Tag Archives: rape culture

The crime is not scandalous, the culture is.

[TRIGGER WARNING]

[This post has been updated since first publishing.]

These past few months have been extremely demoralizing for me, not just as a feminist but as a woman in general. Whether it’s “legitimate rape” or “culture of impunity”, the current discourse around sexual violence frightens me. The events that made the news seem to be repeating themselves over and over again, but what’s worse, they have become so normalized, almost acceptable. We have created a culture in which rape is silently condoned and even encouraged and, for the most part, unpunished.

photo by suzan black: “untitled” (2008) via fotopedia.com

The recent scandal surrounding the deceased BBC TV host and dj Jimmy Savile has clarified two things for me, and no, “rape exists” is not one of them: Continue reading

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Male Consent, or Can Women Rape?

I don’t need to tell you about how much feminist activists have done to reveal the proportions of rape culture. How they have fought to make unconsensual sex within marriage a crime, created rape crisis centers and hotlines, and made SAFE kits, also known as rape kits, obligatory in the U.S…. All of these measures were taken in order to help women who become the victims of some men who rape. Unfortunately, that’s well-understood. But can women rape, too?

The short answer is yes. However, those cases are often hard to detect, because they are legally not defined as such. In England and New Zealand, for example, rape constitutes the forced penetration by a man’s penis, which would make it virtually impossible for a woman to rape in legal terms. In most nations, however, a woman having unconsensual sex with a man can be punished for committing sexual assault rather than rape.

Call it whatever you want, I’m sure we can all agree that forcing someone violently to have sex against their will is not right and should be punished, regardless of the victim’s or the perpetrator’s sex. But of course, life isn’t always black and white; there are these damn grey areas, for example when people seem incapable of clearly stating what they want and do not want. As feminists have pointed out over and over again, a sleeping or highly inebriated person cannot give consent. But what about that hot girl you meet at a party, who may have had a few drinks too many but is dying to go home with you? What about the shy one who is too nervous and embarrassed to speak up?

via le-anyblack

These are particular situations many of us will know all too well. In order not to end up in a dodgy situation, feminists have come up with the concept “Yes means Yes”, also known as enthusiastic consent. It takes the saying “No means No” one step further, where the only sure road to consensual sex is asking for it and being explicit about what you want, ideally by saying that you want it.

This concept is not one that everyone can easily agree on, it seems. Some argue that it may kill the mood or the mystery of a sexual situation. Others claim (mostly rape apologists) that it will ruin their chances at sex altogether, because women are socialized/”cunning enough” to say no, even though they mean yes. After all, most of the time the discussion revolves around the question of women’s consent. Apparently, she has to be the one to call the shots, she is the only one that needs to be asked, because men are implied to always want sex by default. This presumption is, of course, just as dangerous as the assumption that women are much less sexual than men. Both open doors to sexual violations, because the specific needs and desires of an individual are completely disregarded.

I am mentioning this, because for every temptation in the shape of a drunk party girl, there may be a drunk party boy; for every young woman too shy to voice her likes and dislikes, there may be a young man too inexperienced and insecure to say no to sexual advances he doesn’t welcome. Some of us women may have been in situations where we violated someone’s boundaries without even realizing it, because both men and women perpetuate the stereotype that men will never mean no, and they certainly will never say it.

As women who believe in enthusiastic consent, we need to make sure we don’t hold up double standards. Education about consent needs to be directed at everybody, regardless of gender. Just like women, men need to learn to speak up, but most importantly, women, too, need to learn to insist on consent and how to get it.

An erection does not equal consent. Agreeing to sex does not mean agreeing to unprotected sex, to sex with other people, or to rough sex. A man can be too drunk to fuck, but a man can also be too drunk to want to fuck. Of course, these guidelines require a certain level of maturity and responsibility from both partners. If this level is not a given, you should ask yourselves whether you should be having sex at all.

After all, who would want to have sex with someone who doesn’t enjoy it? Only rapists would.

If you’re interested in learning more about enthusiastic consent, go here! Already a pro? Here’s the advanced version.

