In 1997, I took a Philosophical Issues in Feminism paper as part of my BA in Philosophy, on the grounds that “issues in feminism” was something I knew next to nothing about, which to my mind suggested that it’d be an interesting course to take. It turned out to be a very enjoyable class – the lecturer was excellent at presenting difficult or controversial topics and defusing emotional discussions before they could turn into nasty arguments. As one of two guys taking the course, and the only one in my tutorial group, I never felt like I didn’t belong there.
I still don’t get rape.
Apart from that impression, all I remember about my tutorials is a discussion about women in the workplace which involved one student inadvertently using the phrase “men tend to squirm when they’re under a woman,” and the failure of our group to come up with definitive answers to the questions “so, as a man, is it actually possible for me to be a feminist?” and “what is it about rape?”
Sixteen years later, I’m still not sure if I can be a feminist*, and I still don’t get rape.
Obviously, I get why it’s bad. I get why it’s a feminist issue. But I don’t understand why it’s special – and that’s the impression I get: that rape is different from all of the other countless horrors human beings inflict on one another, that it’s in some way exceptional.**
While there are no shortage of reasons why rape is inexcusably terrible, I can’t think of any that are unique to it. My understanding is that the reason why rape was the original “fate worse than death” was because, at the time, a woman’s “value” was linked to her virginity, so that to rape a woman was to rob her of her worth as a human being – that attitude is thankfully much less prevalent today (and I’m assuming totally rejected in feminist circles), but rape’s special status persists.
When Lindy West wrote this article in response to the Daniel Tosh rape joke controversy, I though I was finally going to get some answers. In it, she explicitly states that rape is different:
The reason that “rape jokes” become such a contentious issue as opposed to, say, “cancer jokes” or “dead baby jokes” (yawn) is because rape is different from other horrors in some very specific ways.
But her explanation – a tortured analogy involving threshing machines – doesn’t make any sense to me, in part because it’s really hard to find an interpretation that doesn’t hinge on the idea of all men being potential rapists (seriously – are the “threshing machines” rapists or just men in general?) The salient point seems to be that rape is different because of the culture of rape that exists in society today – later on she says, referring to an earlier piece of hers on Sex and the City 2:
I chose “rape” on purpose at the time—because it’s gendered and jarring and I wanted to convey the severity of my disgust, as a woman, with that fucking garbage movie. But if I wrote that review today, would I write it the same way? Nope. I would probably write “bludgeoned.” Because right now, as I see it, there is no systematic cultural influence that leads to the mass bludgeoning of people.
As I see it, there definitely is. I’d be a fool to deny that rape culture exists, but I’d also argue that it’s as a subset, or maybe a symptom, of a wider culture of violence. As a society we don’t just condone acts of violence – any violence – we glorify them, provided the person on the receiving end deserves it. We routinely blame the victims of violence in cases where it’s seen as their just desserts – when they’re asking for it.
A while ago there was a photo being passed around Tumblr of a woman holding up her bandaged hand, with the accompanying text explaining that she broke it by punching a man in the face after she overheard him making dodgy comments about a woman on the other side of the road. And she was celebrated for it – she committed an act of violence on a total stranger in the street, but it’s OK because he deserved it.
We all remember how the Internet went ape over Casey Heynes, the Australian boy who body slammed another boy who had been bullying him by hitting him repeatedly in the face. I’m going to have to come over all sanctimonious here, because even at the time I couldn’t find anything to celebrate in a video of two children hurting each other, and I was actively repulsed by a lot of the commentary, which made Casey the vessel for a million vicarious revenge fantasies, and elevated his bully to some sort of Darth Voldemort figure. I read comments confidently diagnosing the bully as a psychopath, who should be grateful for the “lesson” he received. He got was he was asking for, and that’s fucking great.
Those are a couple of isolated cases, but every person I know, including devoted feminists and of course myself***, jokes about beating people, killing them, setting them on fire for any number of trivial reasons, mostly because they disapprove of the other people’s actions or opinions. The idea that violent actions are justified provided the recipient’s actions make them deserving of it is reinforced by just about every aspect of society – sport, pop culture, education (“traditions” like bullying, hazing and fagging), justice (prison is where we send bad people to be beaten up and, yes, raped). These attitudes are behind everything from verbal intimidation to wars and mass murders – people don’t commit atrocities while curling a moustache and proclaiming “for evil!” – they believe that their violence is justified and that their victims deserve it.
This is a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while – I was set to write something earlier, when my thunder was stolen by Caitlin Moran’s recent column where she argues that we should stop using the word “rape” and just talk about “violence” (on the grounds that rape implies sex, and as soon as sex is introduced, people’s brains leak out their ears and they start acting like arseholes). I’m not sure how facetious she’s being there, but whether or not she really thinks we should lose the word altogether (I don’t), I’m definitely sympathetic to the view that rape is bad because rape is violence, and I also question the need to break it out as something altogether other.
*I guess if asked I’d say that I consider myself one. Though I have quibbles with some of the superficialities, I don’t see how a thinking person could argue with the central principles or goals of feminism.
**I’m being very careful not to say “worse” here – I’ve seen enough online arguments to know that trying to compare atrocities is an incredibly unattractive undertaking, and only ever ends badly for both sides.
***Obviously I’m a total hypocrite in this regard – I play fighting games, love action movies and in this blog alone I’ve already joked about punching, stabbing and performing non-specific acts of self-abuse with a beltsander.