Rape culture: the dark side of western amnesia
January 2, 2013 2 Comments
The end of 2012 has been marked by the collective outrage in reaction to the gang rape of a 23 years old medical student in South Delhi, India. The horrible details of this tragically common story have made the rounds on international news outlets, and have prompted massive protests erupting all over India requesting immediate action from the government, in the form of increased legal protection for women in India. This is a horrifying, harrowing story, and everyone is watching India closely as the worldwide consciousness is pressed for action.
The sad and pathetic consequence of the coverage of this story in the Western world is this article in the New York Times, an op-ed focusing on the dramatic situation of women in India, and the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault in developing countries. I took issue with the op-ed as it describes a rape pandemic in developing countries as being the sad, woeful predicament that it is, without mentioning the fact that in western countries, and in the United States in particular, we are not spared: according to the RAINN network, a woman is sexually assaulted every two minutes. Think about it: during the time it took you to read that paragraph, a woman was assaulted. And then another one. And it’s time to stop thinking of it as a situation no one can help but observe and at which we can only shake our heads.
Thankfully, another columnist, Sonia Faleiro, expressed her own views on the issue by highlighting the reality of being a woman in cities nowadays. The core of the problem is thus: we teach women to protect themselves, to be alert, to create and entertain a support network, to develop methods of survival – all in the name of being able to leave the house without a man by their side, enjoying an evening out, riding public transportation, walking home, menial and mundane tasks that are rendered often dangerous and nerve-wracking. We don’t seem to be bothered that much anymore. It’s part of our education. It’s part of the way we were raised and what we have been told in college, it’s part of transitioning into adulthood, and it’s as much part of our everyday routine as pouring yourself some cereal or turning the shower on. It’s become subconsciously necessary, and every single woman does it keeping in mind what we have all read in the paper or heard from our friends.
As New Year’s Eve festivities are on our mind, I shared my views with some friends over the evening. As I was preparing to leave a party, everyone was gathering around me planning an itinerary in the city I was visiting (Paris, France) and urging me to be safe. Granted, they were right, as I dodged a few men being a little too close for comfort and was steadily harassed for the twenty two minutes ride home by a bunch of drunk twenty-somethings. This is nothing new. I used to live in Paris and this is the daily fare of every woman. My friend Nicolas told me: “Truth be told, I have never met a woman here who has never been assaulted or harassed. It has literally happened to everyone I know.” Everyone indeed. I recall the first week of college there, when, during Orientation, a specific class was being held to inform the young women attending the school that they had to be mindful of their safety, that they should not drink too much on a night out, always walk around in groups, should call a taxi instead of taking public transportation, and make sure someone knew where they were at all times. It was the regular safety routine for living in Paris. It was what we all did. Some of us made it out. Some of us didn’t.
A friend of mine shared this story. Recently, his friend Maureen was assaulted when going home, by a man who was waiting for her near the door of her building and started rubbing against her while masturbating. Maureen, who had been taught self-defense, grabbed his arm, choked him, and threw him to the ground. The man, in violent pain and in shock by the surprise attack, ran away. Truth is, it’s all good that a woman learns self-defense and is capable to turn things upside down like Maureen did. I am happy this happened and I am relieved she is safe. But this is not the way things should have gone down. Feminism should not only come from women – what we need is feminist men, men who are capable of standing up to their peers and, instead of nodding along with the harassment their fellow males are inflicting upon women, raise their voice and shame the harasser into shutting up. I am not necessarily talking about the usual boyfriend or husband standing up for their girlfriend or wife, although it’s also nice to hear, but this is not about an instinctive feeling of protection. It’s about a stranger passing by in the street and refusing to see another man cat-call a woman, following her, touching her, infringing her privacy in any way. It’s about any man, in the street, on the subway, at a party, in a meeting, at school, at work, publicly and loudly acknowledging that such a behaviour is not only inappropriate, it is out of line. It’s about not wanting to be placed in the same basket as men who do not know how to behave with women, and who compensate their inefficiency with lewdness and, yes, criminal behaviour.
Whether we are placing ourselves in the context of South Delhi, India or Steubenville, Ohio, the same element persists – that of collective diminution of the damage that the woman is suffering. The concept of SlutWalk has been established in response to police attitude towards rape claims: that the woman was “asking for it”, be it in her attitude or in the way she was dressed; that the question of consent – which is a crystal clear, black or white situation – is actually a blurry one; that the woman may do it out of spite to humiliate the man, not because she has suffered unspeakable pain. There is a tendency to not see rape for what it was; to consider sexual assault like a misdemeanor that hardly has any consequences. This is how we end up with legislation surrounding abortion that does not protect victims of rape or incest, or lawmakers trying to establish various degrees of rape, including “rape rape”, block the Violence Against Women Act, or, on a bigger, global scale, the time it took to finally see mass rape during guerilla or war as what it is, a war crime.
It was indeed satisfying to see the Ohio branch of Occupy Wall Street organise protests in Steubenville in order to call for more awareness on the issue of rape. It is great that a collective that originated as a reaction to economic downfall saw it fit to protect women the way they protected socially deprived families. It is all part of the same core phenomenon, after all, that we fail to see the human in one another, that we are becoming so estranged and so distant from our peers that it becomes perfectly normal to arm ourselves to the teeth to supposedly be protected from our neighbor, to selfishly refuse to pay taxes that would be redistributed towards global education, to support a party that considers welfare as an “entitlement”, in short, to be selfish, self-centered and self-absorbed, to the point that the systematic destruction of women are mundane and accepted as one of life’s hardships we must deal with, and not like the outstanding crime against a human being. Canada set a strong example this year with the “Don’t be that guy” ad campaign that seems to have cut down sexual assaults in Vancouver, BC by 10%. It will take a strong nation, a wilful nation, one that steadily relies on the power of its own people as an agent for change to stand up to rape and punish it the way it should be punished, with tougher laws, faster judicial processes, longer sentences, but before anything else, more comprehensive police protection and education to prevent rape. It is a fact that each woman is someone’s daughter, could be someone’s sister, might be someone’s mother; but it’s not just about considering women in relation to someone else – understand, a man – it’s about considering women as full-fledged, perfectly entitled human beings, that deserve respect and protection, like anyone else.