Purity Culture Is Rape Culture

AP Photo/ Dar Yasin

Indian women offer prayers for a gang rape victim at Mahatma Gandhi memorial in New Delhi.

Her intestines were removed because the six men used a rusty metal rod during the “rape.”

That fact—the rusty metal rod—is what’s haunted me about the violent incident that has outraged India and the world. Six men held a 23-year-old woman and her male friend in a private bus for hours while they assaulted her so brutally that, after several surgeries to repair her insides, she died. What happened to this young woman was a gang assault. It can be called a sexual assault because among other things, they brutalized her vagina. Or it can be called a sexual assault because it was driven by rage at the female sex.

Since Susan Brownmiller first wrote Against Our Willthe landmark feminist reconceptualization of rapefeminists have worked on clarifying the fact that rape is less about sex than it is about rage and power. Too many people still conceive of rape as a man’s overwhelming urge to enjoy the body of a woman who has provoked him by being attractive and within reach. As is true in many “traditional” cultures, much of India still imagines that the violation was one against her chastity, as Aswini Anburajan writes at Buzzfeed. But conceiving it as primarily a sexual violation places the burden on women to protect their bodies’ purity. It means that the question that gets asked is this one: Why was she out so late at night, provoking men into rage by being openly female?

But seen from a woman's own point of view, rape is quite different: It's punishment for daring to exist as an independent being, for one's own purposes, not for others' use. Sexual assault is a form of brutalization based, quite simply, on the idea that women have no place in the world except the place that a man assigns them—and that men should be free to patrol women’s lives, threatening them if they dare step into view. It is fully in keeping with bride-burnings, acid attacks, street harassment, and sex-selective abortions that delete women before they are born.

I’ve now read a number of commentaries exposing India’s, particularly New Delhi’s, culture of street violence against women. The most memorable, by Sonia Faleiro in The New York Times, talks about the fear that was instilled in her during her 24 years living in Delhi:

As a teenager, I learned to protect myself. I never stood alone if I could help it, and I walked quickly, crossing my arms over my chest, refusing to make eye contact or smile. I cleaved through crowds shoulder-first, and avoided leaving the house after dark except in a private car. …

Things didn’t change when I became an adult. Pepper spray wasn’t available, and my friends, all of them middle- or upper-middle-class like me, carried safety pins or other makeshift weapons to and from their universities and jobs. One carried a knife, and insisted I do the same. I refused; some days I was so full of anger I would have used it — or, worse, had it used on me.

The steady thrum of whistles, catcalls, hisses, sexual innuendos and open threats continued. Packs of men dawdled on the street ... To make their demands clear, they would thrust their pelvises at female passers-by.

Such endemic street harassment is not about sex; it’s about threatening women for daring to leave the private sphere. It’s a form of control over women’s ambitions and lives. And when such a culture is widespread, it gives men permission to use women as the target for any excess anger they might have.

“Rape culture,” as young feminists now call this, isn’t limited to India. It lives anywhere that has a “traditional” vision of women’s sexuality. A culture in which women are expected to remain virgins until marriage is a rape culture. In that vision, women’s bodies are for use primarily for procreation or male pleasure. They must be kept pure. While cultural conservatives would disagree, this attitude gives men license to patrol—in some cases with violence—women's hopes for controlling their lives and bodies. In October, responding to Richard Mourdock's incredible comment about rape, I mentioned an absolutely essential piece by The Nation's Jessica Valenti in a way I want to reprise here, if you'll excuse the self-quotation:

As Tennessee Senator Douglas Henry said in 2008, “Rape, ladies and gentlemen, is not today what rape was. Rape, when I was learning these things, was the violation of a chaste woman, against her will, by some party not her spouse.”

In other words, only virgins can be raped—sweetly white-gloved, white-skinned virgins. Any woman who ever wanted sex—yes, that includes married women who unconditionally give permission when they put on that ring—deserves what she gets. Valenti’s piece is a brilliant and absolutely essential manifesto on what still has to change to get from “What about 'no' don’t you understand?” to the more advanced concept that women have a right to enjoy and control our own bodies. In this "traditional" vision of sexuality, it's not rape if you've already had sex, ever—except if you're married and another man violates his property. Your only role is to protect your purity for its future owner. If you don't do, you're fair game. 

