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Is critique of 'rape culture' enough? Waving the feminist arms in the academy

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The recent events that have unfolded at SMU and UBC in the past few weeks have ignited justifiable outrage over the persistence and seeming acceptability of sexual violence as a normal part of campus culture. Despite the insistence that we as women have come such a long way, with the presence of women politicians and CEOs used as a visible marker of "progress" and the idea that women can somehow "have it all" in this "post-feminist" era, it is obvious that we still have a long way to go when it comes to the discourse of so-called rape culture that permeates through the hallways of campuses across the country.

'School spirit': Whose campus is it anyway?

 What I find especially interesting about "rape culture" are the ways in which it is intertwined with the discourse of "campus culture" and "school spirit."

High schools, colleges and universities are designed to be institutions to support learning and growth, yet continue to privilege the experiences of (mostly) white, cisgendered, heterosexual, middle-class and able-bodied students who feel empowered through school events to celebrate their racism, sexism and class privilege. Whether it was the Y-O-U-N-Gsters at SMU and UBC celebrating their sexism, UBC students mocking Indigenous peoples or "Hobo Day" at South Dakota State University, these events demonstrate to us that while frosh is designed to welcome students to the campus community, it turns out that only certain kinds of students are welcomed.

Hazing rituals, which tend to be rites of passage for individuals who join other school groups like sororities/fraternities and sports teams (which not surprisingly, are investments in potential future alumnus donors), employ an equally dangerous, alcohol-soaked rhetoric of school spirit and aggressive masculinity that accelerates this culture of sexism by actually engaging in ritualistic rape. Young men are raping each other, but patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny means that we hardly ever hear about it, since rape only happens to women. The idea of "campus safety" has become a bit of a joke, particularly when the incidence of actual rape and assault on campuses continue. An entire Internet-based movement coalesced around the incidence of sexual violence at York University only two-and-a-half years ago, and yet our administrators are silent until an explosive media event occurs. While these kinds of institutionalized activities have been happening for years (probably more like decades), the media coverage around these events invites us to ask what kind of campus community we intend to foster.

I felt compelled to write this piece because as a feminist educator, I have become all too accustomed to the general aversion of feminism among young women whenever I hear, "I'm not a feminist, but…". It seems that few are willing to identify as a feminist and risk being labeled an angry, hairy-legged lesbian: as if being angry about the historical oppression of women in society is not an entirely legitimate response; as if our own internalized sexism hasn't caused us to be revolted at the site of our human bodies; and as if some women's disgust at queer female sexuality doesn’t reveal what a deeply heteronormative society we live in.

What concerns me most about these events, however, is the absolute banality of patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny on campus and beyond. Social media is one channel that makes such banality visible, as many of us have found out about acts of sexualized violence because the participants felt empowered to broadcast the images and commentary online. The behaviours surrounding sexual violence shocks, as the outrage over last year's bus gang rape in Delhi and the Steubenville case last year attests, but not the conditions under which it operates.

In her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, philosopher Hannah Arendt covered the trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker, remarking that “the sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil”. While I do not mean to compare rape chants to the Holocaust, I would like to point out that both rape and genocide are made possible by the dehumanization of people and the idea that the domination of one person over the other is somehow acceptable. The truth is, the participants in the events at SMU and UBC are not evil (and likely do not actually support rape); rather, they operated under a system of patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny where their privilege precluded them from even having to make a moral decision in the first place. While the students have been quickly reprimanded for their actions, their “crime” was in fact a failure to act and oppose such rituals—disciplining and punishing the crying undergraduates demonstrates that the speech acts are improper, but does not address the prevailing ideology embedded in campus culture or the collective responsibility that we all share.

While some of my peers have expressed outrage over reports that some young women also participated in these events, with some suggesting that the madness of the crowd or peer pressure were responsible, I only ask what further evidence we need that we are still living in a deeply patriarchal, sexist, and misogynistic society than the fact that women willingly participate in the subordination of other young women? The feminist killjoy is still the most unpopular girl at the frathouse of sexism.

Is critique of 'rape culture' enough? 

