When I talk about ‘rape culture’ or ‘a culture of violence against women’, I often hear something like this from men (and some women) :
“I have a lot of feminist friends, and I mostly agree with what they’re saying, but I don’t think that so much energy should be spent picking apart the semantics of words or smaller instances of ‘sexism’ when there are more pressing issues”
By ‘more pressing issues’, people tend to mean female genital mutilation, honour killings, rape in conflict, femicide. The ‘more pressing issues’ tend to be mass atrocities, lethal and abhorrent. However, they are not one-off acts of violence. What lies at the root of all these violations is the belief that women are inferior to men, weaker than men, less equal and therefore should not have the same autonomy, agency or independence that men are entitled to. These views are reinforced in our culture.
Christina Aguilera and Lil’ Kim sang about this 5 years ago:
“Here’s something I just can’t understand
If the guy have three girls then he’s the man
He can even give her some head, or sex her raw
But if a girl do the same, she’s a whore”
Underlying these “slut”, “slag” or “whore” comments that we all hear on an almost everyday basis is the concept that women cannot enjoy the same sexual freedom as men. This is exactly the same sentiment behind the stoning of “adulteresses” and Middle-Eastern women accused of ‘Zina’ (extra or premarital sex under Sharia law), often when they have actually been raped. Because it is so easy to blame a woman. The key word here is blame. All the responsibility for an act of violence committed against her falls on the woman, because she brought dishonour onto her family, because the idea of sexual pleasure in a woman is fundamentally wrong, because telepathically, “she asked for it”.
Men violate and subordinate women because they are able to do so with impunity. They do so with genuine conviction that women are less than men and incapable of the same fundamental freedoms and rights; this conviction does not come in a split-second lightning-bolt stab to the brain which fries all sense of empathy, humanity and reason. This conviction is reinforced with comments like “stop being such a woman”, “grow some balls”, “well, dressed like that she put herself on a platter” and the arbitrary exchange of ‘gang rape’ with ‘orgy’ in newspapers. Men don’t suddenly decide to rape in the moment, they’ve already justified to themselves that it’s something they can do to hurt a woman.
When people say they are in support of ‘more pressing issues’, they fail to see past the isolated act of (generally physical) violence in the first place, to the psychological grounding and justification it has. What’s more concerning, is the acceptability and ‘harmlessness’ of these attitudes, and the way that most people pass them by as “nothing to be worried about” because there are “more pressing issues”.
Yet, how do these issues arise? To prevent the ‘more pressing issues’ from even happening, the contributing factors, attitudes and behaviours need to be targeted first. This is a typical leaky bucket situation. We need to throw away the bucket. We can’t always look to legislation and the threat of punishment as a deterrent; this is already when its too late. People walk among us who want to commit these acts, and see an entitlement to “punish” or “discipline” women for their “misbehaviour”, to victimise them; frankly just because they feel entitled to. These attitudes are paramount to address, because they culminate in physical violation.
Finally, “more pressing issues” logically doesn’t make sense as a comparative statement; just because something is not as “urgent” (which is disputable), doesn’t mean it’s not vitally important to the survival of millions of women, and doesn’t mean its nothing to do with the bigger picture of violence and discrimination against women.