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