The way society deals with gendered violence tells us a lot about its social structure. Even more if we’re talking about sexualised violence. Rape and other forms of sexual abuse are about power and dominance, about taking possession of another person, about humiliating and „putting someone in their place“. Rape isn’t about sex. It isn’t about someone not being able to control their urges either. The motive is power, not lust. Therefore the prevalence, the media coverage and the prosecution of sexualised violence reveal a lot about the underlying attitudes towards women.
Interestingly enough, we only broach the issue of sexualised violence talking about other cultures, not our own. We seldom make any connections with the situation in which we live. In the Western media, sexualised violence is a topic far away from the actualities of the lives of women in the occident: According to this, rape happens in Egypt on Tahrir Square or everywhere and everyday in India, gruesomely demonstrating the degrading position women have to bear in non-Western societies. Still an uncomfortable subject, it is easier to talk about rape that happens far away from home geographically or supposedly culturally. The topic doesn’t have to be set in countries far away but can also be placed in the culturally ‘other’ as in the much discussed honour killings by Turkish immigrants in Germany. Since it doesn’t have to be put into relation with the own life, the own experiences, the own social role one has to play – but this is pure self-deception. Because rape isn’t a problem of the Global South or the non-Western hemisphere – it is a global problem that affects every one of us, no matter how easy it is to blend it out.
When a woman in the West is raped, the search for answers begins quickly: Was she walking home alone – at night? What did she wear – was her skirt too short? Did she ‘tease’ the offender? Was she drunk? Did she fight? As rape isn’t seen as a part of Western culture, there has to be a reason for it to happen to a certain person. There is always the tendency to either blame it all on the woman (because, let’s be honest, it’s easier to find a simple reason like a short skirt, than to challenge social power structures) or to question her credibility altogether. Because there is always the possibility that the assumed victim is lying – that it’s only about 3% of the cases in which a reported rape did not happen doesn’t seem to shake this assumption. This is especially striking in cases that involve famous or important people and becomes obvious when looking at the role the media plays in creating the “victim as a liar”-narrative as has happened in the infamous Strauss-Kahn affair.
The definition of rape culture is the phenomenon of accepting sexualised violence as a part of life, shifting the responsibility to the victim while ignoring the reality of how society enforces sexualised violence against women and protects the offender, and this is the reality in which we live in.
Hence we still tell our daughters to dress ‘properly’ while we don’t tell our sons what consent is about. This is where rape myths set in: They tell us that “such things” only happen to beautiful girls or bad girls, for that matter, who are ‘asking for it’, that it happens in the night and is done to us by strangers, strangers that are probably not White, middle-class and well employed but the opposite. And the worst is that all the counter evidence in the world doesn’t seem to change this perception.
In Germany, for example, almost every 7th woman has become a victim of rape or sexual assault. Most of the incidents happen at home and are perpetrated by the people we are closest to. In a case study with one hundred cases only about 20% of the rapists were strangers, while 64% were (ex-)partners or friends. These of course don’t get a lot of medial attention, thus the image of the rapist as a stranger or the stranger as rapist endures.
Both the numbers of charges filed and of criminal conviction of rape in Germany are relatively low compared with other European countries. Only about 5% of women state that they reported the experienced sexualised violence and only in 13% of these cases a conviction follows. This is clearly linked to the German legal system – paragraph 177 which determines what is to be seen as rape and sexual abuse is quite restricted and interpreted even more restrictively in court. In Germany, it isn’t the accused that has to prove his innocence. Derived from the presumption of innocence it’s the victim that has to submit proof of the guilt of the accused, such proof is often hard to come by and involves disagreeable questioning by the police and invasive medial exams, which both can be (re-) traumatising for a victim of sexual assault. Moreover, until only recently a “no” beforehand wasn’t enough to qualify for rape – the sexual conduct had to involve force or violence to be counted as rape or sexual coercion. All these factors explain why the number of reported rapes is so low in Germany and why the number of convictions is low. But the probability of conviction rises if the accused is not White, has a migration background, is currently not employed or has been diagnosed with mental illness. Once again it pays off to be a White, middle class man without visible restrictions. This clearly reveals how a racist perception and a racist justice system remove the problem of sexualised violence from the realm of the “own” culture and make it a problem of ‘the other’. This has always been the Western way of treating the subject of rape. While rape has always been used more or less strategically as an instrument, possibly in every war around this world, it has mainly been dealt with as an act of violence committed by non-Westerners. Talking about rape as a weapon, the genocide committed by the Hutu in Rwanda (see also this one) comes to mind, maybe as well the ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Serbia. Much less the rapes perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II or by the French and American allies after the German defeat. While the latter just recently became a topic of discussion in the media, there still seems to be some kind of othering involved as the sexual assaults in post-war Germany are rarely put into relation with those perpetrated by German troops.
Another quite recent example is the rejection of an internship application of an Indian student by a German female professor on the grounds of him being an Indian male. She explained that hearing a lot about rapes in India she was unable to hire a man from India, as there were also women in her course. This shows how rape is being talked about even or especially in academia: as a foreign problem, as something that has to be solved somewhere else, that doesn’t involve the West.
I do understand that it is not easy to take steps against rape culture or that it’s more comfortable to deny that there is such thing in the ‘civilized’ North altogether, but if we don’t see in how many ways we are still enforcing it by upholding the bias we will never successfully end it.