From “Anti-Rape Underwear” in India to Sexual Harassment in Australia: Social Complicity in “Rape Culture”

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD.

Trigger Warning: Rape.

A couple of weeks a go, a new, so-called “anti-rape” underwear device got quite a bit of international attention. It was invented by a team of Indian students, including two women. The device was designed to give rapists an electric shock. It is also reportedly equipped with a GPS tracking device to alert the women’s parents and police that she is being assaulted. The underlying attitudes that led these engineers to make this device are representative of the problem of rape not just in India, but in other parts of the world. Rape and harassment are not seen as public issues that require social intervention, but rather these are perceived as personal problems that individual women must navigate and manage in their day-today lives. In Australia, women’s public safety is also positioned as a personal issue. Both the Jill Meagher case and the public sexual harassment of Prime Minister Julia Guillard exemplify that women are ultimately forced to fend for themselves, while society does little to acknowledge rape culture as a societal responsibility.

“Eve Teasing” and Gang Rape in India

The inventors of the “anti-rape underwear,” Mohan and Tripathy, have named their device SHE, which stands for Society Harnessing Equipment. They say the device provides women with “freedom from situations faced in public places”. They say:

Lawmakers take ages to come up with just laws and even after that, women are unsafe… Hence, we have initiated the idea of self-defence, which protects the women from domestic, social and workplace harassment.

It sounds like a well-intentioned project, however, the problem with this device and its logic is that it reinforces the idea that rape and assault is an issue of personal safety. This is not the case. Gender violence is a public issue. Curiously, the name of the device evokes a public service (“society harnessing”), but it places this public service on individual women. Society asks women to reconsider their movements, their clothing and their their lifestyle choices so that they might minimise their chances of being raped. If women are walking alone at night and they are raped, they are seen as having foolishly put themselves in harm’s way. If they are assaulted whilst on a date or during a night out, her clothes, her behaviour and her sexual history are all put into question. If a woman stands up for herself whilst men cat-call and harass them in public, as is the case with the “Eve teasing” phenomena in India, she is castigated for having endangered herself further.

The fact that the law, the police and the criminal justice system are failing to ensure women’s public safety does not mean that individual women should be put in the position to tackle rapists on their own. This is exactly  how a culture of rape is perpetuated: women are left to deal with sexual harassment on their own.

The rape and murder of Jill Meagher last year in a popular Melbourne suburb demonstrates the divergent public perception of gender violence. Violence perpetrated by strangers evokes a stronger public response than domestic violence  There is a higher sense of fear about strangers and there’s a broader call for reform for public safety, even though this represents only a small minority of rape and murder cases. The wider-reaching violence that women experience in their every day lives does not evoke the same public outcry. Why is this so?

Public Discourses on Jill Meagher’s Murder

Jill Meagher march on Sydney Road, Brunswick, 30th of September 2012. Via Remember Our Sisters Everywhere

Jill Meagher march on Sydney Road, Brunswick, 30th of September 2012. Via Remember Our Sisters Everywhere

There was an outpouring of public concern following the disappearance of Jill Meagher, which culminated in shock and grief after the discovery of her rape and murder. Up to 30,000 people marched through Melbourne to demonstrate their solidarity and to demand justice for Meagher and her family. The photo above shows the organiser of this public demonstration holding a sign saying: “Choosing peace, hope, solidarity and non-violence with all women.” Of all the images accompanying the rally, this one stood out to me because it did not fit in with the public discourse. The organiser’s poster clearly signals that Jill Meagher’s rape and murder was connected to a broader pattern of gender violence.

The dominant public discussions about Meagher’s death did not have this social focus. The general public was aghast about the horrible rape and murder of one particular woman, and the personal ramifications of this violence. Public discussions generally centred on how this horrendous act could happen to any woman. It did not lead to robust debate about more common acts of gender violence, which happen routinely around Australia in the privacy of many homes.

This does not to take away from the gravity of Meagher’s tragic end – gender violence should enrage the Australian public! The issue is that we only hear about horrid crimes where some women are attacked on the street. The public response to this particular case requires a sociology of rape culture.

