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On rape culture and what Heather MacDonald doesn't understand about sexual violence

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CBC Radio's Q with Jian Ghomeshi hosted a debate on the term "rape culture" yesterday, which could have actually been interesting and productive, had producers made better choices in terms of how they framed the conversation.

I do consider "rape culture" to be a useful and accurate way of describing the way in which sexual violence has been normalized and sexualized in our culture. There is simply no denying that, when we see male students "joking" about raping female students, as we did recently at the University of Ottawa, when fraternities are untouchable on campus despite the fact that the "Greek scene" is a cesspool of toxic masculinity and sexual violence, when students at Canadian universities participate in "rape chants" during frosh week while fellow students are actually being raped on campus, when violent pornography that depicts sexual violence is defended as "just a fantasy," or when we learn that acting out rape scenes is a way for us to recover from our own trauma, when women are afraid to walk alone at night, and when women are afraid to be home alone at night in their own homes -- this is a rape culture. We're living it, every day.

That said, there could have been a "debate" of sorts around the usefulness of the term. We live in a rape culture because we live in a patriarchy. "Joking" about raping women is a manifestation of woman-hating -- it's a way of putting women in their place -- of showing us who's boss. "You may have some form of power, you may have a voice, but we can still rape you," is essentially what those male uOttawa students were saying to Anne-Marie Roy, president of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa. The normalization and sexualization of male power in porn and the notion that violence against women is just a healthy, sexy, fantasy, detached from reality, is part of the backlash. I mean, the snuff porn genre is a real thing that exists. Women being hurt and humiliated in "mainstream pornography" is normal. This reality is even defended by some who call themselves "sex-positive feminists." Women who confront these issues are often accused of being prudish. Talk about a backlash...

If I were going to argue against the term "rape culture," I would argue that it has the potential to detach sexual violence from the larger systemic oppression and hatred of women and the backlash against feminism. The concern with terms like these is that they might allow people to compartmentalize and therefore to avoid addressing the root of the issue, instead opting for a more superficial strategy of addressing rape that involves prevention and intervention without addressing sexism. At the end of the day, rape happens because of gender inequality, in general, as well as because of the marginalization of poor women and women of colour. And if we're not willing to talk about that, as well as objectification, pornography, and the sexualization of inequality, we have little hope of addressing and combating the epidemic of sexual violence that consumes our culture, globally.

But I think many of us are having those conversations and so, just as I think "porn culture" is a useful term that describes the way in which pornography has infiltrated our day-to-day lives and shaped our sexualities and the way we understand gender roles, I also think "rape culture" is a useful way of describing the reality of women's lives in a system that condones sexual violence.

But back to the debate. It was due either to ignorance or a desire to create controversy that the producers of CBC's Q decided to invite conservative political pundit, Heather MacDonald, on the show to provide Men's Rights Activists with even more fuel for their rape-denying fire. All that decision did, though, was make listeners (rightly) angry and contribute to dangerous and untrue stereotypes and myths about rape and victims of sexual assault.

MacDonald began the conversation by arguing that if rape really was the widespread problem feminists claim it is on university campuses, young women would simply stop enrolling in post-secondary school.

"If colleges were this tsunami of sexual violence and predation that is claimed, we would have seen a stampede to create and demand alternatives -- whether sending girls to single-sex schools or private tutors... Instead, every year the onslaught to get females... into college increases," she said.

Allow me to make some comparative arguments:

"If domestic abuse were really such a big problem, wouldn't women stop getting married?"

"If single mothers really didn't get the support they needed, wouldn't women just stop having babies?"

"If street harassment was really a real thing, wouldn't women stop going out on the street?"

"If women were really afraid of being assaulted in elevators, parking lots, and public bathrooms, wouldn't women just stop getting on elevators and going into parking lots and public bathrooms?"

You get the picture?

Women can't simply avoid participating in public life because of male violence. I mean, part of the reason why things like street harassment happen and why women who enter into public life and even gain some level of power are punished via sexual harassment is because they stepped out of line -- into public spaces and male domains. It's why women like Julia Gillard, Australia's first female Prime Minister, are turned into pornography -- to remind them that they are to-be-fucked and that regardless of how much they achieve, men still do not respect them as human beings. Men still have the power, is the message. Male violence teaches us not to fight back, not to fight for a voice, not to fight for liberation. Caving to those threats isn't going to protect us -- it never has.

In fact, as pointed out by listener, Natalie Hill (Ghomeshi, along with CBC Q's web producer, Fabiola Carlett, read some listener responses on air this morning), the fact that so many young women go off to university despite the fact that there is a high risk they will experience sexual assault, as well as "the fact that so many young men attend university, with their family support, without taking the time to ensure they understand sexual assault and how not to commit it" proves that rape culture exists -- meaning that sexual violence is seen as normal and inevitable and is not discussed or viewed as an important issue to confront.

