Revelations last week about the Dunedin-based “Rack Appreciation Society” remind us of the work that still needs to be done in joining the dots between sexism and sexual violence. The Facebook group with over 2000 members was set up to “post pictures of bikini clad models and to comment on women’s breasts”, but soon included private photos of local women posted without their knowledge or consent. Dunedin Rape Crisis and others have called it “an example of rape culture in action”.
We shouldn’t need another blog on rape culture this year. Globally activists have been busy on social media and on the streets raising awareness and standing up against sexual violence. Locally, many excellent columns have tackled the issue. As Tania Billingsley said in the wake of her experience of sexual assault earlier this year:
“Violence does not occur in a vacuum. There are very real reasons why sexual assault is happening in our country every day. This is because our society normalises, trivialises and in both obvious and subtle ways condones rape. This is called rape culture.”
But the message isn’t always getting through. A couple of months ago, fellow academic Jarrod Gilbert wrote a piece in NBR (also published on his blog) questioning the notion of ‘rape culture’. Harshly, he pronounced, “anybody using the term ‘rape culture’ in the New Zealand context today are either unfamiliar with what culture means or are simply using it incorrectly”.
Why is Gilbert wrong in his dismissal of the concept of rape culture? And why is it correct to see the “Rack Appreciation Society” as yet another notch in rape culture’s belt?
At its core the term rape culture draws attention to two key points – our society’s ambivalent attitude towards rape and the way that mundane aspects of our everyday gendered culture actively create the ‘conditions of possibility’ for sexual violence.
Contrary to Gilbert’s claim that we “sanction strongly against” rape, messages about sexual violence in our society are rather more two-faced. Yes, rape and other forms of sexual violation are on the books as serious crimes. But a whole lot of social prejudices (about gender, sexuality, class and race) affect whether or not a rape will ever be reported to the police, let alone whether it will be investigated and taken through the courts. These prejudices also coalesce in the court of public opinion to trivialize some rapes, to blame and silence victim/survivors, and sometimes even to pat men on the back for borderline legal sexual conquests. So while some cases of rape garner widespread social condemnation, many more remain invisible.
At the same time, rape is made possible through the ways men are taught to understand their sexuality. The way they are encouraged to develop a sense of sexual entitlement and to regard women as props for indulging it. Not all men take up this invitation. Of course not. But there is a systemic problem in our society with the messages young men are being given. It is fed in equal doses by conservative traditional cultural ideals for masculinity and contemporary portrayals of male sexuality within popular music, advertising, mainstream pornography, men’s magazines, gaming, and other spheres of popular culture.
What happened with the ‘Rack Appreciation Society’ clearly illustrates the interconnections between this kind of banal sexism and sexual violation. Sean McDonald, spokesman for the secret men-only page, said it was designed as a sort of (er, excuse me while I dust off the DeLorean) “cigar and whiskey kind of page to ponder on the finer things in life”. According to this story the problem started only when some men shared photographs of girlfriends and ex-girlfriends without their consent. McDonald says the page was intended “purely out of respect and nothing less”. Commentators like Paul Henry imply this is benign, but I don’t agree.
A site that trades in images of women’s bodies displayed for men’s enjoyment is part of the problem in the first place. If this Society was really about “respect” it would be bucking the trend in how boys and men tend to act in these male-only spaces. Do we really imagine men sitting around in awe of these women’s beauty, honouring and admiring them with deferential regard and esteem (which is pretty much how the dictionary defines respect)? When men talk about pornography for instance, they are more likely to speak with callous disregard about the women in it. In his book ‘Guyland’, masculinities scholar Michael Kimmel said the young men he interviewed “consistently spoke of women more with contempt than desire”. Other masculinities scholars, like Michael Flood, have talked about how men’s support for the sexual objectification of women in these kinds of ‘homosocial’ environments is a way that young men ‘prove’ their masculinity (and/or their heterosexuality).
Until we face up to sexism and misogyny we will never stop sexual violence.
A culture that celebrates the sexual objectification and humiliation of women – which too easily go together – provides fertile conditions for committing or enjoying other men’s committal of sexual violation. A secret society for commenting on the breasts of bikini-clad women is itself part of rape culture. Let’s not get side-tracked arguing about whether it is ok because the women who are those bikini-clad models chose to be photographed for public display. Individual choices are complex. But why a lot of women find a site like this demeaning is because it reinforces a cultural dynamic that affects all women, whether or not they have made those choices. It promotes a gendered sexual logic in which women are props for male enjoyment.
Within a space defined by this blurry logic it isn’t surprising that some men over-stepped the mark and thoughtlessly – or vindictively – posted explicit photos of girlfriends and ex-girlfriends without their consent. That is sexual violation. (Whether or not our laws have caught up with it – and not just because Jennifer Lawrence says so!) But, culturally conditioned to have a blasé attitude towards the women/bodies/’racks’ being shared and commented on, it’s not difficult to imagine how easy it would be to cross this line. The scene has already been set for patterns of behaviour that treat women as playthings, and for this to be seen as normal.
One woman, a student from Otago, was quoted as saying:
“It’s not a feminism thing, it’s having respect for other human beings, and knowing right from wrong … It would be just as bad if it was boys that had been posted on a page.”
The reason I disagree with this is precisely because there is a strikingly gendered pattern to these sorts of things. They are not restricted to Otago University or New Zealand society – Laura Bates has just reported on a fresh batch of misogynist hurdles female students currently face in UK universities. The phenomenon is not gender neutral, so a gender neutral analysis can only obscure what is going on.
This is not a simplistic argument that men are bad – which is how some people seem to interpret any mention of ‘gender issues’. Lots of men are speaking out on social media, in classrooms and other places. They are repelled by gender based violence, and troubled by the connections they see between everyday sexism and sexual violation. Their support and their willingness to speak out is an essential ingredient for meaningful social change. Jarrod Gilbert, we agree with you that “not all men are the problem”. But recycling this defense completely misses the point of a critique of rape culture. (See David Cormack’s response to the hysteria over David Cunliffe’s man apology.) Actually, to the contrary it is conservative commentators like Bob Jones (read this version and Marama Davidson’s response) who malign men’s essential nature when they write as if rape is an inevitable fact of life that women just have to accept and be constantly vigilant against.
In joining the dots between the sexual objectification of women and sexual violence, we do not claim that these things are the same as each other or that rape is a direct result of consuming sexist imagery. Otago University Students Association administrative vice president Ryan Edgar (who was added to the original page without his agreement) “reject[s] the notion that all males involved in [the Rack Appreciation Society] are sexual predators”. I agree that would be highly unlikely. But as a defence it muddies the waters. I don’t think anyone is seriously claiming this. But, as Tania Billingsley said, violence does not occur in a vacuum.
We have no chance of ever stopping gender based violence (such as rape, sexual violation, sexual harassment and exploitation) if we accept the kind of banal sexism (and heteronormativity) underlying activities like ‘rack appreciation’. In so quickly becoming a space where more obvious violations of consent took place, this case shows how fragile the line is between “fun” and abuse. The activities of the Rack Appreciation Society are on a continuum with the widely condemned actions of Auckland’s ‘Roast Busters’. We can’t be surprised when young men treat real women in real sexual situations with a lack of real respect if we continue to perpetuate confusing and dangerous messages that it’s just harmless fun for men to regard women as body parts to excite, judge, amuse, and bond over.