Julie Stephens notes in The Conversation that public reflections of Meagher’s death have focused on the issue of personal safety. This hideous crime seems to have compelled ordinary Australian women to fear walking home at night more than ever before. Stephens’ article critiques the public response which she sees is centred on “unfettered individualism.” That is, on a neo-liberal ideal that individual free will should prevail: that is, individual women should feel free to walk the streets. Stephens argues that this focus on one woman’s tragic end has not led to a greater awareness about other patterns of gender violence, such as “invisible” minority women who are trafficked into Melbourne to be used as sex slaves.

Writing for the New Matilda,Violeta Politoff  notes that Australian data from the International Violence Against Women Survey finds that more than half of all women have experienced physical or sexual violence, primarily at the hands of close relatives and partners, including uncles, fathers, friends, and husbands. She also notes that 20 percent of murders in Australia being perpetrated by an intimate partner, with 4/5 of these homicides involving a man who kills his female partner.

Politoff argues that crimes involving strangers creates greater levels of social anxiety because domestic gender violence is perceived as a personal problem to be managed by individuals. This individual perspective on violence has societal ramifications: it means that people are less likely to report crimes involving people they know and it subsequently means that less people are prosecuted for these crimes. Moreover, people are less likely to categorise violence by a partner, family member or friend as a “crime” – we call this “abuse” – and so it largely remains a personal trouble to be managed behind closed doors, or through victim counselling, rather than through the criminal justice system. Politoff writes:

These statistics make me wonder why we don’t see more outpourings of community concern in other cases of violence against women?… safe streets shouldn’t be the main focus of a discussion about gender-based violence. To do this misrepresents the risks faced by women, burdens them unfairly with managing that risk, and ignores the more difficult but most fundamental part of the problem: gender relations. Preventing violence against women is about more than safe streets; it’s about safe relationships, safe workplaces, and safe homes. And all of this hinges on our collective understandings of gender.

Women are expected to tolerate various forms of public abuse in a way that men are not expected to endure. The public sexual harassment of Australian Prime Minister Julia Guillard shines a light on the tacit social acceptable of gender violence.

Public Sexual Harassment of Prime Minister Julia Guillard

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Parliamentary speech in October 2012 rebounded around the world. The speech was commended by feminists and human rights supporters. I see that the speech and the context in which it occurred illuminates the Australian public’s collective complicity in a public sexual harassment. Our complicity inadvertently supports a culture of rape.

Image via The Vine

Image via The Vine

You can watch the entire 15 minute speech below. It’s worth seeing the Prime Minister passionately point out Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s sexism. The complex political context of this speech hasn’t gotten as much international attention as Gillard’s evocative words. In the days leading up to this speech, “shock jock” Allan Jones made a sexist remark that the PM’s recently deceased father had “died of shame” over his daughter’s policy decisions. At the same time, Abbott had called to remove the Parliamentary Speaker, Peter Slipper, who was embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal. (Slipper has since resigned in disgrace.) The day that Abbott called for Slipper’s removal, he evoked Jones’ words, by repeating the word “shame” and then saying the PM should “die of shame.”

The Prime Minister’s speech appears to be sparked by these immediate events, but the PM’s words also reflect the sexual harassment she has endured since she took over leadership of the Labor Party.

Melinda McPherson makes a compelling case for understanding the importance of Gillard’s speech in The New Matilda. On the one hand, the Prime Minister has been strangely silent about the relentless sexism she has endured from her colleagues, by the media and segments of the public. On the other hand, her speech finally addresses the impact of this sexism. Her colleagues, Tony Abbott in particular, have actively participated in misogyny, but they have also been complicit in other ways, by not standing up to this behaviour. McPherson notes that Gillard’s language was carefully chosen. The PM addressed her personal anger over the sexist behaviour of politicians, but she also lists concrete examples that chart a pattern of sexist behaviour by the Opposition party and by its Leader specifically.

Anne Summers also provides a comprehensive analysis of the grotesque and violent abuse that the Prime Minister has endured. The NSFW version of Summer’s article contains pornographic images aimed to humiliate the PM (this version has the images removed). Summers has compiled an exhaustive list of sexist comments, cartoons and violent threats. Her analysis brings home the point that if this type of abuse was being levelled at anyone else, any self-respecting person would feel aghast that the law hadn’t intervened to make this woman’s workplace safer.

