Dehumanisation and the Systemic Perpetuation of Rape

Are we wit­nessing a global epi­demic of sexual vi­ol­ence against women, or are we simply wit­nessing a tem­porary surge in public and media in­terest in a ubi­quitous, en­demic problem? I sus­pect the latter — much as a spec­tac­ular famine, or a good earth­quake, tem­por­arily piques ‘in­ter­na­tional’ (i.e. Western or Euro-​American) in­terest in the en­demic reality of global poverty; be­fore ‘dis­aster fa­tigue’ kicks in, and the issue is once more re­leg­ated to the back-​burner, to the shadows. Too big to tackle, too far away to con­cern ‘us’.

Although, of course, vi­ol­ence against women is not phys­ic­ally far away from us, we still somehow suc­ceed in denying its scale and ubi­quity; and in dis­tan­cing ourselves from its causes.

It has been on my mind to lay out my very pre­lim­inary re­flec­tions and in­tu­itions on this for a while now. A re­cent art­icle in the Atlantic, The Importance of Men Seeing Women as Human Beings,1 brought mat­ters to a head for me, for­cing me to con­front the emo­tional and in­tel­lec­tual tur­moil this sub­ject cre­ates in me. The art­icle puts the ori­ent­al­ising outcry over rape in India, rape in South Africa, into the con­text of rape, miso­gyny, and im­punity in the USA. It fo­cuses on a hor­rendous, con­tinuous, gang rape of an un­con­scious 16 year old girl in Steubenville, Ohio. ‘She was raped re­peatedly and also car­ried un­con­scious from party to party’ prompting one happy party-​goer to com­ment, ‘She is so raped right now.’

The im­me­diate re­sponse is en­cap­su­lated in a friend’s re­mark on Facebook:

‘there must be swift and scary justice for those im­be­ciles.’
‘Indeed so!’ I instinct­ively respond.

Then a moment’s re­flec­tion brings a simple ques­tion: why? What is driving this de­sire for pun­ish­ment, what is the emo­tional and polit­ical eco­nomy be­hind it? Revenge and pun­ish­ment are ob­vi­ously being fore­grounded here, but what is being ob­scured, dis­guised, denied, suppressed?

There are two sep­arate is­sues here, first the ori­ent­al­isa­tion of sexual vi­ol­ence and miso­gyny, and second the ex­cep­tion­al­isa­tion of rap­ists (at least those of Occidental ex­trac­tion). Separate, but re­lated, as both func­tion to pre­clude a cul­tural self-​analysis in Western so­ci­eties. As Emer O’Toole has observed:

Commentators here are using the event to sim­ul­tan­eously de­monise Indian so­ciety, li­onise our own, and min­imise the enormity of western rape cul­ture.2

According to such com­ment­ators we should re­call the ‘mur­derous, hyena-​like male con­tempt’ that Purves says is an Indian cul­tural norm.3 O’toole continues:

Neatly ex­cised from her ac­count how­ever is the re­la­tion­ship between poverty, lack of edu­ca­tion and re­pressive at­ti­tudes to­wards women, and, by ex­ten­sion, the role of Europe in cre­ating and sus­taining poverty in its former colonies.

This link between poverty, the ex­ploit­a­tion it fa­cil­it­ates, and miso­gyny and sexual vi­ol­ence seems to me multi-​valenced and in­cred­ibly im­portant; so im­portant in fact that it has be­come the ob­ject of a deep-​set re­pres­sion and denial. Crucially, both are un­der­stood as ‘free floating bad things’ ab­er­ra­tions with no sys­temic logic, or at most — and only in the darker na­tions — as patho­lo­gies ex­plic­able through ‘local’ cul­tural conditions.

