Ending the Culture of Rape

The web group Anonymous collected and posted information on the accused Steubenville rapists.

By Bob Gaydos

The culture of rape. Yet another disheartening fact of life hammered into our collective consciousness — and perhaps, conscience — through the collective conversation of social media. This week, the messages came from opposite sides of the planet, separated by light years of history as well as thousands of miles of geography.

To wit: Some people — far too many people — think of rape as an inevitable fact of life, almost a rite of passage, something to be tsked-tsked at, but, ultimately, not serious enough to “ruin” the lives of the rapists and certainly something over which the victim has some control.

From India, where the culture of rape is apparently well-known and a tradition of long standing and where many citizens are still angry over efforts to cover up a recent fatal gang rape, comes the story of a Swiss tourist who was the victim of another gang rape. The local police chief said she and her husband should have known better than to camp where they did, seeing as his county is apparently the gang rape capital of India. A couple of days later, a British tourist leaped from the third-floor balcony of her hotel room to escape the hotel manager trying to assault her. She suffered two broken legs and head injuries. It was in a different county.

From Steubenville, Ohio, where high school football is apparently the only game and claim to fame in the town, comes the story of two star high school football players who raped a teen-ages girl, bragged about it in sickening detail on Twitter, and almost got away with it because a football coach and a lot of other local residents apparently valued high school football success over the rights of a female not to have her body violently invaded against her will.

The Steubenville case came to light because of persistent efforts by the web group Anonymous, which gathered information on the attack and posted it on the internet, and the heroic efforts of a local blogger who risked her own life in collecting and posting the Twitter accounts and demanding arrests. The victim was called a “slut” in posts commenting on the local blogger’s reports.

Unfortunately, when the two athletes finally came to trial and were convicted, major electronic media perpetuated the culture of rape by focusing on the way in which the two young men’s lives were “ruined“ by their raping someone and ignoring any possible impact the rape may have had on the victim. Fox News went so far as to name the victim, a departure from traditional news media treatment of rape victims. The attackers were convicted as juveniles and could be free in a couple of years, but they will be listed as sex offenders, which is what they are.

I have no desire to rehash the details of these cases, all well-covered, as I said, on the Internet. Suffice to say, Facebook is awash in posts on the Steubenville case and the Ohio attorney general is talking about an investigation of the attempted coverup of the assault. The world is watching.

In response to widespread disgust and embarrassment across the country, the Indian parliament has passed a law expanding the penalties for repeat rape offenders to life in prison or even death and imposing harsher penalties on stalking. More likely to have an impact, several countries, Britain and Switzerland among them, have issued warnings to citizens about traveling to India — not safe for females because of sexually motivated assaults. With billions in tourism dollars potentially at stake, even the most insensitive, clueless politician has to pay attention.

But as far as I’m concerned Steubenville and India deserve whatever negative effects they suffer from the rape cases for allowing the culture of rape to comfortably exist within their borders. Unfortunately, they are not alone. This attitude of semi-acceptance of men sexually harassing and assaulting women has prevailed on the planet for centuries. Again, the Internet, especially social media, may, slowly, be driving a change in attitude.

Among the reasons for some optimism in this regard is the effort of Breakthrough, an international human rights group, which is seeking to obtain concrete promises from 1 million men to end discrimination and sexual assault against women. The group wants to alter the impression given to boys that it is acceptable to objectify, dehumanize and violate women. As one male supporter of the effort put it: We should raise boys to be men, rather than raising them to not be women or gay.

There’s more. As news of these attacks spread on social media, so did reports of other rapes and the way in which they were being treated by police authorities and news media. Sensing a greater awareness and, more significantly, a willingness to talk about rape, women’s rights groups have begun an effort to change the way the conversation is focused. They want to look at how the attackers are dealt with. What messages are being sent to young boys?

Other positive signs? In Congress, despite the incomprehensible efforts of Republicans to defeat it, the Violence Against Women Act was renewed and signed into law by President Obama. In London, a huge crowd joined the One Billion Rising campaign in front or Parliament to protest violence against women. Even in Egypt, where sexual harassment and sexual attacks against women have been commonplace since its revolution, groups are rising up to protest the culture of rape.

These efforts will gain worldwide support through the Internet, but will inevitably face strong opposition from the existing male power structure, many of whose members look upon it as a matter of superiority — men being the superior ones and women being vessels for invasion and reproduction. Just recall the inane comments made about rape by some male Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate last year. (They all lost, another positive sign.)

Of course, any attempt to change the focus of the discussion of rape from the victim to the attackers will require men and women to agree on changes in arrest and prosecution of sexual assaults so that more women feel free to report the crimes. (Some reports say that only three out of every 100 men accused of rape in this country spend any time behind bars.) It will require a willingness for both sexes to talk honestly about the issue. And it will require a recognition that the existence of a culture of rape within any community — be it Steubenville, Ohio, or India — is an assault on the psyche of the community itself and must be exorcised for the well-being of all.

Let the effort begin.




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