I didn’t enjoy being stalked by my ex boyfriend, and then having him break into my house, threaten to kill me, and then assault me so I needed to visit the hospital. I didn’t enjoy it at all. Sometimes I call that night over ten years ago now, as ‘the day I became a feminist’.
I was already a feminist. My Mum and her Mum were feminists. I was born into it. So I never really had to think too much until he was stood over me, his hands round my neck, squeezing, telling me what a ‘bitch’ I was. I never had to think what ‘being a woman’ or ‘being a feminist’ means. I will give him that. He and his violence really got me thinking.
After my assault, and my lonely journey through the legal procedure that followed, I naiively thought I might be able to share some sisterhood and solidarity with other women who’d suffered violent attacks, including domestic violence and rape. But when I have tried to connect with women who campaign on violence against women, I repeatedly get told that because I have not been raped, I have no right to talk on this issue, or to try and empathise with women who have. Rape seems to hold a special symbolic position in the minds of these feminists, and is treated as worse, but also somehow ‘better’ than all other violent crimes.
The term that is used to demonstrate the privileged position rape holds in feminist discourse, is ‘rape culture’. According to Melissa McEwan,
‘Rape culture is the myriad ways in which rape is tacitly and overtly abetted and encouraged having saturated every corner of our culture so thoroughly that people can’t easily wrap their heads around what the rape culture actually is’ (my emphasis).
Far more important than my own feeling of exclusion from feminist campaigns and groupings around gender violence, is the countless number of other people who get attacked and killed in our society, who are not acknowledged by the concept of ‘rape culture’. Have you ever heard a feminist say we live in ‘transphobic assault’ culture? or ‘murder of young black men’ culture? or ‘homophobia’ culture? or even ‘domestic violence culture?’ I haven’t. Incidentally domestic violence is far more common than rape, and can also include rape. But it just doesn’t seem to impress the feminists who believe in rape culture. They are welcome to their victim top trumps, but I am not playing anymore.
When I say rape is ‘privileged’ in feminist discourse, I don’t mean that it benefits anybody. I believe that by focusing on the centrality of rape in our culture, feminists are actually making it more difficult for all of us to campaign against all forms of gendered violence in society.
Trying to work out ‘why’ these feminists do this is difficult. Maybe some of you can help me? My instinct is, that holding onto ‘special victim’ status has some pay offs for these feminists. They can continue to present gender politics as a binary opposition between ‘men’ (potential rapists) and ‘women’ (perpetual potential victims of rape). Basically, the concept of ‘rape culture’ is misandrist, and it does not allow for the fact that women are sometimes perpetrators of sexual assault, and men are sometimes on the receiving end.
I’d like to quote somebody who left a comment on a previous essay of mine about this topic. This woman is a survivor of rape, so the rad-fems won’t be able to dismiss her critique of rape culture the way they do mine:
‘This mythologizing of rape is still rooted in the whole “pedestal” complex, IMHO, and thus rapists are EVIL and women who get raped are spiritually/psychologically disfigured for LIFE and blah blah blah. The “rape culture” paradigm, while clearly meant as helpful critique and containing valuable cultural insight, seems to carry on that tradition’.
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 people who commit rape each year.
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 think of a man, and not 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, and we also must acknowledge men are not the only perpetrators, if we want to reduce sexual and intimate partner violence in society.