Harsha Prabhu on the rape culture that dominates our society.
‘This woman who was loved so much…’ – Rilke
Rape is our civilisational sub-text, the hidden hand that rocks our cradle.
Rape culture is endemic everywhere.
Indeed, ours is a civilisation based on rape and pillage. That’s been the operating model in the past. It’s also the operating manual for the military industrial complex that runs our world today. And for modern, predatory capitalism.
Rape is also what we do to the earth. No wonder it affects all of us on the micro level.
Further, the so-called march of history itself can be viewed as a parade of victors, with the spoils of war preceded by slaves, children, women and men, who had either been raped or would be raped.
That’s what Walter Benjamin, possibly the greatest writer of the troubled Weimar years that saw the rise of German fascism, meant when he said: “There’s no document of civilisation that’s not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He was referring to this victory procession.
Rape culture breeds and sustains our endless warmongering.
War is rape by other means; and rape is tantamount to a war on individual women (and men, as men get raped too).
What’s behind this culture of rape?
It’s called the patriarchy – and it’s at least as old as Zeus (if not older), who was a serial rapist himself. The patriarchy preferences the male perspective which sees women as goods and services subservient to men’s needs and organises society based on this principle, with a warrior king at the top and everyone else beneath, women being at the very bottom.
Was it always like this?
No. There is ample archaeological evidence to suggest the cultures of the ancient world were organised in a radically different way. In her path-breaking book The Chalice and the Blade, Riane Eisler suggests these cultures worshipped the goddess and celebrated women as the equal of men. This perspective could be symbolised by the ‘chalice’ and this culture was, in time, overrun by warlike tribes who were organised on very different principles – might is right – symbolised by the ‘blade’.
Why did this happen?
No-one knows for sure. The best guess, which Eisler advances, suggests a combination of unsustainable economic practices and early climate change, forcing tribes to move out of their traditional areas and fall upon others, “like the wolf on the fold”.
However, this poetic analogy from nature is itself fanciful. The key insight from Eisler’s study is this: the so-called war of the sexes is not a biological given but a historical and cultural construct.
Eisler suggests all cultures inhabit a zone somewhere on the pendulum between what she calls the ‘partnership’ model (the chalice) and the ‘dominator’ model (the blade).
Where are we today on this civilisational pendulum?
The very fact that we are discussing the issue of rape suggests that we are still stuck somewhere within the ‘dominator’ zone.
Actual rape, the threat of rape and rape mythified casts a long shadow on our lives and culture.
Women know this in their bones. However, to suggest this is to invite ridicule from men.
Even satirical social media memes playing at role reversal (offering men a 10-point guide to avoid raping women, along the lines of common advice offered to women to avoid being raped) have been criticised by some men as targeting all men as rapists. We men doth protest too much, indicating a bad conscience on this issue.
Talking about social media posts, try making one advocating for human rights for Palestinians in Israel, or advocating for Kashmiris or Dalits in India. If you’re a female with a public profile, your posts will invite rape and death threats.
No wonder all women carry the fear of rape as a constant shadow – even on social media.
Men have great difficulty seeing this shadow side to our masculinity or even acknowledging that it exists.
We get coy, defensive, or aggressive when anyone points this out.
I’m over it. And I’m a man. I can only begin to imagine what it must be like for women.
We men don’t seem to comprehend that our rape culture oppresses not just women, but us men as well.
Rape culture – and the hyper-masculinity it springs from – is responsible for wars, where, arguably, more men die than women. Hyper-masculinity is also responsible for the culture of random weekend violence in our cities, the one-punch deaths, the soccer hooliganism. Then there’s the tragic issue of male suicides, especially the suicides of teenage males.
The patriarchal straight-jacket oppresses and kills not just women but men too.
Instead of introspecting about this civilisational sickness, we men are a) In denial, or b) Dissembling, or c) Blaming feminism for our troubles.