Summers argues that in any other job, Julia Gillard should be protected from the sexual harassment and inequitable treatment she faces. Australian legislation such as the Sex Discrimination Act and the Fair Work Act state that by law, all Australians have the right to go to work and not be subjected to negative treatment due to their gender. This includes not being subjected to pornographic images, hate speech and bullying. Summers asks: “What are the prime minister’s rights at work?”

Summers notes that if Gillard was the CEO of a large company (“Australia Pty Ltd”), and the Australian population were shareholders, we would all have a mutual set of rights and obligations. This means supporting Julia Gillard’s right to carry out her job without daily denigration and intimation. The law offers this protection, but it somehow doesn’t apply to our PM. We have all borne witness to this abuse and yet we allow it to be perpetuated. It has become so routine that it took Allan Jones’ thoughtless remarks about a deceased man, Gillard’s father, to make the nation finally take notice. Even then, public intervention was about being fed up with Jones’ personality, as evidenced in this petition (which I’ve signed). This wasn’t truly a social protest to implore our politicians to cease their silent endorsement of sexism.

Gillard has disappointed the public due to her conservative and exclusionary policies on gay marriage and asylum seekers. As Melinda McPherson points out, the same day that Gillard gave her rousing speech, her Government cut funding for single parents. This decision adversely affects women in particular.  Does the PM deserve the public’s sympathy for the sexist comments she’s endured, given her leadership choices?

You can dislike the PM’s policies, but to feel undisturbed by the way she is treated due to her gender makes us all participants in sexism. Why doesn’t the PM stand up for gay rights? Why doesn’t she uphold the rights of asylum seekers? Why doesn’t she speak up more on women’s rights issues? These are legitimate questions, and we all have a right to protest these issues and demand legislation change from our PM. These issues do not negate the fact that no human deserves to be denigrated as a second class citizen. This applies to a new refugee just arrived on our shores, as well as the Prime Minister. Disagreeing with policies does not justify another form of gender injustice.

Video via ABC YouTube. Image via TheVine.

Addressing Rape Culture

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Social norms define the majority of gender crimes as an individual problem because they happen behind closed doors. Abuse in the home is not generally perceived as a crime. Gender violence in the home rarely raises much public concern, however, sexual violence involving strangers preoccupies society.

Rape culture is instilled to us since birth. In early childhood socialisation, children are taught about “stranger danger.” Women are told to modify their appearance unless they expect to be assaulted. The law focuses on dress, behaviour and sexual history as preventative measures against rape. Society presumes that men will attack if women don’t take better care of their own safety. If women behave according to society’s standards, by meeting feminine ideals and seeking the safety of male companions, then they are worthy of sympathy. If they diverge, society treats these women as having “asked for it.”

The gang rape incidents in India have drawn critical international attention, but again this is because they have happened in public places. As I chronicled previously, Indian women had been expected to endure sexual harassment any time they stepped out in public. The situation in Australia is not much better when the woman in the highest political position in Parliament cannot go to work without enduring routine sexist abuse.

Given that half of Australian women have been raped or assaulted by people they know and trust, and given that the majority of women who are killed are murdered by their partners, gender violence is not really a problem of personal safety. Women walking the streets at night face a lower risk of being attacked by a stranger. For these reasons, gender violence is not a personal problem that can be solved by wearing shock-delivering underwear. “Anti-rape” devices tell women that they should expect to be raped, and that when it happens, they are on their own. This mentality signals that rape culture is pervasive. It suggests that rape is something we all have to live with and that we should all just give up pursuing social reform. This is exactly the reason why other, more common, forms of gender violence go under-reported and under-prosecuted.

While everyone is busy fearing strangers, and looking away as public figures are sexually berated before our eyes, we help perpetuate two myths: 1) that gender violence is a personal matter; and 2) that “bad men” can’t help themselves unless women are hyper-vigilant and always afraid. Women are taught chastity and how to protect themselves, but men are not taught restraint and how not to rape. The rape culture mentality disempowers individuals and prevents social change. We can – and should - demand better.
TheOtherSociologist Gender Violence is a Public Issue

Credits for images in slideshow: Culture Vulture;  Walk a Mile in her ShoesMilitary Sexual Trauma; Equality for Women.

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