Women, men and rape

Joanna Bourke
19 October 2007

Sensuality is a source of delight. At least that was what I had assumed as a young child - before sex educationalists in school associated sex with images of disgusting venereal abscesses and threats of violence. As a girl, I learned that I was at risk of abuse from the rapacious penises of every boy and man I would encounter on this earth. The mantra that "all men are rapists, rape fantasists, or beneficiaries of a rape culture" took some of the uncomplicated joy out of my early heterosexual explorations.

In adulthood, hard-nosed statistics hardly reassure. One in every five female friends of mine will at some stage in their lives be forced into having sex. Furthermore, many young men seem blasé about sexual coercion. In one influential American study, one in every three men attending college reported that they would rape a woman if they were guaranteed that they would not be caught. One in every four admitted to actually having made a forceful attempt at sexual intercourse that caused observable distress (crying, screaming, fighting, or pleading) to a woman.

Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London. Among her books are An Intimate History of Killing (Granta, 2000), Fear: A Cultural History (Virago, 2005), and Rape. A History from the 1860s to the Present (Virago, 2007).

Also by Joanna Bourke in openDemocracy:

"The suicide-bomber's mission" (14 June 2005)

Part of the problem is that the legal system has failed adequately to deal with the scourge of sexual violence. In the United Kingdom today only 5% of rapes reported to the police ever end in a conviction. That figure is shocking enough, but the proportion is even smaller in some areas: 3% or less in Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, Essex, and Avon & Somerset. It is more than 10% only in Cleveland, Cumbria, South Wales, and South Yorkshire, and reaches its highest level - just under 13% - in Gwent.

Such high attrition rates make the UK (along with Ireland, which alone has a lower conviction rate) an exceptional case in the European context. It is important to remember too that around 85% of sexual assaults are never even reported to the authorities. Rapists who end up being convicted in a court of law must regard themselves as extremely unlucky.

Furthermore, this attrition rate is getting worse. In 1977, 33% of reported rapes resulted in a conviction. By 1985, this had become 24%, and by 1996, 10%. Today, it is 5%. Men who actually end up standing in the dock accused of rape, unlawful sexual intercourse, and indecent assault, are acquitted in 39% of cases. If we exclude those prisoners who plead guilty to rape, the acquittal rate is over 70%. The national average for all criminal cases discontinued in the magistrates' courts is 13%.

The woman in the glare

Something is obviously going wrong. Activists in anti-rape movements have long pointed to the wide acceptance of what they call "rape myths". The most common ones are: "it is impossible to rape a resisting woman"; "men risk being falsely accused of rape"; "some categories of forced sex are not really rape (date, acquaintance, or marital rape)"; and "no can mean yes".

Within the legal system, innumerable problems remain. Many police officers still remain deeply unsympathetic towards and distrustful of rape victims. If the accuser is incoherent, inconsistent, or fits any number of the rape myths, police prove unwilling to take the accusation further. Showering before reporting the rape, delaying reporting of the attack, or not appearing totally credible and coherent are just some of the factors that make police likely to encourage the complainant to withdraw her accusation. It certainly doesn't help if you are a complainant from a minority community.

Also on men, women and power in openDemocracy:

Rosemary Bechler, "Rape and redemption in the west: Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her" (2 September 2004)

Zainab Mahmood & Maryam Maruf, "Shazia Khalid and the fight for justice in Pakistan" (26 September 2005)

Nicola Dahrendorf, "Mirror images in the Congo: sexual violence and conflict" (27 October 2005)

Tim Symonds, "Men for women?" (1 October 2007)Once in court, it becomes clear that jurors, defence counsel, and judges expect a much higher level of resistance than required by law. They also demand a greater degree of consistency in rape testimonies than from victims of other violent crimes. Both victims and jurors attempt to fit the story into their expectations of what rape "really is like", but these expectations are drawn from television, newspaper reports, and other sources. Through a multitude of cultural productions, jurors believe that they know what rape "looks like", and disbelieve other scenarios. The effect of popular TV dramas such as CSI and Waking the Dead is to reinforce mistrust of "reality": since jurors are rarely presented with decisive forensic evidence, which they have come to expect, the rape story further loses veracity.

The fact that many victims naturally attempt to present their accounts in such a way as to counter rape myths (by understating the amount they drank, for instance), serves to spear the entire testimony as false. "Rape" has not been silenced; it is just that its narrative is only rarely told by rape victims who are forced to tailor their courtroom accounts to strip their experience of its emotional dimensions and unique form within their embodied history.

As a result, the trial is for the complainant a unique occasion in which everything about her is scrutinised. Her clothes, hairstyle, posture, accent, and tone of voice all take on immense significance. She is reduced to her body: what she was wearing, how she walked, and her sexual attractiveness. It is no wonder rape trials have been dubbed "degradation ceremonies" for victims. Few women are able to bear the burden of performance.

The man in the mirror

There is an urgent need to reform the legal system so that more rapists are identified, convicted, and punished for their crimes. But in the final analysis, political attempts to reduce and finally eliminate sexual aggression requires also a rethinking of masculinity.

We need to ask: who are these people who opt deliberately to inflict pain in sexual encounters? If we are to understand and eradicate sexual violence in our communities, we must train a steely gaze on the guilty parties: those who carry out these acts.

The vast majority of abusers is male, but sexual aggression is not innate to masculine identity. There is nothing "natural" about men's violence. Sexually aggressive men in modern western societies don't bolster manliness but actually enervate male power regimes. Rapists are not patriarchy's "stormtroopers", but its inadequate spawn. Rape is a crisis of manliness; its eradication is a matter for men - for a radically different conception of agency and masculinity.

A politics of masculinity that focuses upon a man's body as a site of pleasure (for him and others), as opposed to an instrument of oppression and pain, demands a renewed focus on male comportment, imaginary, and agency. People discover sex: they learn its performance. Indeed, phallic masculinity represents a turning away from a complex model of pleasure, draining it (in the words of feminist Catherine Waldby) of "erotic potential in favour of its localisation in the penis, taken to be the phallus' little representative". Adopting a "good sex" model will enable men to love and be loved in more fulfilling ways.

This "good sex" model is always in a process of negotiation, of course. Translated into the language of the philosopher Judith Butler, bodily performances are reiterative: by acts of repetition, the sexed body emerges. Performances of gender don't simply constrain; they provide subjects with ways to "tinker" with culture, subverting norms, redefining identities, and exploiting pleasures. Sexuality and identities become malleable things indeed.

Social theorists and feminists have exposed the innumerable ways in which environmental pressures and ideological structures create men who sexually abuse others. It is cultural forces that provide excuses and rationalisations that men use to justify sexual violence and the guilt that arises from it. In other words, rape is a form of social performance. It is highly ritualised. It varies between countries; it changes over time. There is nothing eternal or random about it. The narratives and rites involved in sexual abuse are embedded in humdrum practices, everyday knowledges. Rapists are not born; they become. By exposing those cultural tropes that sexually violent men employ, we can hold them up to ridicule, and undercut them. Demystifying the category of the rapist makes sexual violence seem no longer inevitable.

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