Because of the particularity of man-woman relationships, I have focused on heterosexual relations, but fortunately enthusiastic consent is a concept that works for all sorts of constellations!

Representing Rape Culture – The Dangerous Art of Rafal Karcz

Trigger Warning!

The latest series of works by the Polish artist Rafal Karcz is called “I wanna kill Cindy Sherman” – is it a coincidence that he references a female artist who has been viewed time and time again as a feminist icon problematizing the relation between woman as object and female subjectivity?

cindy sherman "untitled #86" (1981)

Karcz’ entire series (you can find some images here) is rather eclectic: dark, yet rich colours, hip content, psychedelic imagery, some of which could easily be found projected onto the walls at a VICE party. But some of the pictures stick out as more unusual, more disturbing and more revealing of an implicit critique the series may offer, a critique more direct and palpable than the questioning of “the mentality of the contemporary human being and the condition of his emotions“.

all art by rafal karcz "i wanna kill cindy sherman" (2011)

The images I am referring to are seemingly blurry, grainy pictures of young women drunk and/or passed out on the floor, at parties, in bars… These women are clearly the objects of the gaze; the spectator cannot help but become a voyeur at best, an attacker observing his or her prey at worst. It makes you feel uncomfortable, to say the least. Because these women, in their state of vulnerability and defenselessness, are not simply the victims of their own inebriation. They do not exist in a vacuum. They exist within a rape culture that identifies them as the potential victims of sexual assault. The “shot-on-a-cell-phone-camera” aesthetic only adds to this eerie atmosphere of an impending violation. As the observer, you have become complicit and you feel caught, but you cannot prevent your imagination from pursuing the sad narrative to its potentially cruel outcome.

But the damage has already been done. In capturing their lifeless bodies, the women have been turned into objects and anonymous victims. The potential for self-invention and subjectification, which Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits do allow for, has been erased.

Karcz used specially mixed acid-based chemicals to distort the photographs he took on his cheap digital camera – and to kill the “Cindy” in the pictures: the object-like human figures caught in the moment but taken out of their context. To me, however, it seems he channelled Sherman in a different way; in capturing woman as an object of desire and violence, in a constant state of vulnerability – a constant reminder of the dangerous world we unfortunately live in.

Many thanks to Rafal Karcz for providing these images.

Slutwalk Paris – 1 October 2011

They couldn’t have picked a better day: sunshine, 28 degrees, a gentle breeze. Everyone would be outside on this last weekend of summer, so why not walk through the city and make a statement?

Having missed out on this summer’s Slutwalk in Berlin, which drew a large amount of people and even more media attention, I was excited to find out that Paris would have its own Slutwalk and that I would be able to participate. I was curious to see how it would turn out, what impact it would have in the city where Second Wave feminism originated in Europe.

all photographs taken by clemens porikys

Unfortunately, my first impression was disappointing. Not many people had shown up (sixty to eighty perhaps, not counting the press(wo)men) and the gathering of young women in short skirts wearing heart-shaped balloons resembled more a birthday party than a group of militant activists. It stood very much in contrast to my memory of the protest against the media response to the DSK affair, which had been a lot more energetic, unifying and angry, though not aggressive. The cause had been quite similar: fighting sexism and violence towards women, stop blaming victims and trivializing rape. So what went wrong?

I certainly appreciate and applaud everyone taking on the responsibility of organizing such an event, but in the case of Slutwalk Paris it could have been executed a bit more cleverly. What struck me as particularly odd was that hardly any of the well-known and well-organized feminist associations in Paris seemed to be present. Ni Putes Ni Soumises had sent some delegates; others such as Osez le Feminisme and La Barbe did either not know about it or ignored it deliberately…(?) The inclusion of these as well as other activist groups would certainly have been beneficial, not just regarding the number of participants but also to their diversity. The homogeneity of the protesters (most of them young, white, slim and able-bodied, myself included) does not represent the vast majority of victims of sexual violence, which subtracted from its potential significance.

