CHARLES WEBSTER: Rape culture and the ‘ownership’ of women


This is the third in a series of articles on rape culture, adapted from a speech given by the author at several boys’ high schools across South Africa.

My previous piece, Rape culture ‘prison’ and the importance of consent, illustrated the importance of consent by showing how men might better empathise with women if they experienced unwanted sexual advances from bigger, tougher criminals in prison.

What sets this kind of world apart for its victims, though? It’s the kind of world where much of the population is superior to you in terms of physical strength, and has grown up thinking of you as an object to provide pleasure – as a possession.


We have aeons of deeply ingrained ideas of ownership of women to break free from. For example, it’s worth asking why women are still “given away” by fathers on their wedding days. The tradition comes from a time when women were sacrificed like pawns on a chessboard – traded to cement allegiances between kingdoms, often with little regard for their happiness or safety.

For my part, I’ve let my daughters know that nobody should ever ask me if I’m “giving them away”. I’d take a bullet for them in a heartbeat, but I don’t own them. Even during childhood.

How easily we buy into tradition, often without considering the underlying attitudes it represents. If you think I’m being overly sensitive, here’s a more everyday example of how this very attitude supports rape culture.

Why is it common for a man who approaches a woman and is declined only to leave if she pretends to have a boyfriend or husband already? Even if they’re lesbian, women will resort to this sometimes, and even then, some guys still won’t back off.

What is it that makes so many of us men think that women don’t have the right to say “no” because they’re simply not interested? There might be exceptions, but the obvious conclusion seems to be that such men only respect the boundaries of other men. Which means they _might _respect the personal space of “owned” women, but they don’t really respect their personal rights at all. We seem to have raised generations of men who are emotional children.


I don’t expect women (especially those who are strangers) to be polite to me anymore. I understand now (not least from the experiences of my wife and daughters) that a smile or kind word to the wrong male can be construed as permission to proposition them. Often, the women I’ve spoken to tell me, they’ll be polite or friendly only because a man shows the potential for animosity and in such cases, being polite or friendly lowers the risk of personal danger.

We live in a country where, according to the Gauteng Gender Based Violence Indicators Project, “37.4% of men admitted to raping a woman, 31% of men disclosed having raped a woman who was not a partner, 18.2% of men disclosed raping an intimate partner, and 6.9% of men disclosed engaging in gang rape”. A world where women have to play Rape Culture Roulette on a daily basis.

In such a world, my view is that women owe men precisely nothing.

Not a conversation because you’ve done them the “honour” of being nice to them. Not a smile or a phone number because you’ve bought them a drink. Not sex because you’ve bought them a meal and shown them a good time. They shouldn’t have to say more than once that they’re not interested or explain why. If by some chance you’re lucky enough to have someone show an interest in you, they are not obliged to follow through with sex. I don’t care if you’re both naked in the bed – women have a right to say “no”, or “stop” at any time. For you to insist and continue with sex beyond that point is rape. Period. (Yes – even if you’re a “nice guy”.)


It’s a funny thing – in a country where an estimated 40% of women get raped, every woman knows someone who’s been raped, and every man who cares enough to ask or be involved, knows a woman who’s been raped. I know several. Yet, somehow, we know very few rapists. But they walk among us.

If the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing then, in a country with rape statistics like ours, silence and inaction are not moral options. Doing nothing in the face of these statistics is as good as encouraging rape culture.

Elie Wiesel famously said: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

It’s time for men to grow up.

To speak up.

To stand up (and do something).

Fight for equality at every opportunity – not because “every woman is someone’s wife, daughter or sister”. Our respect for women should not be dependent on their ownership by other men. Women are not defined that way, nor does it change their intrinsic worth.

It starts with self-awareness and maturity. Rape culture is not about calling every man a rapist – but you don’t have to be a rapist to contribute to rape culture. Understand why hashtag campaigns exist in the first place before you whine “#notallmen” in response. After all, what can a hashtag campaign do to a “real man”, right?

Do something because women are humans - and deserve the right to the same basic freedoms and safety you have (in most cases) never had to give a second thought. If you did - it was most probably because another man was threatening it.

Do something because a world in which women can live free of fear is a better world for men as well, if we care enough to recognise the fact.

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