CHARLES WEBSTER: Rape culture roulette, every woman’s daily game
This is the first in a series of articles on rape culture, adapted from a speech given by the author at several boys’ high schools across South Africa.
What if I said to you that every morning, before you go out into the world to start your day, you had to play Russian roulette?
A simple-but-deadly game, Russian roulette involves taking a revolver with six chambers, putting a cartridge into one of them, spinning the cylinder and snapping it shut. Then you hold the gun to your temple and pull the trigger. If you’re lucky, you get one of the five empty chambers. If not…boom.
The first rule of handling a firearm is that you treat every gun as if it’s loaded – even if it isn’t. So, if your self-preservation instinct is intact, you’d tell me that #gunsaredangerous. You’d tell me that my expectation is outrageous, and that there’s no way you’re willing to play Russian roulette just to be able to live your life.
If I responded to your hashtag and said #notallguns are dangerous…would that make you feel better about my demand? Would it change the fact that even though you’re probably not going to get the chamber with the live round in it, there’s still a scarily high chance that you will? Does it change the fact that you have to treat every gun as if it’s loaded, even though you know that #notallguns necessarily are? Why do we expect women to play this game, then?
RAPE CULTURE ROULETTE
Let’s imagine a new game. Call it “Rape Culture Roulette”, and here’s the thing - women have to play it.
Every. Single. Day.
If they want to exist in the world, if they want to walk out of their front doors in the morning and go out to school, to work or to relax, they have no choice.
How does it work? If you’re a woman, you wake up in the morning and in the gun that you are forced to hold up to your temple, there aren’t six chambers, but (let’s say) 100. These 100 chambers are the men that a woman might encounter during the course of a typical day. From her partner and family to the newspaper seller on the corner, the man selling coffee at the convenience store, two or three men in the cars around her at every intersection on the way to work, 20 or 30 male colleagues, another 15 or 20 at the restaurant where she’s having lunch… you get the picture.
Some of the 100 chambers have cartridges in them, and some are empty. The empty chambers are the men who behave appropriately towards her. Let’s be generous and say it’s the majority – 60 or 70 of them who fall into this category. The chambers with cartridges in them represent all the men who, sadly, do not.
During the course of a week there might be one chamber with a rapist in it, four or five chambers of men who might catcall her as she walks past. Then there’s a chamber with a woman beater, and then half a dozen who rub up against women as they pass them in the elevator or the passage. Another chamber might have a murderer, followed by 20 who tell tasteless rape jokes, and others who just laugh, or say nothing. Then maybe half a dozen who refer to their mates as “pussies” when they do something that isn’t supposed to be done by a “real man”, and a few who mansplain to women and talk over them in meetings.
Every day, as women wake up, they go about their business and have to pull the trigger – not once, but every time they meet a man. According to Cape Town’s Rape Crisis Centre “it is estimated that 40% of South African women will be raped in their lifetime and only 8.6% of rape perpetrators are convicted.” Forty percent is nearly half of South African women.
Is it any surprise that women wake up in the morning and wonder whether they will be next?
Men – I ask you to put yourselves in that position and think about how your life might feel and be different if that were your reality. (Incidentally, and in anticipation of whataboutism, let me stipulate that male rape is also a problem, but that’s an issue for another time.)
While “only” four in ten women will be raped, all ten will be sexually harassed at some point – I challenge you to find a woman who has not been catcalled, groped, commented upon or touched without consent. Or worse. I’m not talking about strangers, either.
IT ISN’T STRANGERS
In fact, the opposite is true. To quote the Rape Crisis Centre again, “Unfortunately, most people believe rape only occurs in dark alleyways. But Rape Crisis Centre’s new campaign indicates the truth is closer to home. The campaign aims at highlighting that approximately 68% of rape survivors know their rapist. They have had their trust broken in the workplace, home and [in their] communities.” That’s almost seven out of ten rapes committed by men known to the victims.
There definitely won’t be a rapist in every woman’s day, every day, but over the course of their lives, South African women wake up to the knowledge that they have a chance of being one of those four out of every ten women who will be raped – and today might be the day. My daughters have asked me if I think they have a chance of making it through life without becoming victims. Their fear is visceral to me.
RAPE HAPPENS NO MATTER WHAT WOMEN DO
If you’re thinking women can (or should) solve the problem by “being wise” about where they go, what they wear, how much they drink or learning to defend themselves, my first response is that men aren’t mindless animals, and shouldn’t expect women to take responsibility for our actions. I don't care if a woman is walking down the street stark naked, she's still not “asking for it” – whether “it” is rape, unwanted physical contact or just a lascivious whistle. Women’s freedom to dress the way they want to (and men are not held to the same standards, after all) is no license for men to abdicate responsibility for their behaviour. Also – victim blaming is just despicable.
My second response is that it really doesn’t seem to matter what women do. They don’t have to dress sexily to get raped. They don’t have to go specific places, or drink alcohol to get raped. We have already established it’s mostly men they know (and so, likely, trust) who rape them. In any case, almost half the time, victims are children. A Timeslive headline in 2018 proclaimed: “Children victims in 42% of all rape cases recorded.” Old women get raped. Babies get raped. Nuns get raped in their habits. Do we blame their dress code and drinking habits, too?
“Rape Culture” is not about labelling every man a rapist. A catcall is not equivalent to rape. Groping is not equivalent to rape. The attitudes to women encouraged by these behaviours, however, are common to all rapists. We would do well to remember that not all disrespect towards women ends in rape, but all rapes of women, without exception, start with disrespect.
Charles Webster is a former news journalist and is now a corporate communications consultant for an American multinational. He completed an undergraduate degree in communications and English and later Honours and Master’s degrees in philosophy. Follow him on Twitter: @charlesjwebster