The attribution of these events to "rape culture" by many commentators represents an important first step in addressing the problem, but I feel rather ambivalent about this particular term. My concern is that the use of such a term risks diluting the radical discourse of feminism and erases the tireless efforts of feminists both in and outside of the academy to theorize and indict systems of patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny that have led to the historical subordination of women. Put simply, an understanding of patriarchy as a male-dominance, sexism as a system that oppresses and subordinates people based on their sex and misogyny as a fear or hatred of women seem to be not overly onerous concepts to understand and deploy. All three terms remind us that the oppression of people are linked to larger systems of power, and should tell us that rape cannot be adequately addressed until we confront and dismantle them.

Feminist visionary bell hooks persuasively argues that "feminism is for everybody." [1] While hooks uses this to mean that the theory and practice of feminism strives to liberate us all from sexism, I contend that feminism, a theory of oppression that calls for the full social, cultural, political and economic equity of gender and sexual minorities, has been designed to be accessible enough for everybody to understand, especially if you have lived experiences that help you connect the "I" to the "we."

This needn't be an exercise in intellectual gymnastics, and it does not require the language of specialization, as history has demonstrated. Whether it was the critical education theorist Paolo Friere teaching poor illiterate farmers to read and to collectively organize against oppression through a process of conscientização, or whether it was 1970s feminists facilitating consciousness-raising circles in their homes to talk about their lived experiences of sexism and how they had internalized it in their oppression of other women, both scenarios demonstrate the keen abilities of "ordinary" people to attain knowledge and mobilize through dialogue and the sharing of experiences.

The contemporary discourse around rape culture, on the other hand, seems to suggest that this is somehow a recent development rather than a historically continuous form of systemic oppression. The truly outrageous incidences of sexual violence we see and hear about in the media incite us to talk about how awful the world is without naming and addressing the roots of the problem. "Rape culture" demands that the so-called perpetrators of these crimes be effectively disciplined and punished, thus individualizing the problem and restricting sexism to a singular act of violence. But the question of how to confront and prevent such actions from happening in the first place remains unanswered.

Don't get me wrong -- "rape culture" is real and it is a problem. My concern is that our emphasis on the issue of rape, admittedly one of the most egregious effects of patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny, risks obscuring other horrific health and human rights violations that girls and women face globally. Domestic and/or partner violence, femicide, trafficking, genital mutilation, acid burnings, dowry killings, the forced marriage of children and the stoning of women are other atrocious effects of these systems, as are the more insidious and invisible forms of sexism that are related to social, political and economic inequities. How else could we explain that those who remain disproportionately affected by rape are women of colour, poor, queer, and disabled?

Sexual violence is one issue that has few proponents -- few actually support rape, even if they chant or joke about it; yet, somehow the idea that rape is linked to the collective oppression of women in all spheres of public and private life, and that feminism needs to be championed remains difficult for so many people to accept. "Rape culture," then, only goes so far to mobilize publics around a cultural type of feminism that prevents us from engaging in these broader discussions and coming up with new forms of collective action and resistance against sexism.

On the other hand, my ambivalence is mitigated by an optimism that younger generations of women are willing and able to identify a problem with a name. The successful efforts of prior generations of feminists become visible to me when I notice younger people who are willing to publicly challenge the assertion that a woman's clothing, level of intoxication, or whereabouts serve as suitable excuses for sexual violence, or that explicit consent should be the minimum standard for sexual acts.

While I realize that these ideas have not yet gained widespread acceptance, I find it promising that it circulates online, especially if this inspires groups of younger women to rally around those who have been sexually assaulted and to feel empowered enough to assert and communicate their own sexual boundaries.

How many of us as young women were complicit in disbelieving or blaming women who had been sexually assaulted, even if our complicity was in the act of silence? How many of us have said 'yes' because saying ‘no’ somehow felt impolite or prudish, even if our partners would have gladly listened to us?

My hope is that for all women, but especially for the generations of feminists that will follow us when we lose the righteous indignation of our youth, that these conversations encourage them to speak freely with their peers about such issues and that it sparks curiosity about learning more. The discourse of "rape culture," then, becomes a necessary, although not sufficient condition for a reinvigoration of feminism.

Part II of this piece will be published on Friday. 

Maggie MacAulay is a PhD candidate in the School of Communication at SFU. Her research interests include gender, sexuality, health and technology.


[1] See hooks, bell. (2000). Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. South End Press.

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