A culture in which women must cover up or be threatened is a rape culture. You're thinking of hijab and burquas, right? Think also of the now well-known SlutWalks, which were launched after a Toronto police officer told young women that they could avoid rape by not dressing like “sluts.” The protests, which have spread worldwide, make the point that no matter how we dresswomen are at risk; and no matter how we dress, our bodies are our own.  

Let me be clear that we have plenty of rape culture here in the United States. When I told my wife the prosecutor how shocked I was by the India case's rusty metal bar, her response disturbed me terribly: She laughed at my naïveté. She sees it all the time, she explained. She started telling me about one recent case in which a husband had shoved a broom up his wife so far it ripped out through her chest. I was so upset I stopped her before she could tell me more.

Or consider the recent rape in Steubenville, Ohio, allegedly by members of the football team, which was reported on in excellent detail by the Times—primarily because of the shocking way it was was celebrated via social media. Here's how Prospect contributor Amanda Marcotte summarized the case at Slate:

The alleged crime: Witnesses, some also on the football team, testified at a probable cause hearing that Mays and Richmond spent most of the night of Aug. 11 standing over, directing, transporting, and otherwise controlling the blacked-out drunk victim, who they carried to three separate parties. According to the New York Times, witnesses claim that Mays and Richmond tried to coerce the victim into oral sex, exposed her naked body as a joke to other partygoers, penetrated her digitally, and exposed themselves to her. Other Steubenville students on Twitter and YouTube say they witnessed even worse violations, including urinating on the victim and anal rape, though these are not official statements. (And sadly, these students were more delighted than upset by what they allegedly saw.) While it appears that multiple students taped and photographed the alleged assault, officials claim they haven't been able to turn up much in the way of evidence, because the evidence has been deleted. 

Football players like these two can almost always find young women who will have sex with them willingly. Taking a drunk and helpless girl and urinating on her, humiliating her, fingering her publicly, violating several orifices—that’s about rage and power, not sexual pleasure. That's sexual assault and enforcement of the rape culture's idea that a woman's job is to protect her purity.

At CNN Opinion, Lauren Wolfe writes that women are rising up against rape and rampant street harassment in places as disparate as Egypt and Somalia. I hope she’s right—and that the horror in India spurs genuine change, complete with international coalitions, like those that came out of the Beijing women's conference and that work across borders. We do know that protests have spread beyond India to Nepal. Slutwalks have spread around the world, as my regular google alert tells me, with recent incarnations in such places as Hong Kong, Lubbock Texas, Mandurah, Australia, and Plymouth, Massachusetts.

I can only hope that the response to the attack in India includes outrage at congressional Republicans' astounding refusal to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), one of the most effective tools to help prevent such violence, which the Prospect's Jamelle Bouie has already told you about. In its past 18 years, it has funded tremendously useful projects ranging from a stalking help line to statistical research to law-enforcement training in responding to intimate-partner violence. According to the National Organization for Women's reading of Bureau of Justice statistics, in the first 15 years after VAWA was originally passed, intimate-partner violence homicides dropped by 53 percent, and female homicides dropped 43 percent. While of course that cannot all be attributed to VAWA—homicide deaths in general have fallen during that period, for a myriad of reasons—VAWA has been an important tool in training, educating, funding, and helping to enforce new norms. If this were called "domestic terrorism," far more of the nation's budget would be dedicated to end it.  You’d think that their November loss at the ballot would’ve educated Republicans about the fact that women actually vote. But some people learn very, very slowly.

Here's the key point: It is not acceptable that more than 50 percent of the world’s population live in fear of violence solely because they are female. I do hope that India will turn around the male rage seething through its streets—and that here, we see an uprising against Congress’s appalling failure to reauthorize the bill that fights domestic terrorism—the terror that women feel at home.  

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