Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Rape Culture and Mythology

This is a guest post by Sam Malcolm
(edited at the request of author)

Rape Culture and Mythology

“Over half (56%) of those surveyed think that there are some circumstances where a person should accept responsibility [for rape]”. [1] This is numbing.

In 2012 Judge Derek Johnson claimed “I’m not a gynaecologist, but I can tell you something, if someone doesn't want to have sexual intercourse, the body shuts down.” [2] The implication being that if a survivor’s body fails to ‘shut down’ sex was consensual and rape did not occur. The idea that rape is easily or naturally preventable is not new. In 1890 the authors of Medical Jurisprudence, Forensic Medicine, and Toxicology wrote: “a fully matured woman, in full possession of her faculties cannot be raped, contrary to her desire, by a single man.” Judge Johnson, on the basis of his understanding of rape, sentenced the rapist in question to 10 fewer years than the recommended sentence.

Feminists call reactionary untruths about rape 'rape myths'. The word ‘myth’ is important here. As Joanna Bourke writes in Rape, A History: “the term [myth] does not simply connote untruth. Rather, the use of the word ‘myth’ is a shorthand way of referring to a structure of meaning permeating a particular culture.” When feminists talk about rape mythology they are pointing out the structural, ubiquitous way in which specific ideas shape the discourse around and meaning of rape. It is from this identification of a systematic problem with how we discuss rape that the term rape culture derives. Rape culture aims to move away from the second wave axiom that the ‘personal is political’. This notion individualised and obscured the aims of second wave feminism by presenting individual men as the problem, with no reference to a broader system that shapes men’s behaviour. Rape culture is a move beyond this; it aims to identify the institutional nature of reactionary ideas. For this reason it should be embraced as a useful concept.  

However, what does rape culture mean? The concept is broad; too broad some argue. On the ground within feminist circles, rape culture is used to describe any behaviour or idea that belittles, excuses, justifies, celebrates or enables rape. Examples of rape culture in practice provide the best way of understanding what the term aims to describe.

In 2012 a judge told a rapist that though he took advantage of the survivor, “she let herself down badly. She consumed far too much alcohol and took drugs but she also had the misfortune of meeting you.” [3] An 11 year old girl who was gang-raped by several men was told by the defence that she was like a “spider” who lured men into her web. [4] Todd Akin suggested that a woman’s body has a way of shutting down “legitimate rape”; thus defining rape where a woman’s body does not ‘shut down’ out of existence. George Galloway caused controversy when he claimed that having sex with a woman when she was asleep was simply “bad sexual etiquette” as previous consent implies future consent. The story of Amherst College student Angie Epifano went viral last year when she described how staff at Amhurst college admitted her to a psychiatric ward and attempted to refuse to let her back on campus when she reported her rape. [5]

This is rape culture: when we shift responsibility for abuse from the decisions of perpetrators to the behaviour of victims.  It is when children are portrayed as seductresses who should have been cautious of switching on the uncontrollable sexual desires of a group of adult men.  It is when politicians deny the experiences od survivors by defining certain types of rape as consensual sex.  It is when women are questioned on their past sexual history and drinking habits; as if either of these bears any relation to whether consent was sought and got.

The Political Significance of Smashing Rape Culture

It would be a mistake, however, to see challenging rape culture through the prism of moral liberalism; smashing rape mythology is of immediate and significant political importance to all those fighting for a world without women's opression.

Take, for example, victim blaming; where victims are told that their behaviour enticed their rapist. Women are most at risk of rape when they are around men they know and trust and are in a home environment. By the logic of victim blaming, we should be telling women never to share a home with a man, be in a relationship with a man or otherwise trust men. This is the politics of separatism and as such should be thoroughly rejected. Women get raped when they are drinking, sober, by strangers, by acquaintances, in clubs, in homes, in bikinis, in burkas. Women do not get raped when rapists do not rape. The true cause of rape is an exploitative, alienated oppressive capitalist regime within which some men deny the subjecthood of women. Rape culture clouds this by locating the cause of rape in the behaviour of women. Therefore, any understanding of rape tarred by rape mythology means we are unequipped to adequately locate how we fight against rape in the here and now.

Furthermore, a central part of the fighting for liberation is the dismantling of the ruling ideology that often ties people to a  false consciousness and divides the forces of the working class. As Marx writes in The German Ideology: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” [6] This is particularly important on the question of women. Victim blaming implies that men have ferocious sexual desires that can be ignited by something as menial as a short skirt baring nice legs. This notion buttresses the reactionary idea that masculinity is innately defined by lustfulness and sexual desire. Desires, of course, it is the natural the role of women to satisfy. Victim blaming therefore both reflects and reinforces gender stereotypes that have their origin in the institution of the family. This only benefits the ruling class, who have an interest in privatising reproduction and welfare by tying us to the ideology of the family.