Beyond that, MacDonald's suggestion that women simply get "private tutors" in order to avoid this supposed rape epidemic on campus is ridiculously naive and based on the assumption that everyone is wealthy (which, I suppose, is the way folks like MacDonald would like to see access to post-secondary education go...).

MacDonald suggests that if all these sexual assaults were "real" rapes, there would have already been action taken by school authorities and that women would have been warned to stay away from areas that are dangerous.

For starters, I mean, we're all wondering why, when officials and the public alike are well aware that sexual violence on campuses across North America is a huge problem, it hasn't been taken seriously. But the fact that this issue has been ignored by many doesn't prove that rape culture doesn't exist -- it proves that sexual violence isn't seen as a big deal and that people don't really believe it's possible to force men to stop doing it. This is exactly why women are told, for example, not to walk alone at night, to carry pepper spray, and to learn self-defence -- because we, as a culture, think rape is inevitable and that the best we can do is teach women to try to avoid being assaulted.

MacDonald goes on to blame the problem on young women's drinking habits and, in a roundabout way, defends men by saying that they just don't know any better because they're drunk! Like, ok... if you're going to blame sexual assault on drinking, then perhaps make the argument that if young men are getting so drunk that they can't tell the difference between sexual assault and consensual sex, they should be the one to watch their drinking -- not the women who are getting raped.

As Lise Gotell*, chair of the department of Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Alberta and the other guest on the show, points out: "we cannot end sexual violence by wrapping young women in cotton wool." She also reminds MacDonald that rape isn't something that is limited to college campuses, pointing out that "Canada has a population roughly the size of California and in the 2009 General Social Survey [conducted by] Statistics Canada, 676,000 Candians reported having experienced sexual assault in the last 12 months." So what's the solution, MacDonald? Women stop existing?

It really just keeps getting worse as the show continues. MacDonald brings up, as "proof" that all these rape allegations are not valid, the fact that women sometimes have sex with their rapists after the assault, which only confirms how little she understands about perpetrators, victims, and rape culture. As all of us who have been paying attention and many women who have experienced sexual assault know, stranger rape is less common than acquaintance rape and yes, it's actually very likely that if you are raped by your husband or your boyfriend or a date, you may well have sex with that person in the future. This does not mean that the rape didn't happen. It means that rape happens all the fucking time and that it is very much a part of women's relationships with men. Women often stay with their abusers, too. Does that mean those women are not really being abused? Does it make the abuse her fault? NOPE.

Later in the debate, MacDonald suggests that "chivalry" is the solution for ending rape and argues that if women would simply boycott sex with men, they'd stop raping them. Which makes little sense if one considers that rape is nonconsensual. And why on earth would removing consent convince men who don't feel they need consent to stop committing sexual assault.

This part of her argument implies that women are getting raped because they're too easy. Ok. So rape happens because women are too willing to have consensual sex? Got it. No, no, wait! It's because women aren't making men put on suits, buy them flowers, and take them out on dates! RIGHT. Because, as we just discussed, Ms. MacDonald, most rapes are acquaintance rapes. So going on dates isn't going to prevent sexual assault. In case it still isn't clear, the one and only thing that will prevent rape is men not committing rape.

In classic victim-blaming form, MacDonald then dismisses the problem of rape on account of female victims not being traumatized enough. This notion that victims should behave in certain ways lest they not count as "real victims" is a troubling one. Women are complex beings and the fact that we often go on to live productive lives despite the trauma and abuse many of us are forced to endure does not erase our victimization. We cope. In different ways. Many women do indeed suffer from PTSD as a result of sexual violence, it's true. But to use women's success against us -- to say that we aren't "really" victims because we've survived or even thrived, is sick. Wow gee! Women have been "coping" for centuries with male violence, patriarchy must not really exist! Naw, we persevere. (And then are accused of being "damaged" and "bitter" when we do display a negative attitude around our oppression.)

Finally, MacDonald suggests that rape culture, as an idea, exists because "feminists have a lot of power." But don't you think that if feminists were so incredibly powerful, rape culture would have been addressed by now? Do you think we've invented male violence just so we have something to talk about? Because, fun! Now give me all my money and power. That I've gained from, you know, criticizing systems of power.

Something worth "debating" would be how best to address rape culture and how to ensure that men and women alike learn what sexual assault is and why it isn't ok. What might have been interesting and productive would have been a discussion around whether or not the term "rape culture" is the best way to convey why sexual violence is a global epidemic. This is most certainly a discussion worth having. The discussion we most certainly do not need to have is the one that reinforces dangerous and untrue stereotypes about why and how rape happens and whether or not it is a problem at all.


*Gratitude to Lise Gotell for the reasoned and factual arguments she brought forth in this debate.

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