But there we walked, down Boulevard Montparnasse and Boulevard St. Michel, where we did get some attention from pedestrians, including spontaneous participation. When a middle-aged woman asked about the motive for this demonstration and it was explained to her, she immediately expressed her support. Those were the highlights of a protest, that could have benefited from a couple of inspiring speeches to create the passion and energy needed to really get the movement started here in France.

Overall, the atmosphere was good and everyone seemed to have good time, even though I am not sure that that is the desired effect of a protest. In the end, everyone let go of their balloons in an attempt of symbolism, satisfying both the photographers and curious tourists. In any case, there is room for improvement and I hope that next time I can contribute more than just post-event criticism.

Facebook = Facepalm? In search of a culture of accountability

I’ve never been a fan of joining Facebook groups with titles such as I got so drunk, I did something extremely stupid and ridiculous and now you can see the evidence on Facebook etc. I think they are a waste of time, they make people look like idiots and no one really cares anyway. But then again, it is not my problem if people like to make fools of themselves; it doesn’t physically or psychologically harm me and I can quite easily ignore the existence of such groups.

You know what I can’t ignore and what does harm me? Sexism and the glorification of violence towards women. But there is a group on Facebook promoting just that, in fact there are several, and they are out there for everyone to see, to join, to “like”. This page in particular has sparked controversy: You know shes [sic] playing hard to get when your [sic] chasing her down an alleyway. The page currently has 176,884 people “liking” it, with the numbers growing steadily. While the title and picture may just be “suggestive” (even though they’re pretty obvious to me), it is the comments of the “fans” that make the page what it is: a place for rape jokes, rape apologia and the trivialization and extenuation of violence towards women. Some of the worst comments apparently have already been taken down but many are still bad enough, with more showing up every minute.

Attempts have been made to get Facebook to take down the page in question, as it quite obviously seems to violate Facebook’s terms of service. However, the reply from Facebook seems to suggest that they find it adequate to compare rape jokes and content promoting sexual violence to mere “pub jokes”. You can read the full statement here.

Apparently, reporting this page seems to lead to nothing. I myself have reported it for suggesting graphic violence, my reason being not to widen their scope of unacceptable content, but to make them aware of their own hypocrisy. It is well known that Facebook likes to take down other content, for example artistic representations of nudity and pictures of breast-feeding mothers. So nude women are obscene and offensive, but making jokes about violating them is not?

I am a little conflicted about this issue. Part of me, a big part, wants this page to be removed, because it is disgusting, because it is hypocritical of Facebook to not do so, and because Facebook’s nonchalant reply furthers the trivialization of rape culture. But another part of me wants this page to stay online, just as I accept pages of far right-wing and islamophobic organisations to exist. To me, this has to do with freedom of speech but only a little. I do not wish for these opinions and thoughts to exist, but unfortunately they do and I would much rather have them out in the open and visible. I want to be aware of my enemies; I want to know who they are and what they’re up to. And I want people to know that I am not fighting windmills.

In the case of the page mentioned above we are probably not dealing with actual rapists. For the most part, the people commenting seem to be adolescents, tardily pubescent boys and girls(!) with bad grammar and spelling skills, who think they’re being oh so provocative. I’m not sure if by removing this page and others like it we might actually push rape – the conversation about it, not the act – back into taboo territory, where joking about it won’t just be an infantile act of rebellion which can be exposed easily. But I’m also worried about more mature and deliberate rape apologists getting into these stupid kids’ heads. That’s why I am pleading for a Facebook culture of accountability.

We need to show that certain kinds of rhetoric and behavior are simply not welcome in a just and inclusive society. Critical comments of random strangers simply won’t do. In some cases they might even encourage the haters to defend their stupidity even more vehemently. What is needed are concrete real-life consequences. Most of us have hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, some real friends, girl- and boyfriends, parents, siblings and colleagues. We need to make sure we hold these people accountable for their actions online and offline, and vice versa. I would like to see a Facebook culture where a high school girl will say to her buddy: “I really didn’t like that comment you posted the other day and I can’t be friends with you until you apologize and remove the comment.” Or someone saying to her colleague: “I don’t think I will go out for a beer with you. I saw you join this group on Facebook which is degrading to women and I really don’t want to be associated with someone who thinks that way.”

