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Rape culture, global and local: How are men and women affected? How is Rhodes University responding?

Date Released: Thu, 19 June 2014 13:28 +0200

The pervasiveness of sexual violence and rape has been associated with what is termed ‘rape culture’. But what is ‘rape culture’, how are men and women affected differently by it and how is Rhodes University responding to it? Rather than trying to pin down what rape culture is through a neat definition, a scan of recent news shows just how multi-faceted and complicated cultural practices that serve to normalise sexual violation are.

The following link shows a now-deleted page from the online version of Australia’s ZOO Weekly magazine’s Facebook page, where a woman has been severed (on the left, the ‘top half’ contains her head to her waist, and on the right, the ‘bottom half’ from her waist to her feet). The caption under the picture reads, “left or right but you’ve got to tell us how you came to that decision”. The banter-some but simultaneously serious comments from the public (those comments which are visible are just from males) underneath the photo reveal shocking justifications from men about which ‘half’ of the female’s body they would choose. These include sexual and woman-as-servant reasoning and reduce the woman to her objectified body parts. 

Another link from a different site shows a video of French comedian Rémi Gaillard’s titled ‘Free Sex’. In the video he locates various random unsuspecting women in public and pretends to have sex with them in a variety of ways without their knowledge. News24’s caption of the article states, “if this offensive ad doesn’t promote rape culture we don’t know what does”

The current ‘no-make-up-selfie’ trend on the internet (where women nominate their friends to post photos taken of themselves without make-up to promote their solidarity with women undergoing cancer treatment and provide a number to SMS to contribute funds to cancer research) recently took a different spin. A young woman from the UK posted her no-make-up selfie which clearly shows that she has been beaten up. She claims that she was in a night club and a man groped her from behind. When she protested, he became angry and punched her in the face, continuing to do so as she got up from the floor again after each punch which further angered him. Her posting of her no-make-up selfie was also to publically announce her attacker. Read the story here.

As can be seen in these three examples, rape culture and the war against woman’s bodies is a large and complicated problem. In the first instance, it appears that men see women as physical objects, referring to the severed halves as ‘it’ rather than the more personal ‘she’ and freely engage in the conversation. This can also be seen in the second instance, where the man feels entitled to sex against the women’s knowledge (or consent) for humorous purposes. In the final one, the man in the story also felt that he was entitled to the woman’s body which can be seen in his angry response to her scolding as he felt that her defiance was out of place.

A recent South African example, just one of many which occur daily in our country, was the rape and murder case of 17-year-old Anene Booysen last year. Despite the brutality she endured, her case encouraged many other women from her area who had been raped to come forward and share their stories. This also reminded us that rape is pervasive and that the survivors have families and loved ones; they are not, as Sibongile Mafu states in the news article, “a really small group of people somewhere far away. People we don’t know, who we aren’t close to.” It can happen to anyone. 

Violence directed against men should also not be ignored, but it is important to understand, as stated initially, that rape culture affects men and women very differently. In the examples above, it can be seen that men feel entitled to women’s bodies which leaves women feeling like they are ‘rapable’ and defenceless. It is also often the case that the responsibility of the rape falls onto the victim, suggesting that the victim provoked her perpetrator and that she is to blame for the rape. Violence against men often does not occur in the same gender power relations as it does with violence against women. Unlike women, men often do not have to be cautious of their safety in public spaces and do not have to consider as carefully where they go and with whom. Violence against men is usually executed by men themselves but like women, men are usually not raped for the perpetrator’s sexual pleasure but to overpower and dominate the victim.

Men experiencing sexual abuse does not occur nearly as often as it is does to women, but a scan of the news shows us that it does indeed occur. Men are often silent about being sexually abused as they may feel embarrassed or ashamed about being in a situation where they were ‘overpowered’ by a woman. This article, reporting on a Romanian story, tells of a man who was forced to have sex with a woman three times in a row at knife-point and was stabbed six times when he refused the third round of sexual intercourse. The men in his community, it was reported, made him feel that he should have responded to the woman because of her beauty and also because this is the expectation of the man; that he can and should want to perform every time sex is available. The article also argues that when a woman is forced to have sex against her will it is called ‘rape’ whilst if this happens to a man it is called ‘forced sex’ which makes it appear less serious. It can also be seen that, unlike when women are raped, men are not perceived as being blamed for the occurrence of the rape. This phenomenon of women raping men can also be seen in the incidences of groups of women raping men in Zimbabwe in recent years.  Male rape, which is rife in South African jails, has only recently been classified by the South African Police Services Crime statistics for 2010/2011. It was previously classified as ‘indecent assault’, which, like the previously mentioned labelling of male rape as ‘forced sex’, makes it sound less serious. 

Rhodes University, in response to the pervasive and complicated nature of rape culture globally, specially focusing on South Africa, has established the RU Silent Protest, first undertaken in 2007. The online sign-ups have opened and logistics are being worked out in order to make everything come together on the big day in August this year. Participants can choose to wear a t-shirt saying ‘Sexual Violence = Silence: Break the Cycle’. They may also choose to have their mouths taped for the whole day to represent the silence surrounding reporting rape and other sexual abuse cases for fear of stigmatisation or lack of adequate and/or empathetic assistance. Others may choose to wear ‘Rape Survivor’ t-shirts despite potential negative reception whilst others may opt to wear ‘Solidarity’ t-shirts. On the back of the t-shirts, alarming statistics are provided, as well as a reason for why the person is wearing the t-shirt and thus what the protest is about, written in English and Xhosa (the participant can choose their preferred language). This year the t-shirt options have expanded to include one which says ‘Survivor’ for those participants who have experienced sexual violence but would not refer to it as rape.

The RU Silent Protest has grown in participant numbers each year, and several other universities around South Africa participated in the protest on their various campuses on the same day in 2013. In Grahamstown, the day begins with a march around campus and ends with a march to the Cathedral, where the group gathers in the sacred space to ‘de-tape’ and hear various voluntary accounts of sexual abuse experienced by fellow participants.  Thus, like Anene Booysen’s case, the RU Silent Protest, provides a platform for women who have endured rape and sexual abuse to come forward and share their stories in a safe space. The RU Silent Protest also acknowledges, as can be seen in the above news articles, that men also encounter sexual abuse, and creates a space where men too can come forward at the end of the Protest day to share their stories where there is no judgement.

In light of these articles, which show that rape culture is indeed a South African and global problem affecting both genders, we should continue to spread awareness of, and fight against, sexual abuse. However, we should not forget to include on our campaign; ‘stop sexual violence against men and women’. Even though women are more heavily affected by rape culture, it is important not to forget that men can be victims too.

By Annie Fleischack, Psychology Masters-by-Thesis Student

CSSR House, Rhodes University

With special thanks to Kim Barker, Professor Catriona Macleod, Jabulile Mavuso and Megan Reuvers for their comments on previous drafts of this article.

June 2014

Source:Annie Fleischack