Thanks to the media circus surrounding Roman Polanski, and the depressing announcement that the government intends to grant anonymity to defendents in rape cases, rape is back in the news again. I find most media discourses on the subject irritating at the least. But I welcome debate and I think overall it is better that people discuss this difficult, emotive subject, than don’t. I believe that language is a vital part of the context in which rape is so endemic. And, I think that changing the way we speak about and conceptualise rape could be part of the solution to the seemingly unsolvable social problem of violence, including rape and sexual assault against women.
Here I would like to discuss some of my findings which have emerged in part from my participation in and analysis of discussions of rape on online forums, including the F-word, Twitter and other websites. In particular I want to offer a critique of certain terminology that tends to be used uncritically, in discussions of rape and gendered violence.
A ‘Rapist’ by any other name…
The term ‘rapist’ is one I am not comfortable with using at all, if I can help it. I know I am in a tiny minority, as I see the word splashed across the newspapers on a regular basis, and I hear it being used widely in conversations about rape. The reason I don’t like the word ‘rapist’, is that I think it serves to undermine our attempts to tackle rape and sexual violence. This is because it pathologises people who commit rape, portraying them in our culture as ‘monsters’ and ‘hate figures’. This leads to a situation where we place rapists pretty near the top of a hierarchy of evil characters (maybe just behind ‘paedophiles’), so that in fact, it is actually very difficult to prosecute for rape. If ‘rapists’ are these inhuman monstrous characters, it is not surprising that courts up and down the country are reluctant to convict the thousands of (nearly always) men who commit rape each year. If we look at the new proposals to grant anonymity to rape case defendants, we can see that the argument is based in part on how terrible it is to be labelled ‘a rapist’ and how damaging it would be to someone’s reputation to be falsely accused of being such a thing. If we didn’t use the term rapist and didn’t demonise those who commit rape, people might not be clamouring to give people who do rape, special privileges in court. I have received criticism for my view, particularly from feminists who argue that survivors of sexual violence need the term ‘rapist’ to enable them to name their attacker, proceed with seeking justice, and ultimately to get over their ordeal. But I believe that just as we have changed our terminology from talking about ‘victims’ to ‘survivors’ of rape, we also need to change how we label perpetrators. When I hear the word ‘rapist’ I do not think of a man who is capable of change, of reflection. We have to speak about and talk to men as if they are able to change, if we want to reduce the horrific statistics on this crime.
Challenging ‘Rape Culture’
Just as ‘rapist’ generalises and stereotypes men, I think ‘rape culture’ generalises and stereotypes the society we live in. ‘Rape culture’ alludes to a world in which it is easy and likely for men to rape women. I know rape is endemic in our society, but I don’t accept the simplification of ‘rape culture’. In ‘rape culture’ apparently, pornography has been made mainstream, in the form of lads mags, adverts, fashion, music videos and film. This it is argued, has a bearing on the widespread occurrence of rape and sexual violence. I think it also suggests that in ‘rape culture’ women are passive ‘victims’ of culture, whilst men (or their leader: ‘patriarchy’) is the oppressor. Also I think the term ‘rape culture’ discourages us from examining the specific contexts and situations in which men rape women, and other men. How do particular conditions in the military and prisons lead to high numbers of rapes? Why do some husbands rape their wives? How can we work to reduce the numbers of sex workers who are raped by clients and employers and strangers? I don’t know the answer to these questions. Talking about ‘rape culture’ as a blanket description of the whole of our society doesn’t help us to even ask them. my conclusion so far is that unlike ‘gender culture’ , ‘rape culture’ does not offer an analytic tool or a perspective for analysing how gender functions in society to cause violence by men against women and other men.
I recently tried to engage with some feminists who are prominent in promoting the idea of ‘rape culture’, in blogs and as journalists. When I read and made comments on a blog, my comments were not accepted and so I was unable to have the discussion with them. I found their version of ‘rape culture’ actually seemed to go as far as being ‘misandrist’ a word I hate to use. But maybe if we are going to be honest and open in debate, it is only right to uncover hatred of men as well as women. I found it ironic that this feminist who had blocked my comments and who spouted hatred for ‘men’ as a homogenous group, elsewhere wrote that more men should join the feminist movement. I can’t even speak to her in the movement, as a woman and a feminist, so I expect men, no matter how feminist they are won’t be able to either. My searches for academic references and critical media articles on ‘rape culture’ came up with nothing. I am posting this now, unedited and a bit rambling, in case any of you have got any documents on the subject.
The Opposite of Rape
Thankfully, my research has not been completely disheartening. There are some amazing projects that tackle not only sexual violence, but also the way we talk about and conceptualise it. An organisation and website called ‘Scarleteen’, which deals with a range of issues mainly to do with young women, came up with the phrase ‘the opposite of rape’ which I think has the potential to liberate us from some of the more pernicious ways of discussing the subject. ‘The opposite of rape’ , tweeted Scarleteen ‘is not sex, it is no rape’. This brings home how rape is a violent assault, and that even when we are trying to campaign against it, we end up discussing it as if it were related to sex and pleasure. The focus by some feminists, on rape in terms of lack of sexual consent, I think, though accurate in a descriptive way, can bog us down into discussions about the sexual aspect of rape, at the detriment of our desire to end sexual violence against women mainly, but also men.
I would like to think that ‘the opposite of rape’ is possible, not just on an individual level, but across society all over the world. I know I can’t make rape go away just by refusing to engage with discourses of ‘rapists’ and ‘rape culture’ , but I strongly believe that part of our struggle against this horrible form of gender violence, has to be a challenge to the language we use to describe it.