I may sound naive with this proposition, and I am quite aware that in many situations like the ones I just mentioned the wrong people, the critical ones, may end up being isolated and shunned. Nevertheless I would like to encourage everyone to just have a little bit more integrity and to look more closely at their so-called “friends” on Facebook. If you can’t stand for what they post on Facebook, chances are you won’t tolerate what they say and do in “real life”, so why would you want to be friends with them? I advocate radical “unfriending” as a political act!

would you want to be friends with these guys?

Have You Checked Your Credibility Today?

I have been holding off on writing an update on the case regarding Dominique Strauss-Kahn, despite the recent developments that lead to his release from house arrest last week. I have no apologies other than not wanting to ruin my holidays. Turns out it was a good thing to wait and follow the developments closely, as things are progressing fast and now Strauss-Kahn has been accused of another attempted rape, this time by a French writer named Tristane Banon.

But what has actually happened up until this point? The short version: the first accuser’s credibility has been severely damaged, making it less likely for the case to go to court. In rape trials, the judges are often confronted with one person’s word against another’s, so with hardly any hard evidence, both the prosecution and the defense fall back on the accuser’s (non-)credibility to make their case. The prosecution knows that an accuser lacking credibility wouldn’t stand a chance in court, so they would hesitate to go forward with the trial. Therefore, it is not only the defense that has an interest in knowing all about the accuser’s history and lifestyle. In the case of the hotel maid, the research into her background didn’t go so well (for the prosecution): apparently, she had lied during her asylum application and on other occasions and was found to have ties with criminals involved in drug dealing and money laundering. On top of that, she had received large sums of money from different accounts, she had spoken to a convict in prison after the alleged attack about “the possible benefits of pursuing the charges” against Strauss-Kahn, and she gave contradictory accounts of what had happened directly after the attack. All of this sounds very questionable, to say the least, but none of it means that she had been lying about that particular case. It needs to be stressed, that the charges have not been dropped and the case is still scheduled to go to court. But even if it does, which seems a lot less likely now, chances are Strauss-Kahn will be found innocent, based solely on the lack of credibility of the accuser.

What about the credibility of the accused, you might ask? You might. Most people don’t. Or else they would be interested to see that just because DSK doesn’t (yet) have a criminal record, which is, let’s face it, quite ordinary for a man of his class and status, it doesn’t mean there is nothing to be said about his behavior and background. Several women, female journalists and colleagues, have come out about DSK’s inappropriate, over-the-line advances, culminating in the most recent accusation made by Tristane Banon, according to which he sexually assaulted her during an interview situation back in 2003.

None of this is proof that he is, in fact, a rapist, just like the hotel maid’s criminal activity doesn’t make her any less of a possible victim. No one can know the truth, unless either one of the involved would give a full confession. As a feminist, I am torn about the possible outcome. Naturally, I hope that an attempted rape did not take place, just as I hope that no rape ever takes place. At the same time, I hope the accuser did not lie, because if she did it would damage victims’ reputations everywhere and strengthen the myth of lying women falsely accusing men of rape all the time. However, the outcome most likely will be that all charges against Strauss-Kahn will be dropped without a trial and without more evidence and information. In that case, Strauss-Kahn will go home to his wife and kids and he may even be able to continue his career in politics. The accuser’s life, however, has been destroyed, no matter what the truth may be. Meanwhile, all of those screaming I-told-you-so will feel vindicated while waiting ravenously for the dirt to be dug up about Banon’s life. And the story continues…

False Accusations About False Allegations – On One of the Most Insidious Rape Myths

Trigger Warning!

DSK, Kachelmann, Julian Assange – what do these scandals have in common besides being about alleged rapes and sexual assaults by powerful celebrities? All of the alleged victims of these rapes had to face the accusation, made by public figures, the media and public opinion, of having falsely accused their rapist. Can you think of any other crime where this has repeatedly been the case?

