RAPE CULTURE: India clearly has problems with misogyny but we in the West shouldn’t be so smug given these examples

Published: January 17, 2013

KATE HEARTFIELD
POSTMEDIA NEWS

Activists from the online group Anonymous protest at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio, Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012. Members of the group said they are outraged over what they contend is a cover-up in a case involving the alleged rape of a teenage girl by Steubenville High School student-athletes that reportedly occurred in 2012. Police estimated the crowd at 300. Michael D. McElwain/AP/Steubenville Herald-Star

If a court in India ruled that the law of rape is different for married and unmarried women, editorials in North American newspapers would adduce that as evidence of India’s “rape culture.” If a lawyer for one of the men accused in the Delhi bus rape said the victim was “clearly engaged in at-risk behaviour,” it would be outrage fodder on Twitter.

These two things did happen recently – in the United States.

That doesn’t mean those editorials are wrong about India.

The situations for women in India and the United States are not equivalent – and neither is equivalent with, say, Congo.

And it’s perfectly valid for outsiders to critique the cultural and legal structures that support Indian misogyny.

In fact, a little observational distance can be very useful. That’s why we North Americans should also try to take a step back now and then when we look at our own culture.

Many of our cultural touchstones, in the West, are still based on an understanding of romantic relationships that makes no distinction between feminine coyness and feminine refusal. Ever listen to the creepy lyrics of Baby It’s Cold Outside? The woman: “Say what’s in this drink?,” “The answer is no,” “At least I’m going to say that I tried.” The man: “No cabs to be had out there,” “How can you do this thing to me?” “What’s the sense of hurting my pride?”

If this were a Bollywood song, how would it strike us?

I’d seen the movie Gone With the Wind many times before I was old enough to realize that when Rhett carries Scarlett up the stairs he’s about to have sex with her. And she’s struggling.

“The answer is no” doesn’t mean no, in so much of what still passes for romance in our culture.

Again, imagine a similar scene in a Bollywood movie. Would it seem innocent and romantic?

Another rape story is deeply embedded in western culture: the conception of King Arthur.

Uther Pendragon gets Merlin to put a spell on him so that he looks like Ygraine’s husband. In this disguise, he tricks Ygraine into sex. The stories are very clear about the fact that Ygraine’s husband was killed a few hours before this happened. Why does that matter so much? Because Ygraine’s not married any more. That, and the fact Uther later marries her, legitimizes both the sex and the child. Consent doesn’t come into it.

Like Scarlett, Ygraine is portrayed as being thrilled with how this all turns out.

California’s law seems to have been written with Uther Pendragon in mind. An appeal court recently considered the case of a man who got into bed with a sleeping woman in a dark room and started to have sex with her. Her boyfriend had been in the bed earlier. She says she woke up, the light hit her attacker’s face and she screamed. It’s rape if she was sleeping when the sex began, the court said. But if he tricked her into having sex by pretending to be her boyfriend, the appeal court said, that wouldn’t be rape.

“Because of historical anomalies in the law and the statutory definition of rape, the answer is no (i.e. impersonation isn’t rape), even though, if the woman had been married and the man had impersonated her husband, the answer would be yes,” the court explained.

The morality in Le Morte d’Arthur is indistinguishable on this point from the morality in modern California law.

The law may have “historical anomalies,” but California is a democracy. They could have changed the law by now if they’d cared to.

Doug Saunders recently wrote in The Globe and Mail that in the West, “rape is a grotesque anomaly, universally recognized as a serious crime. That’s not true at all in many parts of India.”

I’m not sure how universal that acknowledgment is in the West, either, when I read about Steubenville, Ohio, where a rape allegation has divided the community.

At a series of parties one night last summer, a 16-year-old girl got drunk or drugged to the point of unconsciousness. Two 16-year-old boys have been charged with rape. They’re football players, and in a football town, which has coloured much of the reaction on both sides. Some witnesses have said she was assaulted while she was barely conscious or unconscious.

I don’t know the truth of what happened, but the arguments some people are making are themselves disturbing: she was a bad girl; she wasn’t completely unconscious; she shouldn’t have put herself in a position where she could get raped. These arguments turn up in social media and comment threads about the case. After the party, some witnesses reportedly shared jokes and humiliating photos of the girl, even using the word “rape” in their mocking tweets. There’s a video now online of a student joking about it in the crudest terms. Bystanders have given various reasons why they didn’t intervene to help the girl; one said that although she was incoherent and unresponsive, “at the time, no one really saw it as being forceful.”

The New York Times quotes Adam Nemann, lawyer for one of the accused football players. “The whole question is consent,” he said. “Was she conscious enough to give consent or not? We think she was. She gave out the pass code to her phone after the sexual assault was said to have occurred.”

Take note, ladies: We have to be completely incapable of forming words, or it might not be what recently defeated U.S. congressman Todd Akin would call a legitimate rape – you know, the kind that supposedly makes it impossible to get pregnant.

The Times also quotes Walter Madison, lawyer for the other player: “He said that online photographs and posts could ultimately be ‘a gift’ for his client’s case because the girl, before that night in August, had posted provocative comments and photographs on her Twitter page over time. He added that those online posts demonstrated that she was sexually active and showed that she was ‘clearly engaged in at-risk behaviour.’ “

At risk of rape? What exactly does the possibility that she was sexually active have to do with anything?

Whatever the outcome of the Steubenville trial, the case has already exposed that North American culture still includes some pretty messed-up ideas about rape.

Kate Heartfield is the Ottawa Citizen’s deputy editorial pages editor.

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