A Rape in Progress

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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. 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.

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.

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12 thoughts on “A Rape in Progress

  1. Thank you for this post. Obviously some questions are better answered in advance of finding oneself in a situation that is so unique and fraught with peril that rational thought is not possible. The answer to “What do I do?” in a situation like this is, as you aptly demonstrated “I have to do what I can!” I think what may have actually happened to this gentleman is that he was too terrified to do anything and used moral relativism and internal debate as self-protection. But, of course, I do not know. As for as “cultural chauvinism” if you saw someone being brutally murdered you might not be able to intervene because of circumstances, but neither would you blithely say “Oh, it’s just a part of their culture.” As for your other question, I can say definitely that “all” men are not potential rapists because I am not a potential rapist. Can most or almost all men be incited to rape? It’s a good question and I really don’t know.

  2. Men are potential rapists in the same sense as people are potential murderers. A few them will and do murder/rape, the majority do not, and some would not whatever the circumstances. If we are talking about penetration rape, I would imagine quite a number of men would be physically unable to in a rape situation.

  3. Call it the naturalistic fallacy, and the chief problem with trying to judge all cultures in a pluralistic fashion. Yes, it’s not your culture, and this culture might have different societal mores and different levels of acceptability. However, empathy is universal. If you intervene, assuming you and the woman survive, she will surely thank you for your preventing this violence. I can’t imagine a single culture on Earth where the person being raped would be upset that you intervened.

  4. Given the scenario: Holy octopus, even Captain Picard who shits rose-petals would have been justified to intervene, since there were clearly two opposing sides.
    It’s not like abducting a young woman from an arranged marrige because you happen to be opposed to that although she’s smiling at her husband.
    I do in general refuse to say “what would I do” in an extreme situation I haven’t been in. That’s the only honest answer I can give.
    Curling up crying or running away and hiding would be options, too.
    But that doesn’t mean that those would be the best options, or the most moral ones. Those are human ones and I acknowledge that I am human.
    Would anybody criticise the person if he’d said: Shit I was scared and frightened and I simply didn’t know what to do?
    But justifying it with “it’s their culture” is sick.
    If that’s really his opinion, he became complicit in the crime.

    As a related story:
    I don’t know how familiar you are with the author Stig Larrson. The original title of his “Girl with the dragon tatoo” books is “Men who hate women”.
    His writings have a biographical background. When he was a teenager he witnessed some older boys raping a girl. He could have done something, he didn’t do anything and this experience shaped him, he became a vocal feminist. And years later he met that woman again, and he said he was sorry and he really had changed and could she ever fogive him and she told him that, no shit, she would never forgive him, because he had the chance to help her and he didn’t help her and no matter how much good he did in his life, it would never make amends for what he’d done to her.

    What makes rape such an “acceptable” crime that people will look away?

  5. Maybe I will just be honest here. I thought long and hard about this question. At one point in my life I entertained the thought of being an anthropologist. I since changed my mind for other pursuits but I began with and still have a love for anthropology. I tend to be pretty culturally reletivistic but with a side of we still have an obligation to right moral wrongs where we see them even if the introduction of dichotimous moral delimmas is for a limited time chaotic for a particular culture. Culture is not static and we should not try to keep it so. That being said I do feel there is to some degree a professional obligation on the part of the ethnographer to not interfere with a culture. Anthropology only maintains its credibility as a science when we can minimize the variables as much as possible. So yes this situation was a delimma for me. Still the noble savage in me thinks I would intervene. That I would end my data collection at that point and prevent the rape of the woman in question. Such a nobel idea it is in my head to do so. Then the honest savage in me says that I might not. I would want to of course. I would look in disguist at the actions of the men and myself as I let it happen. I would rationalize all the while that it puts me in danger if I interfere (while knowing it mostly just puts my research in danger). I would spend probably the rest of my life weighing my decision and knowing I made the wrong one. I would consider all the consequences over and over and try my damnedest to convince myself that rape wasn’t as bad for her as it is for the rape victims in developed countries. So while I would want to stop such and action without hesitation, I might not have the selflessness to do so. That is the sad truth. In my head I am a better human than I am in life.

  6. When I read the story, before I read your commentary afterwards, I thought: this is bullshit, it’s never right to harm another person against their will. Sure, I think ritual scarification as a rite of passage is pretty barbaric, but if the boys that go through it are willing… not my place to judge.

    But in this situation, the girl is clearly unwilling and she has the support of other members of her tribe. this is not some sort of consensual barbarity, but is an action that violates what is expected as civil conduct of those people. They were fighting over her! It wasn’t like they showed up and the girl, resigned, willingly went with them because, although she didn’t like it, it was what was expected. No, she was fighting.

    Whoever wrote that (or something similar) misread the situation. What was happening wasn’t ‘normal’. Common, perhaps, but not socially acceptable.

    Besides which harming other people against their will is as close to a moral universal that we’ll ever have.

  7. I wrote a similar piece, albeit about superstition (although I did write one about rape too), with respect to well-intentioned thoughts about paternalism. The main thrust of my position is that culture should not be thought of as an inviolable, sacred, static entity. Exchange of ideas is what humans do, and have done since the beginning of time. It is no more wrong to say “rape is bad, and here’s why” than it is to say “say, have you heard about germ theory?”

    Superstition, violence, hatred – these things are not culture, and it does more harm to allow them to continue than it does to remain hands-off for fear of bullying.

  8. I call bullshit.

    I can understand being too terrified to intervene. I would not attempt to justify my fear by stating: “Oh, well, that’s just what they do here.”

    This is not Star Trek. There is no Prime Directive.

    There is nothing written anywhere that states we have to allow harm to come to others because of where those people live. If there was, you wouldn’t see all the campaigns that attempt to stop people from being stoned to death. You wouldn’t see people stepping in to try and put an end to the brutality happening in Somalia.

    There are no cultural “consequences” to preventing a rape, except that you’re helping a girl/woman (generally) NOT become an outcast. If anything, you’re performing a cultural service by ensuring her safety. In most of those societies, the stigma on rape victims far exceeds what we see in the U.S., and by preventing the rape, you’re making sure the girl/woman still has a future in her village.

    Things like this infuriate me. People need to stop making excuses for passively standing by and allowing horrible things to happen to people who don’t deserve them. Think of those two gang rapes that happened outside of high school dances. Boys were standing around LAUGHING at the girls (who were screaming for help) – and some of the boys even joined in – and it’s all on video. And that happened in the United States, not the back corners of the world where there’s no law enforcement. By this anthropologist’s argument, we should shrug that off as “something that just happens in this society” because the boys were treating it as a normal and fun act.

    F**K THAT.

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