Raped and killed at 17, walking through a park. Molested since the age of 5 by a family friend. Brutally beaten, raped and killed at 21, walking home from a Melbourne comedy club. Sexually harassed by co-workers every day. Raped with a metal rod and left on the side of the road. Raped at 14 and left outside in below freezing temperatures, where her hair froze to the ground. Raped at 19 and the judge asked why she didn’t just close her legs. The list is endless.
I could not name all of these victims, the thousands upon thousands of women who experience sexual assault every day. Because their stories, their experiences have blurred to become a line on a graph, a number in a data table, just another statistic we highlight and underline to show our girls why they need to be safe, why they shouldn’t walk alone at night, to cross to the other side of the road if someone walks towards them at night or if they think they’re being followed, to hold their keys between their knuckles as an improvised weapon.
What I can tell you is the reason why attacks like these are occurring worldwide every day is because of a rape culture that we as a society partake in, whether we know it or not. And today I’ll be discussing how we as a society normalise and encourage rape culture.
Many people dispute and misunderstand the meaning of rape culture. The definition of rape culture is “a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect or normalising or trivialising sexual assault or abuse”. Rape culture is not pointing at every man and saying that ‘you’re a monster’, that ‘you will sexually assault a woman at some point in your life because you’re a man’ rape culture is not saying that we as people, or we as a society are pro rape. Rape culture is digging deeper, looking for the answers as to WHY?
Why are such a large majority of women victims to sexual assault? Why are the majority or perpetrators men? Why does rape and sexual assault occur within our society in the first place? Because even though we only hear about the occasional rape, sexual assault is occurring all the time, all over the world. And these statistic are not coincidental which is why rape culture aims to examine how we as a society have contributed to the normalisation of sexual violence.
A lot of factors influence a rape culture, things like gender, age, class, the country you live in etc. Gender is an obvious influencer. 1 in 5 Australian women have experienced sexual and/ or physical violence by a partner since the age of 15. 1 in 3 have experienced sexual violence by a partner or otherwise since the age of 15. And 1 in 2 women experience sexual violence during their lifetime. Compared to the 1 in 20 men that will experience sexual assault in the lifetime.
In Australia only 5% of all reported rapes will end in prison sentence this means that out of every 1000 sexual assaults 995 perpetrators walk free. When combined with the relatively low reporting this means that 99% of rapists get away with their crimes. There are two reasons that contribute to this. First, rape is an incredibly personal crime, making it very difficult to prove. 8 out of 10 rapes occur between people who knew each other before the assault, this is known as acquaintance rape. So contrary to what most people believe, most rapes don’t happen in a dark alley or in a bad part of town no most rapes occur between friends, between family members, co-workers, boyfriends or girlfriends. Most rapes happen behind closed doors which makes them incredibly difficult to prove in a court of law. The second reason that contributes to these low conviction rates is the social narrative surrounding rape, scholars call this the theory of secondary victimisation. This contends that many victims being exposed to victim blaming attitudes will be akin to a second rape. Victims of rape are in an extreme position of vulnerability following an attack. Not only has their body been violated but their autonomy, their sense of humanity has too. Because rape is one of the only crimes where a victim’s body is used as a weapon against them, this alone is enough to inflict severe psychological harm. Coupled with secondary victimisation, this leads many victims to self-blame, sexual re-victimisation, promiscuity and low self-esteem all of which can further lead to severe mental health issues such as depression and anxiety as a result of PTSD. The word rape may seem unapproachable after an attack so victims may cover up and hide the crimes committed against them or even defend their rapist when challenged by family members or friends.
Research show that victims of acquaintance rape are far less likely to define it as such and so the process of grasping an attack so brutal and so personal is difficult enough that when victim blaming attitudes are added to the mix it only gets that much harder. 1 in 4 Australian university women will be raped during their time on campus. 1 in 4. Research shows that rape myths are created and spread at an excessive rate on campuses, meaning actual assault reports are faced with uncertainty that makes it easier to blame the victim and excuse the actions of the perpetrator. They perpetuate myths that infiltrate the minds of our young people and then lead to higher levels of sexual assault in the future. For example the belief that false rape accusations are a common problem is particularly harmful problem to victims especially when considering that the national sexual assault support centre reports that only 2 – 8 percent of all reported rapes are actually found to be false whereas 68% of all rapes will never be reported and only 5% of those that are will end in a prison sentence. So the prevalence of rape outweighs the prevalence of false accusations astronomically and yet millions of people still question victims instead of actually considering the possibility that these accusations are true.
Women however are not the only victims of rape and sexual violence. For male victims the social paradigm surrounding rape brings unique challenges. The first and most common myth is that men can’t be the victims of rape, but this is not true. Millions of boys and men have been the victims of rape. The statistics show 1 out of every 20 men experience sexual assault in their lifetime and 1 out of every 16 boys have experienced sexual assault since the age of 15, and these numbers increase drastically when considering a university education as 1 in 16 men on campus will be sexually victimised. Sexual orientation can also increase this risk as bisexual and gay men are at a 50% higher risk then heterosexual men to be the victims of sexual violence and rape. So while the statistics on male rape are so very clear male victims often experience even more scepticism and indifference then female victims. But victims are not the only actors in male rape scenarios that people find unbelievable. The notion that rapists are usually sexually frustrated men is particularly harmful because it makes implications about the nature of the crime, so despite significant evidence that rape is a crime about power and control many people still choose to believe that it’s motivated by sexual impulse. It also makes implications that women can’t rape men, or that women never perpetuate sexual violence, but this is not true either. We have undereducated our young men of what to do in situations of sexual assault, and because of that cannot often validate their experiences after one. Likewise social expectations of men often change their connection to this crime. Because men are often made to conform to hyper masculine stereotypes and dominate women, and men are also expected to never raise a hand to a woman leaving them in an awkward position of defencelessness when faced with an attack by a female rapist.
Talking about sexual assault is extremely uncomfortable. I’m not telling you these things to make you distrust and hate men because that’s not what I want. I’m telling you these things because it’s likely that 1 in 4 of the women and one in 16 of the men that I encounter on an everyday basis are the victims of rape. I tell you because it’s likely that every one of you see the manifestation of this culture every day in your lives. Research shows it’s possible to conduct a society in which rape is so discouraged, that even potential rapists would never act out in sexual violence. A common modern day example of this is the Minangkabau society in Indonesia, here women are inherently valued not for their sexual purpose but for their contribution to society, and male sexual prowess and violence are not deemed manly because their concept of masculinity is not tied to sex at all. We live in a rape prone society in which the culture of violence against women is so embedded in us, that we forget it’s even there. We have misinformed our young men about the definition of consent and we have defined sexuality in terms of power and obligation. But we must unlearn these behaviours together. Because the reality is that you sit in class every single day with rape victims and you probably sit in class with rapists too. Rapists are not born rapists, they are constructed by social and cultural attitudes that shape their identity and motivate their violence.
Talking about sexual assault is extremely uncomfortable, but that’s precisely why we must do just that. So if you are a victim of sexual assault tell your story proudly and if you’re not use your voice to help those who are. Because I firmly believe that our vulnerability is our voice, that our stories fuel our strength, that our pain does not define us and that our common experiences will bind strangers together with an unbreakable force. And together we can create a society free of the disease that is rape culture.