Sure, one could argue that these particular cases all involve celebrities, are thus much more relevant to the public, and false accusations seem more probable when money and exposure appear to be a possible motive. However, the truth is that it is not just extreme or extraordinary cases that seem to justify the questioning of the accusers’ honesty. In fact, it is a widespread habit to distrust the word of sexually abused women, one of the reasons why only 13% percent of rape cases end in a conviction and only 15% of rapes are reported in the first place. But what makes this crime so suspicious, compared to any other?

The myth of the stranger rape has long been debunked, that is in circles that have actively looked into rape research. However, the idea of an anonymous man lurking in a dark alley to wait for his random female victim still persists. In reality, the majority of rapes and sexual assaults are committed by people personally known to the victim: relatives, colleages, friends, boyfriends… Other myths include the assumption that rape victims would naturally go to the police immediately after the offense, their memory of the crime would be coherent and without gaps, and they would have obvious physical injuries as proof. Often, so-called victim blaming enters the equation as well; the belief that if the victim drank alcohol and/or dressed or behaved provocatively, she was somehow tempting her rapist and wanted to have sex to begin with.

All of these assumptions do not reflect the reality of most rape cases, yet they are deeply ingrained in our consciousness. It would be naive to believe that police officers, judges and lawyers are completely free from their own moral prejudices. In fact, investigations into so-called false rape accusations have shown that cases were labelled as such simply based on the police officers’ judgment (for example if the victim did not “appear credible” because she had personal relations with the aggressor), or because the allegations were later withdrawn or retracted (for which there could be many reasons that don’t exclude the actual veracity of the crime).

The numbers that I could find for actual false allegations of rape and sexual assault are settled somewhere between 3% and 9%; an almost insignificant amount when compared to other crimes. These numbers need to be recalled when talking about alleged false accusations. Following the media reports during such high-profile cases as the DSK scandal, one could easily get the impression that false allegations among women are rampant, when this is simply not the case. Feminists have fought for centuries to actually make rape a crime under any circumstances and to make it possible for women to report these crimes and be taken seriously. An increase in charges can therefore be considered progress, not the result of some feminist conspiracy in order to oppress men. But the reinterpretation of the male aggressor as the actual victim is a common and unfortunate trend. This becomes evident in the reappropriation of certain terms or sayings, such as the proverbial elevator, which women were not supposed to share alone with a man in order to protect themselves from sexual assault. These days the common belief is that it is the man who should avoid riding an elevator with a single female, in order to protect himself from false accusations.

The idea is that women are now in a more powerful position, in which they can destroy a man’s reputation and life in a moment’s notice, when in fact accusing someone of rape is not equal to a Sunday afternoon stroll. Victims have to endure medical tests and, of course, repeated interrogations that are often traumatizing, as well as detailed investigations into their most intimate private lives. In the process, women are often subjected to the judgment, scrutiny and misgivings of male doctors, police officers and judges, which is not to say their female counterparts were immune to the pervasiveness of rape myths.

Rape myths protect men as sexual aggressors in allowing them to justify their actions, while at the same time calming the public: after all, it could never happen to them or their daughters, because they play by the rules (i.e. don’t drink alcohol, don’t wear “slutty” clothes, aren’t promiscuous…). Moreover, they help to manifest hierarchical power structures between men and women, in that they encourage women to self-police and to seek the “protection” of other men, whereas men are allowed to do as they please and to shift responsibility to the victims. Claiming that in large parts women falsely accuse men of rape is a false accusation in itself. It is another rape myth that needs to be publicly debunked in order to ensure that women no longer remain silent about their suffering. Innocent until proven guilty – we have to remember to apply this first and foremost to the victim.

edgar degas "interior (the rape)" 1868/1869

Sources:

about false allegations: Liz Kelly, The (In)credible Words of Women: False Allegations in European Rape Research, 2010.

about the power of rape myths (in German): Susen Werner, Stereotype Vorstellungen über Vergewaltigungen (Vergewaltigungsmythenakzeptanz) als Prädiktoren der Beurteilung von Vergewaltigungsdelikten durch RechtsanwältInnen, 2011.

a brief summary about the most common rape myths: click here