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Michael Abrahams | The stubborn persistence of rape culture

Published:Monday | June 13, 2016 | 12:23 AMMichael Abrahams

Rape culture refers to a situation in which society blames victims of sexual assault and normalises male sexual violence. This creates an environment in which misogynistic and chauvinistic attitudes thrive, and sexual violence against women is excused in the media and popular culture, or even glamorised.
The end result is a situation in which women exist in a society where their rights and safety are diminished. Although men and boys are also victims, in the overwhelming majority of cases, females are the targets.
Rape culture has probably been around as long as humans have been on the Earth. In biblical times, most women were chattel, like livestock and slaves. As for the punishment for rape, in Deuteronomy, if the woman was not engaged to another man, the perpetrator was required to pay 50 pieces of silver to her father and marry her. On the other hand, if the woman was betrothed, not only should the man be stoned to death, but the woman, too, because she did not “cry out for help”. The harsh punishment for the man in the latter instance being not so much for assaulting a woman, but because he interfered with another man’s ‘property’.
Two thousand years later, victim blaming is still entrenched in the minds of many, when the issue of rape arises. According to Shari’a law, a woman must be accompanied by a male guardian at all times in public. So, in 2006, when a 19-year-old Saudi Arabian woman was gang-raped by seven men, she was sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in jail, as she was not with a male guardian at the time of the attack.
Also, according to this system, rape can only be proven if the rapist confesses or if there are four male witnesses to the crime, making rape convictions almost impossible. There are cases where rape has actually been prescribed as punishment, even when the woman played no role in the initial infraction. In Pakistan in 2002, 30-year-old Mukhtaran Bibi was gang-raped on the orders of the village council after it was alleged that that her 12-year-old brother had had sexual relations with a woman from a higher caste.
We hear these stories and remark how backward these societies and religious practices are, but rape culture thrives globally and manifests itself in many ways. For example, the tendency for many to reflexively defend popular and powerful men accused of rape, especially athletes and entertainers, is well documented. It was seen in the United States in the 1990s with Mike Tyson, and today with Bill Cosby. Only the accused and their accusers know what really transpired between them, but people have been willing to declare the innocence of these men, while knowing little or nothing about their attitudes towards women, morals or values.
Rape culture allows us to hear a song like Robin Thick’s hit Blurred Lines describe what sounds like a grey area between consensual sex and assault, with lines like “I know you want it,” and "I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two," and think that is a really cool song, cool enough to become one of the best-selling singles of all time, reaching number one in at least 25 countries, and also breaking the record for the largest radio audience in history.
Rape culture allowed Grand Theft Auto to become one of the most popular video games ever, despite parts of the game where players are allowed to grope strippers or chaperon a paparazzo as he tries to photograph an ageing actress’s “low-hanging muff”. Some players are now able to act out 'virtual rape' on avatars by rewriting the game’s code, and then sharing the videos on YouTube.
Rape culture also allowed someone to feel comfortable enough to post a 40-second video on Twitter of a 16-year-old girl in Brazil being gang-raped by more than 30 men, a Philippine presidential candidate to joke about taking part in the fatal gang rape of a woman (and then go on to win the election), and a Republican politician to state that in “legitimate rape", women rarely get pregnant as “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”.
For a crash course in rape culture, all one needs to do is review the Stanford rape case. Brock Turner, a former Stanford University champion swimmer, was recently handed a paltry sentence of six months for sexually assaulting a woman who was inebriated and unresponsive. He fingered her so roughly that she sustained bruises to her vagina, and he took time out during the assault to take at least one picture of her breasts and send it to his friends.
Despite a prior arrest for underage drinking and the possession of a fake ID, the judge sentenced him to a mere six months in prison, stating that “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him”. His father lamented that "this is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action”, and that "his life has been deeply altered forever”, while his mother asked of the judge, “I beg of you, please don't send him to jail/prison. This would be a death sentence for him.” The accused himself took little responsibility for his actions, blaming “alcohol” and “party culture”.
Thankfully, there has been a huge backlash. A petition has been signed by more than one million people and a campaign launched to remove the judge from his position, and jurors have refused to serve him. Turner has also been banned for life from swimming by the governing body for the sport in his country. This is what we must all do: Acknowledge that rape culture exists, recognise its destructive nature, and fight it in all its forms.
Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams