Badass Deserving Of Your Respect is a recurring UnLady feature, for the simple reason that some people are badasses who deserve your respect.
On December 16th a 23 year old woman and her male friend were attacked on a bus in New Delhi. Six men took turns raping the woman, and both she and her male friend were severely beaten with a metal rod. After nearly an hour both were thrown, naked, from the moving bus. Just under two weeks later the woman died of her injuries, which included brain damage and multiple perforations to her intestines.
Thousands of people across India have responded to this tragedy by staging massive protests against rape culture- slamming police inaction, the shaming and blaming of victims, the habit of policing women instead of rapists, and the daily reality of harassment and threats of sexual violence women face.
While I disagree with the demand some protesters have to make rape punishable by death (I disagree with the death penalty in any circumstance), I’m overjoyed and overwhelmed by the sight of thousands rallying to end rape culture. For over two weeks now people have been gathering and raising their voices to demand change, and increasingly they’re doing so in the face of aggressive anti-protest measures including the use of tear gas and water cannons, blockades, and, in one instance, police firing live rounds into the crowd, killing a journalist. These people are risking their reputations, their health and even their lives to stand up for the basic right of women to live free of sexual violence. I didn’t think I’d ever see that in my lifetime, and I’m eternally grateful to them.
The rapists in the New Delhi case are in custody, and the charges against them have been upgraded to murder following their victim’s death. Their alleged reason for the attack was to teach the young woman a lesson for being out at night with a man; it’s only because of the ongoing protests that the government, media and country have been forced to acknowledge and discuss the rape culture that lead to both that attitude and the attack. India is now talking about the source of the problem, which gives me some hope that, in at least one country, real changes might be made to actively address sexual violence.
These protests should also serve as a call to examine our own thriving rape culture. Many recent articles on the protests have described the plight of daily street harassment, police and politicians who think rape is the victim’s fault, and the omnipresent threat of sexual violence faced by women in India, but with zero acknowledgement that these are current problems in North America and around the world. Denial is a powerful thing, and in this instance it looks all too much like the world will condemn what happened in India while happily ignoring the realities in their own backyards.
Here’s a snapshot of sexual violence and rape culture around the world:
- In the US a woman’s chances of being raped are 1 in 5. For women in college it’s 1 in 4, and for aboriginal women it’s 1 in 3. Being disabled also dramatically increases the odds a woman will be raped.
- In the US, 54% of rapes are never reported and 97% of rapists are never incarcerated. It’s extremely unlikely that a rapist will be prosecuted or convicted, which is part of why most women don’t report it.
- We know however that most rapists are serial rapists who average 6 victims in a lifetime. The most common method of rape is to either induce or take advantage of an intoxicated victim who can’t consent or fend off the attack. (If you haven’t read the linked article on this one, I highly recommend you do so asap- it’s a major eye-opener on the reality of rape)
- Rape kits (forensic samples that could be used to convict the rapist) are frequently left unopened and untested by law enforcement in the US. In several cases victims have waited over a decade or more for their kit to be tested and their rapist prosecuted. Some women are even forced to pay for the collection of a rape kit, which is literally the investigators refusing to collect any evidence at the crime scene until the victim pays up. We wouldn’t tolerate that with any other crime.
- In 2012 the Connecticut Supreme Court overturned a rape conviction on the grounds that the victim, a severely disabled woman with the intellectual capacity of a three year old, didn’t fight back hard enough.
- Despite popular opinion to the contrary, only 2-8% of reported rapes are false accusations.
- In the US military a woman is more likely to be raped by her brothers in arms than killed in action. The epidemic of rape of female service members has long been acknowledged, but little has ever been seriously done about it. Only 8% of sexual assaults are prosecuted in the military, and of those only 2% get a conviction. 80% of convicted rapists in the military receive an honourable discharge; meanwhile victims are frequently slapped with a “personality disorder” diagnosis and discharged without benefits. There’s an excellent write up on this issue here, as well as a documentary. And for the record, we’re not talking about fuzzy issues of consent- we’re talking by and large about violent rapes where the victim was beaten and held down by an assailant who clearly knew they were committing a rape.
- Only recently have governments and international organizations begun paying attention to rape as a strategic weapon of war and terrorism. The figures are staggering. In war zones women and children are frequently subjected to rape as a means of destabilizing and terrorizing communities, and instigating genocide (the elimination of a people, in this case by forcing breeding with another ethnic group).
