Monday, 13 May 2013

Where does rape culture come from?

Let's start with a definition. Rape culture is a form of victim-blaming. It's saying 'If a woman is raped, it's her fault for not preventing it, for dressing or acting provocatively, or simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time'. The implicit corollary to this is that a man will rape unless prevented from doing so, and that he has a right to act this way unless explicitly denied consent (this, as I understand it, was the actual defence used in court by the Steubenville rapists).

When you put it like that, it's an obviously, almost comically, repugnant position. It's so absurd that a Scooby Doo villain would be ashamed of it. The problem is that it's everywhere. It's a deeply ingrained cultural ideology ('memeplex', I guess?). And I believe that whenever a culture adopts a principle this absurd, there is an explanation of how it came to do so.

Note: I said explanation, not excuse. It's not my intention to defend any of this, or to excuse or forgive the Steubenville or any other rapists (or for that matter the defenders of rapists). But I believe that we cannot hope to change our culture without understanding how it has come to operate in such a poisonous way. I hope that in analysing the genesis of rape culture I can find a weak link, a belief that we may be able to change or disprove, on which the whole culture depends.

In essence, I think it comes down to three great cultural myths;

1) The myth of virile masculinity. This is probably the most obviously problematic of the three; the myth that if a man, particularly a young man, is not sexually active then he is a failure. This is a myth that every man feels the pressure of, and it comes from somewhere very deep and primal in our idea of masculinity. We throw it around perhaps more, or at least more viciously, in the modern age than ever before, in everything from soap operas to deodorant adverts and back again.

2) The myth of Mars and Venus. Whether you think this one is a problem or not probably depends on who you most often hear it from. Sometimes it takes obviously dangerous forms, like when lads say to each other 'Oh, women never say what they mean. She might be saying no, but she's just playing hard to get', but sometimes it's more subtle. I was the shy, introverted, endlessly-heartbroken kind of adolescent, and some of the best role models I've ever had - teachers, my father etc. - consoled me with 'Don't worry, it's not just you - no man ever understood women'. It's the same myth, that men and women are in some way so fundamentally different that clear and accurate communication between them is impossible.

3) The myth of a just universe. I don't want to sound cynical - I do believe justice is possible in many, perhaps even most, cases. However, where there is justice, it's something human beings have to consciously create. The universe isn't just, it doesn't care about being fair to individuals. If the universe is even-handed at all, it's only as an average over a near-infinite number of objects, an averaging so vast that any quantity of individual suffering is rendered statistically insignificant. But all of us, I think, still expect fairness in our own cases. If we have bad days, we seek explanations - I must have been a bad person yesterday, or in a past life, or I'm saving up karma to have a good day at a later date - that rely on the idea that our own lives will even out of their own accord.

How do we get from all this to rape culture? Via a surprisingly short sequence of steps.

First, you have to understand that (3) includes the belief that no-one should be doomed to failure. In a just universe, heartfelt and sincere effort will always be rewarded.

This has an obvious consequence when linked with (1) - if it's failure for a man not to be sexually active, then society must be such that all men can be sexually active.

Of course, society doesn't prevent men being sexually active, it just requires that to be sexually active, a man must have consent from those he wishes to act sexually with. And this is where the problem comes in, because if (2) is taken to heart, then it's impossible to get consent, because if as a man you believe you'll never understand women, you'll never be sure that you have consent.

For the fairness requirement set by (1) and (3) to be met, then, the requirement for consent must be removed. And that's rape culture in a nutshell - consent is either assumed or treated as irrelevant, because otherwise it's not fair.

Now, I'm not saying that this is a conscious process that any rapist actually reasons through. I do think that most men feel there's something unfair about sexual politics - you can see this personified in the desperation of the Jason Biggs character in 'American Pie' (playing very much to the myth of virile masculinity), or in pretty much every Hugh Grant film ever (playing more on the myth of Mars and Venus). What I'm suggesting is that this is a subconscious process, perhaps even a process that works mainly in the collective cultural subconscious.

Can we stop it? Perhaps. While (1) is obviously problematic in a whole range of ways, it's also very deeply rooted in our culture. It also seems to be a very effective marketing tool, which means there's a lot of money invested in it. That in turn means it's going to be very hard to shift (though I dearly wish we could shift it - more on that in a moment). (3) is similar - in fact, (3) is rooted so deeply that I think most of us don't even notice or believe that we believe it.

The thing is, (2) may be the myth that plays the key role here. And while there's a grain of truth to it - all human communication is a bit flawed, so of course men and women will never perfectly understand each other, but then neither will men and men or women and women; gay couples run into all the same communication difficulties, I'm sure, as straight couples - I think it's probably also the easiest of the myths to overturn.

Sure, on all sorts of things, and particularly when there's any kind of romance or lust in the air, human communication is an awkward, unclear thing. But in my experience, consent is an exception to this rule. Now, I'm a virgin (it's complicated), so my experience is limited, but on the couple of occasions where I have received sexual consent (really not kidding about the 'complicated'), it's been very clear, and so have any conditions that were applied. I have no reason to think that either case was exceptional in that respect, or to believe that I'm in some way more empathic than other men.

It may be true that women sometimes play mind games in romance, or play hard to get, or say things they don't mean. But when it comes to saying important stuff, women are as straightforward (perhaps even more so, though I'm sceptical of drawing generalisations about women that aren't also generalisations about humans) as men. And, heck, the person I communicate with best and most clearly in all the world is a woman, so communication can't be that hard.

1 comment:

  1. What a powerful post!! The problem with these myths, as you said, is that they may never be debunked. Communication is key in any partnership but where we are all original, each deciphers that communication in a different way. It's what makes us human. And difficult.

    You bring a new light to the rape culture and I was impressed by your take on it. I wish everything could be perfect, but in this world where we crash over each other in selfish struggles, injustice is a given it seems.

    Thanks for ever informative post!