Early in 2009, my friend and colleague Sheril Kirshenbaum asked several bloggers to consider writing about rape during the month of June, as a coordinated effort to increase awareness and understanding of rape generally, and depending on the blogger, specific aspects of sexual assault and violence. (Sheril’s initial post back in 2009 is here) I welcomed that opportunity and took the approach of discussing two things I actually know something about: Rape in war torn Congo, where I worked for several years (prior to the war) and the behavioral biology of male violence and rape, which is a rather touchy SFAQL subject. There are other aspects of this issue that interest me as well, including the role of anthropological relativism. The definition of rape and how definitional arguments are exploited is also of interest to me, but that has been written about extensively by my friend and colleage Stephanie Zvan (see this list of posts for a start). Another topic of interest that I had not thought about much before bloging about rape is the abuse and rape of men by women (or men, for that matter). It turns out it occurs much more often than many people assume. However, since men are by and large big babies who cry a lot when wounded only slightly, the fact that some men are abused combined with the fact that nobody seems to care enough has resulted in the rise of a Mens Rights Activism movement which is a great example of the Large Lobster Effect but in a bad way. My friend and colleague Jason Thibeault has written some great stuff on this, which you can find by perusing this list of posts.
I want to revive and revise that discussion of rape that started over two years ago, and pursuant to that I’m re-posting (and rewriting) my posts from June 2009. And we’ll start by revisiting this simple question: What would you do if you were the person writing the following passage.
I am a scientist observing the culture of the Namoyoma people. I am sitting in a shady spot just outside the village, writing up some notes, and I observe a disturbing event. Four men are trying to drag a young woman from the road into the nearby forest, and from what I hear them saying, they intend to rape her. There are also four older women trying to drag the young woman back to the village, and they are yelling that she must go back to her father’s house where she will be protected. The battle over this young woman continues for quite some time, and the whole time I consider if I should be involved. I am here to study these people, not to interfere. Yet a rape is, at least according to my cultural norms, a bad thing. Do I get involved or not?
Eventually, the four younger men, stronger than the older women, succeed in dragging the young woman into the bush. I assume they raped her. I felt bad about not helping, but I really had little choice in the matter. I did not come here to change things, I came here to observe and to learn. Intervention could have unforeseen consequences. This culture of rape and male dominance is the way things are in this society. It would be foolish and unethical to try to change it no matter how much I disagree with it.
That is a real story, and I’ve changed the details enough so that it might be difficult for you to track down where it comes from. This is because I have no intention at this time of getting into a battle over this particular incident. Rather, I tell you this story to ask the question: Is it appropriate for you, as a private citizen living in some country like the US or Australia or wherever you are reading this from, to get involved in changing the way that people’s cultures operate in areas where you happen to think they are wrong? In a culture like the one described above, where rape of women by men is “normal” and “typical” and “happens all the time” one can certainly feel badly for the women, but can you, should you, actually intervene?
My own answer to the question is substantially different from that of the person who first told the story I relate above. The answer is: “You are asking a stupid question in a stupid way, and need to step back and think about what you are saying.”
Rape may well be a “normal” and “day to day” occurrence in this culture, simply by virtue of the fact (= tautology) that it happens all the time. But there are two reasons why one should not fail to intervene.
One of these two reasons (and I hesitate to prioritize them) is that while rape is “normal” and “frequent” resistance to rape is as well. In the story cited above, there are two opposing forces, but the researcher observing them seems to focus only on one of the two. What about the perspective of the older women pulling on the other arm of this young girl? Are they not part of this culture as well? And certainly the young girl herself is at least as much an example of resistance as she is an example of object. If you must be logical and reflective in the manner of the hapless observer cited above, rather than activist, please consider that not wanting to be raped is a cultural norm as well. Duh.
The other reason is that rape is wrong. Call me a cultural chauvinist if you like.
The above example is from Latin America. Recently, mass rape, which is different from what is described here, has become recognized as a tool of warfare as it has become increasingly exposed (the rape itself is certainly not a new phenomenon) in Europe and Africa as part of very recent conflicts. When generation-long warfare is combined with child-solder strategies, as has happened in Liberia, the Congo, and parts of Uganda in recent decades, young men grow up understanding that sex = violent rape, and a sort of post-Apocalypic rape culture often emerges.
And of course, the rise of wartime rape culture brings up two very important issues. First, what can you do about it? How can you as a citizen of the world intervene helpfully? We’ll discuss that. The second and somewhat touchier question is this: If an entire culture can transform to a rape culture of this order of magnitude, then how does rape emerge as a behavior in individual men? Are all men potential rapists? If you are pretty sure they are not, then how do you explain rape cultures without reference to some sort of exceptionalism where you and your friends and family living in your nice middle class suburb in Iowa (or whatever) are the self declared exceptions? I think maybe you can’t. And we’ll explore that too.