- In more than one country a rapist has been acquitted because the victim wore skinny jeans. The belief is that skinny jeans can’t be removed forcibly because they’re too tight (untrue), and equally that, in the event the victim did remove her jeans herself, she then consents to any and all sexual activity regardless of future refusal (also absurdly untrue, and a prominent notion in rape culture used to nullify consent. Consent can absolutely be withdrawn, and women have certainly been raped after consenting to making out or groping but refusing sex).
- In a recent trial in France, several men were acquitted of gang raping two women repeatedly over a period of two years. Of the four who were convicted, two were sentenced to one year in prison, one six months, and one was given a suspended sentence.
- When an 11 year old girl was gang raped in Texas in 2011, the coverage overwhelmingly excused her attackers (which included several adult men) and vilified the girl. An article in The New York Times focused on what the child was wearing, questioned her mother’s parenting skills, and quoted concerns about the “ruined lives” of the men in question. This type of victim-blaming isn’t out of the ordinary when it comes to sexual assault of women and girls- pay attention to the news reports and you’ll see it. Rape and other sexual assaults are the only crimes where the victim is put on trial.
- In 31 states in the US a rapist can sue for custody of any resulting child. Some rapists use this to blackmail their victims into dropping charges.
- In 2008 a study in Australia found 1 in 7 men reporting that rape was justified when a woman is perceived to be flirting. When the study was published a significant number of men defended that view.
- Rape apologia is commonly heard from politicians, police, celebrities, and others.
- Linked above, but if you missed it there are more statistics listed here. And here. And here. There’s also an outstanding summation (with many examples) of rape culture here, which I strongly recommend you check out. The bottom line is that rape and sexual assault are common, the victims are overwhelmingly silenced and the perpetrators largely excused.
I could go on and on here. The disturbing statistics and examples are endless, and they come from every corner of the globe. In no country are women safe from sexual violence. Rape culture is the dominant culture. And then there’s sexual harassment, which has also been reported from India as a “shocking” reality but which likewise is a reality for women everywhere. Sexual harassment is just another manifestation of rape culture; it’s the view of women as public property, of women’s bodies as accessible and available, of privilege and subjugation, and the myth of male sexuality as animalistic and uncontrollable, forcing women to police our bodies, voices and behaviours so as not to “ask for it” (“it” being assault, harassment and rape). I’ve never understood why more men aren’t offended by this depiction of themselves as rampaging monsters with no impulse control, who must be treated carefully lest they cave to their violent desires.
One of the wonderful things about the protests in India is the sheer number of men who’ve come out to condemn rape and rape culture. These issues may disproportionately affect women, but they should be a concern for all people. Hell, even those guys who think it’s no problem at all so long as it’s just chicks getting harassed and attacked might want to consider the reality that when women aren’t available the rapists turn to other men (to wit: prison). There’s also the fact that men can be (and are) raped. No one is immune from this violence, and anyone with an ounce of compassion and decency can see that rape culture 1- exists, and 2- needs to be addressed and resolved.
Here’s hoping we can follow the example of India’s protesters. Love and gratitude to all of them.
Update: I just happened on this fantastic article by E. J. Graff that discusses rape culture and deconstructs notions of chastity and purity. This is essential reading on this subject, and Graff states it so perfectly I’m not going to attempt to summarize it. Among the choice quotes here:
“[E]ndemic street harassment is not about sex; it’s about threatening women for daring to leave the private sphere. It’s a form of control over women’s ambitions and lives. And when such a culture is widespread, it gives men permission to use women as the target for any excess anger they might have.”
“A culture in which women are expected to remain virgins until marriage is a rape culture. In that vision, women’s bodies are for use primarily for procreation or male pleasure. They must be kept pure. While cultural conservatives would disagree, this attitude gives men license to patrol—in some cases with violence—women’s hopes for controlling their lives and bodies.”
“Let me be clear that we have plenty of rape culture here in the United States. When I told my wife the prosecutor how shocked I was by the India case’s rusty metal bar, her response disturbed me terribly: She laughed at my naïveté. She sees it all the time, she explained. She started telling me about one recent case in which a husband had shoved a broom up his wife so far it ripped out through her chest.”
And on the Steubenville Ohio gang rape case currently in the news, a point that apparently needs to be made again and again: “Football players like these two can almost always find young women who will have sex with them willingly. Taking a drunk and helpless girl and urinating on her, humiliating her, fingering her publicly, violating several orifices—that’s about rage and power, not sexual pleasure.” Amen.
One thing I will add to Graff’s points is the explicit acknowledgment that rape is, and historically has been, a property crime. When you understand that our approach to it begins to make sense. It’s women as property, not persons, and rape as damage and devaluing of another man’s property (or punishing a woman by devaluing her as future property). In this sense, sexual violence against women is very much a personhood issue.