This ori­ent­alism has its easy tar­gets, such as the Egyptian Shura Council (upper le­gis­lative house) de­creeing that women pro­testers in­cite their own sexual as­saults; or a rouge mufti or sheikh de­claring the rape of pro­testers ‘halal’ (per­mitted). But it is still false, and dan­gerous — dis­guising the deep miso­gyny of Western cul­ture, where US sen­ators have drawn a dis­tinc­tion between ‘le­git­imate rape’ and other ‘lesser’ rapes, and have noted that ‘some women just rape easy.’ The ori­ent­al­ising ex­er­cise here is flim­sily trans­parent, but it does un­in­ten­tion­ally draw at­ten­tion to the links between poverty, ex­ploit­a­tion and the in­grained so­cial hier­arch­isa­tion that un­der­pins both ra­cism and misogyny.

Beyond this ac­ci­dental role, how­ever, it should be dis­missed out of hand. At the very least, a pre­val­ence of vi­ol­ence against women ‘over there’ has no rel­ev­ance to the ana­lysis of ubi­quitous vi­ol­ence against women ‘over here’. Of far more in­terest, polit­ic­ally and in­tel­lec­tu­ally is the ques­tion of how we should un­der­stand rape and rap­ists ‘over here’.

I am so torn, in­tel­lec­tu­ally and emo­tion­ally over how to re­spond to this. I get the right­eous anger, I un­der­stand, even share that al­most vis­ceral de­sire for pun­ish­ment, these ‘mon­sters’ should suffer, and their suf­fering should be ex­em­plary. But, surely there is some­thing para­dox­ical in de­siring or de­manding their de­hu­man­isa­tion? After all, their de­hu­man­isa­tion will not negate that of their victim. Indeed it will simply func­tion within the eco­nomy of de­hu­man­ising vi­ol­ence that is causing so much suf­fering. In fact, it seems, it will help per­petuate that eco­nomy, por­traying these young men as ‘evil’, an­om­alous, in­ex­plic­able, beyond comprehension.

They are none of these, they are sys­temic products. Warped per­haps, but un­der­stand­able within the sys­temic ra­tion­ality of de­hu­man­isa­tion, com­modi­fic­a­tion (and wouldn’t ex­em­plary pun­ish­ment simply con­firm their com­modity status?), miso­gyny, ra­cism, etc. It seems to me then that this de­sire for pun­ish­ment or re­venge func­tions to dis­guise a deeper de­sire to pre­serve that system by shielding it, and our roles within it, from scru­tiny. Their ex­cep­tion­ality thus ex­on­er­ates our normality.

But, that very nor­mality ex­ists within a system of ex­ploit­a­tion and com­modi­fic­a­tion, and it is the lo­gics of that system which per­petuate miso­gyny and gendered vi­ol­ence (and ra­cial­ised vi­ol­ence, and vi­ol­ence against the LGBT com­munity). The focus on pun­ish­ment re­duces rape — like poverty or human rights ab­uses in the ‘de­vel­oping world’ — to the status of ‘free floating bad things’; and it is that status which per­petu­ates the be­lief that they can be erad­ic­ated by pun­ish­ment, re­hab­il­it­a­tion, or re­porting. Their per­pet­rators are ex­cep­tional, and we must deter others from emu­lating them.

It is that blithe and simple il­lu­sion which per­petu­ates the problem. Only once we are willing to re­cog­nise, un­earth, ex­pose, and chal­lenge the sys­temic lo­gics — and their mani­fest­a­tions in everything from lads’ mags to por­no­graphy to ‘slut shaming’ to pop videos to polit­ical dis­course to legal defin­i­tions (I’m thinking es­pe­cially of the defin­i­tion of rape and its linkage to hor­rendously low con­vic­tion rates) — can we even hope to un­der­stand the out­lines of a per­manent solution.

The cur­rent atom­istic frag­ment­a­tion of rape and ex­ploit­a­tion into isol­ated in­cid­ents and ori­ent­alist patho­lo­gies per­petu­ates the problem by shielding us — each and every one of us — from the crit­ical self-​analysis ne­ces­sary to un­der­stand and erad­icate these sys­temic problems.

Jason Beckett is Assistant Professor of Law at the American University in Cairo

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