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September 19, 2011 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Rape Culture: Hiding in Plain Sight

When I was 20 I read a book called Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Musico. I was pretty new to feminism, and formerly of the ‘we’ve had two whole female Prime Ministers so we can’t be doing that badly’ ilk. It sounds cliché but I felt like reading this book woke me up from a really comfortable, ignorant dream. Everything was clearer and harsher after reading this book, but I didn’t regret it at all.

The moment that shook me awake was when Musico described her fear, every woman’s fear, of walking alone after dark. She called it a “curfew” which is a word I felt was loaded with oppression and violence. She then stated flat out that this curfew is only for half of the population. And my heart stopped a little.

See, when I was reading this segment my inner monologue was following along somewhat indignantly. “Yeah duh,” I thought when Musico described how unsafe it was for ladies to walk the streets at night, that’s just common sense.

I suppose on some level I knew that dudes were somewhat freer to walk alone at night than I was. But I had never laid it out in my head like that. Men obviously fear for their personal safety also, but their fear is not as large, as ingrained, and as sexual assault-specific as women’s fears. And men are far less likely to be casually harassed with yells, comments and leers purely from walking around at night time. This was the first glaring gender-based inequality I had ever really seen. And it had been hiding in plain sight all along.

Shock horror, but that’s what feminism is about. It’s about confronting the stuff that you always thought was normal. The first wave of feminism now seems like a really easy win—women should be able to vote. Sure. Tick. Second wave? Well that’s a bit more layered, but personal choices; financial and professional independence—that’s also an easy win. But this third wave, what the hell is that? Is there maybe even a fourth wave? I’m sure multiple people have multiple stances on this, but for me, feminism now is about confronting internalised misogyny. Inequalities hiding in plain sight. And one of the largest parts of that is rape culture.

Rape culture is me thinking “yeah, duh” to something telling me that as a woman I cannot walk alone at night. Rape culture is me internalising the acceptance of ‘my lot’ so deeply that it was normal, not offensive, not even really an obvious choice. We have an odd perception of discrimination as being Jim Crow laws, girls not being sent to school simply because they’re girls, queer couples being yelled at in the street. But it’s broader than that, and often far less obvious.

Rape culture is the fact that according to statistics by the Ministry of Justice, a quarter of all women you know will experience distressing sexual contact in their lifetime. Men get sexually assaulted and abused also. Men are afraid to walk the streets at night too. Men are not the only people who rape and abuse. But undeniably, women are disproportionately on the receiving end of rape, sexual abuse and harassment. And men are disproportionately the offenders. Women also, much more so than men, are told throughout our lives that our sexual safety is in our own hands.

‘Rape prevention’ tips and commonly held safety beliefs (like not walking alone at night, not wearing revealing clothes and not getting too drunk and flirty if you don’t actually want to sleep with anyone) stem from the incorrect belief that rape is perpetrated by strangers. Rape is overwhelmingly perpetrated by people known to the victim (stats vary between 70 and 90 per cent). The sort of rape women think of when we are walking home with our keys in our fists and our cell-phones out constitutes a minority of sexual assaults. But for some reason it seems like the easiest to digest.

If we can think of rapes and sexual assaults as being occasional, committed by some sex-crazed monster in a dark alley, then we can distance ourselves from it. We can keep making excuses like “well she shouldn’t have been that drunk [I’m different from her]”, “She shouldn’t have been wearing that [I’m different from her]”, “He’s a monster [I don’t know any guys like that]”, “What sort of guy would do that? [I’m different from him]”.

Victim blaming is a huge part of rape culture, and the reason why many (if not all) women will be told from multiple sources throughout their lives that they need to be careful ‘what message’ they are giving out with their clothing and behaviour . Even though some opportune dude at a bar is far less likely than a childhood friend, family member or acquaintance to rape her, she will feel responsible for not ‘putting herself in danger’. For doubtful dudes reading this, have a chat to some female friends about their survival strategies. Realising that you have probably never had to pretend to be talking on the phone while a car load of dudes slows down beside you and yells ‘Hey baby want a ride?”, but that every single woman you know will have a mental archive from a lifetime of these experiences, should hopefully clear up any doubts.

So why is rape culture so good at making us feel like we don’t know any rapists, or that people who get raped are somehow at fault? Because it’s convenient. We create a myth of how and why rapes happen. We tell ourselves rape is about sex, rather than about power. We tell ourselves if she was really raped, she would have struggled (despite the fact that women often shut down out of shock to protect themselves, which is particularly true of rapes involving someone the victim knew and trusted). We tell ourselves subconsciously that women who refuse sex after ‘leading men on’ were asking for it, because maybe we’re not actually as progressive about gender roles as we think we are.

