “So what if it happens, anyway?” We can’t feel any security that our bodily integrity will be respected. Or that our consent matters. We cannot enjoy the confident access and ownership of public space that men do. Our attempts to pursue equality and opportunity are inhibited, not only by actual rape, but by people’s malevolent tolerance for it. Rape is useful, even the rape of boys and men: it sustains a system that rewards physical dominance and sustains male hegemony.
When precisely doesn’t a girl or woman think “she could have been me?” What teenage girl in the United States won’t think a little harder about going to parties? Or even to sleep? When it’s too scary to consider the facts or when it’s easier to align oneself with the dominant and powerful, blame the victim, in the hope of “protection.” Today, more girls, no matter how briefly, will consider being drugged and raped by a self-anointed “Rape Crew” like the one in Steubenville, Ohio. If you missed this past week’s revelations, this rape in continues to elicit shock and repugnance. If it weren’t for the doggedness of blogger Alexandra Goddard and the outrage of Anonymous (yes, that Anonymous) this night-long assault of an unconscious girl, literally dragged and periodically violated, urinated on and photographed would have faded into nothingness. All of this happened while up to 50 other girls and boys were present — each deriving specific but different messages about what was happening. And, THAT’s the point isn’t it? A warning to girls or the boys who would help them. It’s not just that this happened, and variations of it happen every day, but it’s the idea that it could happen. All over the planet.
If we take risks — like living — and are raped, people are comfortable saying we “lured” men, even if you are an 11-year-old girl, like the one in Texas raped by more than 18 of them or boys molested by priests. And, yes, I know that boys and men are raped. They suffer tremendously. Often, they have no support, cannot get the help they need and live entire lives with great pain. But, this is related, because when boys and men are raped not only are they violated, but they are shamed by being “made” into girls and women as a way of debasing them and demonstrating their worthlessness. That’s a message, too, by the way. And, yes, I am writing in terms of sex binaries — because they are essential to this system of oppression. The heightened chance of assault that people who do not “fit,” people who are sex or gender fluid, experience illustrates the point. People who don’t adhere transgress too far and threaten too much.
Is there any greater demonstration that rape is about power and domination and not about sex than the gang-rapes that we are now openly discussing? At its core, does it matter that rape involves rusted pipes in India, rats fed into women’s vaginas in Syria, fists used to bludgeon girls in France or drugs to incapacitate girls in the U.S.? I don’t get the point of not making comparisons when they’re screaming, jumping up and down, making themselves.
Strictly speaking, eliding a gang-rape in India with one in the U.S., or say France, leaves out important contextual information — societal, cultural, legal and judicial — there are profound connections in the ways in which the perpetrators of these crimes are taught — at home, in schools, via religions, in sports — to denigrate the feminine and females as a path to glorifying their masculinity, to demonstrate their dominance and superiority by proving the worthlessness of girls and women. All while simultaneously constructing unattainable ideals and perverted applications of female “purity.” In India, where rape is one aspect of a deeply entrenched culture of misogyny with unrelenting permutations of violence against girls and women, it took the much publicized and catalytic death of this girl to finally pitch people into public outrage. However, despite the fact that it is one of the worst places to be a girl or woman, India has no monopoly on telling women to “submit,” on rape and victim blaming. Or violence against women. It’s just more obvious about it. The sheer mass of people and of evident hatred finally made it impossible for them to blatantly ignore misogyny.
Like we want to. Although I would genuinely like to think that globally we are at a strategic inflection point in regards to violence against women, I have grave doubts. As Jessica Valenti points out, we have a rape problem, but we stubbornly “refuse to admit it.” In the past few weeks of media coverage and conversation, the subtext that “we’re better than that here,” and that India’s “misogyny” and “patriarchy” are somehow unique to India has been unsettling for its suggestion that “we’re just fine” and “women here have nothing to complain about.” We’d rather fixate on the superficial aspects, like “social media,” a tool, not a cause. Or on how desperately an Ohio town needs its football to feel ok about itself. Remember, we can’t even elect people who will reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. And here the media fails too.
Rape is part of a larger, complex system of violence that is central to our identity. Pretending Steubenville is some kind of quirky outlier, or that kids involved are somehow exceptional, is outright collusion with rapists. And shaking our heads and pointing fingers at India is disingenuous, racist, colonialist, hypocritical bullshit.
Lauren Wolfe, director of the Women Under Siege Project, has called for an End Culture of Rape in 2013. As Wolfe and others point out, a first step to challenging rape is to stop victim blaming and focus on perpetrators and the cultures that produces them. She’s not just talking about Congo or Syria or Egypt. Boys who allegedly drug a girl and then rape her, kidnap her, rape her again, photograph her, photograph her rape, urinate on her then create videos boasting about it, do it because they are fearless and entitled. (I wrote that sentence out deliberately because I’m sick of seeing “she was raped” — like she was an agent in her assault or that there was no real perpetrator.) These boys were not taught, by fully culpable adults, that these actions are morally repugnant crimes against humanity. Because we laugh about rape and mock people who object. Girls who witnessed these events don’t speak up because they have no faith they won’t be next, they have no confidence they will be believed, they’ve learned to internalize the contempt our culture has for them. After all, we teach our children that it’s acceptable for boys to be protected from shaming and punishment after they’ve sexually assaulted, and to attend schools where there are “rape factories” and where frat boys play games like “who would you rape.”
Men are overwhelming the perpetrators of rape — of girls, of boys, of women, or other men. The gendered nature of the crime isn’t in dispute. But, they aren’t born to rape. And, while I understand that most men aren’t walking around feeling all-powerful, or like they have a right to rape, too many clearly do. They feel entitled to it. Taking that cultural entitlement away doesn’t oppress men or dehumanize them. It just frees women and people and people who don’t “fit.”