Rape myths often crystallise around recommendations that women should alter their behaviour in order to avoid "getting rape" (the very use of the word ‘getting’ is telling: we speak about rape as if it is something you go out and get, as opposed to something that is done to you). Women have fought for centuries for the right to be able to express their rights and move through the world freely and autonomously and should not have to compromise this freedom in order to avoid "getting raped". Let us be clear: women do not "get raped". They are raped by someone. Challenging rape culture, then, goes hand in hand with defending the gains women have made in the last 120 years.

Moreover, BPP law school have suggested that "rape myth attitudes" are also likely to be held by victims which shapes the way they respond to their assault and their decision to report it. Smashing rape myths, then, is also about giving women the confidence to come forward with cases of assault, speak about their experiences and challenge their oppression. [7]

This is why any questioning of a woman’s past sexual history, drinking habits or behaviour in general represents the politic of reaction. It is always inexcusable. Never defensible. It reflects but, importantly, helps to maintain an age old but dangerous-as-ever discourse around rape. A discourse I, for one, will never defend.

Sam Malcolm



  1. Great post, really interesting. Hope there will be an even further expansion in future posts about rape denial and rape apology. "It wasn't rape as they were in a relationship", "It's not rape as the woman involved has mental health issues", "It can't be rape as the woman remained friends with the alleged rapist afterwards", these ideas seem to be increasingly prevalent and relevant since they were thrown around quite often during the SWP crisis by loyalists and commentators supportive of them. The outdated positions on Feminism and the stale polemic on Feminism was a part of these reactionary ideas which just haven't been updated in the SWP to be relevant to the 2013 (increasingly female) working class in Britain.

    Hopefully more great and thought provoking posts such as this to come!

  2. The part about the use of the verb 'to get' makes absolutely no sense.

    One also 'gets murdered', 'gets sick', 'gets assaulted', 'gets tortured' ect...

    In what way is this exclusive to rape?

  3. Another myth which distorts our understanding of rape is that it is fairly common for women to make false allegations. The report produced by the CPS in March this year shows that such allegations are extremely rare. In the same 17 month period, the researchers found that there had been 5631 prosecutions for rape, but only 35 prosecutions for making false allegations.

    1. I make that 0.6%. If you then factor in the majority of rapes that go unreported and/or don't result in prosecutions, it is an absolutely miniscule fraction. But still the myth persists that it is common.

    2. And why is it that whenever the 'accused' is wealthy, famous or a footballer its often assumed, before its 'proven' that the victim is lying?

      Power/wealth relationships and rape is another myth. As though a woman cannot possibly physically refuse a rich man.

    3. But it also necessary to factor in the rate of prosecutions for making false allegations. A significant portion of false accusers retract, prosecuting those cases would be counter-productive; I suspect the remaining false accusers are more careful than an average rapist.

      It is often proposed the the criminal justice system should believe victims, even at 0.6% this would result an unacceptable rate of false convictions. Also making false accusations effective would make them a popular weapon of violence by proxy; threats of false accusations could become a common method of committing rape and silencing victims.

  4. Re this:
    "Rape culture aims to move away from the second wave axiom that the ‘personal is political’. This notion individualised and obscured the aims of second wave feminism by presenting individual men as the problem, with no reference to a broader system that shapes men’s behaviour."

    There were certainly liberal elements that did this, but to be honest more of a problem for the second wave was its tendency towards totalising and sweeping statements. The original meaning of 'the personal is political' was certainly not liberal as an analysis, even though it was 'stood on its head' to appear as much.

    Please read the original source of that slogan:

    "The very word “therapy” is obviously a misnomer if carried to its logical conclusion. Therapy assumes that someone is sick and that there is a cure, e.g., a personal solution. I am greatly offended that I or any other woman is thought to need therapy in the first place. Women are messed over, not messed up! We need to change the objective conditions, not adjust to them. Therapy is adjusting to your bad personal alternative." (1969)

    "So the reason I participate in these meetings is not to solve any personal problem. One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution. I went, and I continue to go to these meetings because I have gotten a political understanding which all my reading, all my “political discussions,” all my “political action,” all my four-odd years in the movement never gave me. I’ve been forced to take off the rose colored glasses and face the awful truth about how grim my life really is as a woman. I am getting a gut understanding of everything as opposed to the esoteric, intellectual understandings and noblesse oblige feelings I had in “other people’s” struggles."

    In other words, she's arguing the exact opposite of myopic individualism, and indeed arguing strenuously against it.

  5. Some anonymous poster, who is not so anonymous, made a very serious accusation on this comment thread with nothing to substantiate their claims.
    I suggest to the anonymous poster that the first port of call is not to post on a blog with no connection to the comrade you make the accusations at.

  6. Do you consider male rape and its myths to be part of the same problem, or separate?

    On the one hand, if the delta allegations had been of one gay man against another, then I can imagine the same events unfolding in the same way. The gender wouldn't be the issue - at least I hope not.

    On the other, the myths of one man raping another are different. The most obvious being that the perpetrators and victims are usually gay.

    Rape of any kind isn't just about sex - it's about power, hate, revenge etc. But when a straight man rapes another, it can't be about sex, whereas when the same man rapes a woman, sex is probably a big part of his motivation.