Rape isn’t sex, it’s assault. It isn’t sexy, it’s violence. And rapists aren’t one-off crazies who will get thrown in to jail as soon as the police find them. On average, a rapist who gets away with his assault will go on to rape another five women. And he probably will get away with it because his victim has had a lifetime of being told that she could have avoided that situation entirely. Too often, admitting a sexual assault to herself and others in the face of blaming questions, disbelief, and all of the perceived “baggage” that comes with admitting you’re a rape survivor is just too fucking hard. When women do come forward, the justice system is drawn out, and humiliating—with the added bonus of her sexual history, personality, dress and behaviour often being called in to question.

It’s also pertinent to point out that the perception that one short skirt or badly timed retraction of sexual interest can lead a man to be overcome by his sexual urges and rape someone, is offensive to men. It is basically implying that men are one exposed thigh away from rape, which, for most dudes just isn’t true. Rape culture is harmful to everyone.
When it’s acceptable for a major news website in New Zealand to make the headline of a sexual assault court case where a young women was assaulted and filmed Sex Video Victim Lived Secret Adult Lifestyle. Then we have some work to do, and fast.

We need to change the view that a woman cannot express her sexuality through clothing or behaviour without ‘misleading men.’ Newsflash, women are not for the viewing pleasure of men. If some dude happens to enjoy what he sees, that’s good for him, but there is nothing, nothing on this earth that gives him the right to do anything about it. Clothes do not send ‘mixed messages’, certain types of clothes do not increase he likelihood someone will be raped, clothes do not consent—verbal expressions of her desire to have sex with you (and nothing less) is consent. And if she changes her mind, deal with it. Men are not controlled by their cocks, and women are not here on this planet to defend ourselves.

When dudes have a laugh with their guy friends about some girl and her moral code, her outfit and her determination to be noticed, but they don’t really mean it, so just like, chill out okay?—they are actually just continuing this cycle of blame and self entitlement that makes up rape culture. Also, statistically chances are they’ve done it in front of someone who has or will rape or sexually assault someone. And they just made him feel like he’s not alone.

Women need to stop feeling like getting leered at on the street or followed around by the weird dude from their psych class is ‘just part of life’. Because it’s not part of life for half of the population, and that’s not okay. Women need to wear what they want, when they want, and start asserting that nobody has the right to comment. If some women do want attention because of their awesome new little black dress, I’m pretty sure it’s attention not assault they’re after. Women need to stop thinking that if they get horribly drunk at a party and someone decides to rape them, it is not a consequence of anything other than someone being a rapist.

Just stop for a second and think about all of the women you know. One in four of them will have been sexually assaulted. Confronting this stuff is key to turning those statistics around. Confronting this stuff, these harmful deeply held (almost subconscious) beliefs about rape which are harmful to women and men is key to breaking down rape culture and making people feel safer. And guess what? That’s feminism. Probably wasn’t as scary as you or I first thought, huh?


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  1. Sean says:

    Hi Nicole, I’ve got a question about the “safety tips” you mention.

    These are things which in a reasonable world, we wouldn’t need but for some reason we’re not living in one.

    I’m assuming most of these are ingrained into a woman’s mind while she is a child by her parents in an effort to keep her safe.

    But, would this mean the parents are ingraining the idea that “Sweetie, I love you very much. But if you go out after dark you will get raped and it will be your fault.”?

    How would you approach this subject if you had children? Is it better to tell them not to go out after dark alone, or to tell them to be careful, or to give them something like a rape alarm?

  2. Nicole says:

    I think a parent’s intentions of keeping their daughters safe aren’t meant to make women feel like shit. However, having it drilled into us over and over again that (for instance) it’s not smart to go out late at night alone, can make many women feel that if we do walk alone at night and end up being assaulted, it’s because we should have known better. We didn’t take care of ourselves, we haven’t done what most people would advise, we put ourselves at risk etc. Rather than the blame being solely on the person who decided to rape us.

    I think the issue I take with this sort of mental conditioning is not the idea of wanting to keep your child safe, it’s the idea that this stuff is ‘common sense’ and unquestioned for girls and women.

    Personally, if I become a parent I will make it clear that there are things women can do to keep safe in the streets, but that this isn’t ‘just part of being a woman’ and an unquestioned rule, it’s unfair and the more we talk about how unfair it is, the more we can make it better for the future. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t take precautions, but it means that we should be aware of how and why we are taking those precautions – that we live in a world that in many ways still marginalises women.

  3. Sean says:

    Thanks for the response

  4. Waren says:

    Pretty comprehensive article, so I’ll keep my comment succinct: I reckon we all – men/women/trans etc. – are disadvantaged in some way from sex/gender stereotypes. Men as well, though they are unlikely to admit it, because that’s part of the repression. And it doesn’t just come from men, it comes from mainstream NZ society in general (isn’t it great how we all support the stylised violence of the world cup?), of which rape is one of the very destructive outcomes. I’m not denying (most of) the points in your article, I’m just broadening the focus.

  5. Carlos Santana says:


  6. Carlos Santana says:


  7. john says:

    @Carlos: Won’t somebody think of the white, cis-gendered, middle class, heterosexual male in an equal proportion to all other varieties of identity, as befitting our equality.

    Fixed it for you.

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