We are in denial when we think: the rapist is some kind of monster far removed from me. No he’s not: he could be our father, uncle, cousin, king. Or even god – in the case of Zeus – or, god forbid, ourselves. We men may be from Mars, but the rapist is not from some planet in another solar system. He’s as familiar as our own face in the mirror.
We are dissembling when we think: but women can be as violent as men. Yes they can, but this view fails to acknowledge that the patriarchy is not just something ‘out there’, but ‘in us’ as well; that patriarchal values are internalised by us, including by women; that gender is not just biology – it’s also a social construct. Whatever we may think about this, we would have to acknowledge that the sequence of abduction-rape-murder is a man thing. Ask your women if they have felt the flicker of this fear. Ask yourself: how many men do you know who go about their biz in fear of this scenario?
As to blaming feminism, the argument goes like this: feminists criticise everything masculine in males. No, they do not. The feminist critique has been squarely focused on toxic masculinity and its social consequences. There is a vast difference between the two and learning to tell the difference is critical.
Indeed, it may even offer some kind of solution. In Australia there’s programs like The Rites of Passage, developed by what’s loosely called the men’s movement, which itself grew partly as a creative response to the questions raised by the women’s movement; and partly inspired by models of manhood and womanhood provided by indigenous culture.
These programs – engendering true masculinity in boys and men coupled with respect for the feminine as mothers, sisters and girlfriends and corresponding programs for young women – have the full support of strong women in the community. They recognise it’s not males per se, but uninitiated males, that are a threat to women – and other men.
The alternative models are there. One very interesting one is the ghotul system found in adavasi (original people) tribes like the Gonds in central India. The ghotul is a self-regulating dorm where teenagers of both sexes live and work together.
The ghotul functions like a living university. According to the anthropologist Verrier Elwin, who lived and worked in the region: “The message of the ghotul—that youth must be served, that freedom and happiness are more to be treasured than any material gain, that friendliness and sympathy, hospitality and unity are of the first importance, and above all that human love—and its physical expression—is beautiful, clean and precious, is typically Indian.” Rape is unknown in the ghotul.
However, this precious and unique institution is now under threat – from rapacious mining companies, moneylenders and the anti-people policies of the Indian state – as is the lives of the adivasi in modern India. Further, India’s hyper-masculine version of Hindutva has weaponised rape as a tactic to keep minorities – and women – subjugated. Compounded by the preference for the male child and the large-scale aborting of female foetuses and female infanticide, the resulting gender imbalance has become a fertile breeding ground for both the prevalence of rape and the growth of fascism.
Clearly rape culture is simply not sustainable.
Toxic masculinity is killing us; as are its bitter fruits, including slavery, colonialism, imperialism, the destruction of the ecosystems and the real possibility of nuclear war.
The thing is: men will not change on their own. No oppressor ever has in history. We will need to be cajoled and coerced to change – by the difficult but necessary work we do amongst ourselves, by our women and by life herself.
No, I’m not suggesting that women once again resort to what Lysistrata did when she advised Greek women to withhold sexual favours from their men – as a way to stop the endless round of the Peloponnesian War. That was a comedy by Aristophanes.
Whether our finale will be a comedy with a sting in its tale or tragedy with some comic relief is anyone’s guess.
Somewhere at the intersection of the laughter and the pain and our collective yearning for change might lie the pearl of great prize.
For every crisis is also an opportunity for growth.
Or, to move away from cliche and to quote Leymah Gbowee, the Nobel Prize-winning peace activist who helped end the Liberian civil war: “It’s time for women to stop being politely angry.”
Anger has its uses.
Women’s anger – and men’s heartfelt response to it – might be the very crucible that gives birth to the love that we both need to see us through this dark night of the soul.
In the meantime, RIP Eurydice (from the Greek “Eurydike”, “she whose justice extends widely”). May she – and the debate that she engenders – lead us from darkness to light….