What’s wrong with rape culture

Moving campus feminism beyond sexual politics

Anyone who reads The Daily regularly is familiar with the basic tenets of anti-‘rape culture feminism: we live in a society in which rape is normalized through cultural scripts about romance and gender roles, ‘humour’ that treats rape as a punch line, a lack of education about consent, as well as the way everyone from gossip rags to the court system engages in victim-blaming, prioritizing rapists’ lives over survivors’.

A significant part of campus feminism is dedicated to countering this cultural trend. Reading the responses to the “I need feminism because…” campaign last year, I was struck by how many of them echoed concerns about rape and sexual assault. A similar trend can be seen in large parts of the feminist blogosphere, dominated by young middle-class white cis heterosexual women whose activism translates into book titles like Yes Means Yes and The Purity Myth, and actions like Slutwalk and the Hollaback website, on which women can post pictures of street harassers.

These concerns are legitimate. A majority of women (and, though the statistics are less clear, likely a majority of trans* people of all genders) experience sexual assault. These numbers skyrocket within already marginalized populations: Native women and women with disabilities, among others. I strongly believe in the necessity of both preventing future rapes and making the world safer for survivors to live in. The role of institutions like McGill’s student-run Sexual Assult Centre of McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS), for example, is vitally important.

But a focus on ending rape and sexual assault as the be-all-end-all of feminism ignores the fact that what causes rape is not ‘rape culture’ but patriarchy. (Or, more specifically, kyriarchy: the intersecting mess of oppressions under which we live that includes racism, trans misogyny, ableism, colonialism, and so on.) The thing is that no matter how many times you repeat that rape is about power, by focusing on ‘rape culture’ you keep the focus off of power structures and on individual acts of assault.

Focusing feminism on rape centres the actions of one person against another person, rather than addressing systems that give certain classes of people power over others. Though talk of a ‘rape culture’ would suggest we are looking at systemic patterns, the way it is discussed focuses on changing an environment that encourages certain choices, rather than abolishing institutions that make such actions inevitable.

Women have been systematically dispossessed by institutions made up of powerful men, and pressed into dependent relationships with men due to economic need. Under a capitalist system that depends on a workforce that is desperate for cheap wage labour, social and legal frameworks were set up that made women responsible for providing male workers with comfort and pleasure at the end of the day – support and nourishment so the men can get back to work the next day. Relying on a strict gendered division of labour, these institutions also erased queer and/or trans* people’s very existence.

Although many of these institutions are currently undergoing transformations as other divisions of labour become more important, we are still very much living in their wake. Rape must be understood as an inherent part of a hierarchical system that teaches us not to see others as equally human, treats human relationships as essentially transactional, and has for centuries operated on the understanding that certain bodies exist purely to satisfy the greed and desires of others. Unfortunately, banning all the rape jokes in the world won’t change that.

Second, focusing on rape culture as the most visible example of women’s oppression ignores the many other ways that gendered oppression operates. A campus feminist movement that is profoundly upset at sexualized advertising but not at the administration’s attacks on salaries and pensions for MUNACA – a labour unit made up predominantly of women – is a campus feminist movement that is seriously missing something. Feminists who can rattle off ten ways men can stop rape, but have never paid attention to the way our immigration and deportation regime hurts women and queer and trans* people of all genders might want to take another look at where the problems lie.

Finally, focusing on rape as the worst possible form of oppression perpetuates problematic ideas about women’s sole virtue being their sexual purity. That is not at all to say that it is wrong to feel violated by rape or sexual assault, but that the obsession with rape as the most victimizing of experiences is problematic. Although for some people rape may be the worst thing that has ever happened to them, for others it is not, and perhaps we should start thinking of supporting all survivors of violence, whether rape or psychological abuse or systemic racism. This is particularly true given how commonly non-men are murdered by intimate partners, clients, or random misogynists.

While I share many of my fellow campus feminists’ desire to see the world free from oppression – including sexual violence – I suggest we take a look at the bigger picture to make sure our analyses and strategies for action respond to what’s really going on. Abandoning the simplistic framework of ‘rape culture’ is a necessary step in building an inclusive, truly transformative, feminist movement.

In Through the Looking Glass, Mona Luxion reflects on activism, current events, and looking beyond identity politics. Email Mona at lookingglass@mcgilldaily.com.