The idea of “rape culture” has become increasingly prevalent in discussions about sexual violence in South Africa. Black feminist student activists, in particular, have made visible the ways in which university campuses are steeped in “rape culture” .
The publication of a cartoon by satirist Johnathan Shapiro in April of this year, in which he once again depicts a woman being raped in order to comment on the state of politics, facilitated widespread outrage. There was much talk about this cartoon as an example of rape culture. For example, Kathleen Dey (2017), director of RCCTT, remarked that the cartoon “is a strong example of how rape culture works in our society and how even the most self aware among us are often quite blind to it” .
I have, until recently, regarded the uptake of the term “rape culture” as a positive step towards promoting gender equality (and non-violence) in South Africa. If we can see and talk about the ways in which our every day practises are making violence possible, surely, we can disrupt these every day practises and make violence less possible, even impossible?
However, a comment made by Nomboniso Gaza, the gender and anti-apartheid activist and researcher, at a recent conference on Violence Against Women, has compelled me to think about the limits of the term “rape culture” for explaining sexual violence in South Africa. Gasa asked, “should we not be talking about rape cultures?”. She pointed out that the notion of “rape culture” was developed within the context of the (white) Feminist Movement in the United States (US) in the 1970s. The origin of then term “rape culture” has been credited to Susan Brownmiller who argued that the US is a “rape-supportive culture”. Also speaking about the US, Buchwald, Fletcher and Roth provide the following definition of “rape culture”:
the complex of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and support violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality is violent. In a rape culture women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.
This definition highlights the way in which the term emerged in relation to a very particular set of gendered relations – those of cisgender and heterosexual rape.
The notion “rape culture” has undoubtedly been significant in developing an understanding of rape as not merely an individual act of violence, but rather as a symptom of a broader socio-cultural system. However, given its rooting in particular social dynamics, should we not be asking more critical questions about the usefulness of “rape culture” beyond this context? Questions such as:
How does the notion of “rape culture” (singular) invisibilise/ trivialise/ smooth over the different patterns of sexual violence in South Africa?
Does the idea of “rape culture” allow us to think critically about the violence that is perpetrated against queer bodies, against men, against womxn who are positioned unevenly in our society?
Does this term “rape culture” allow us to think carefully about the inequality/imbalance/variability in responses to sexual violence (for example how we fail to respond or even recognise certain instances/types of sexual violence)?
In order to more fully elucidate the complex and contradictory nature of sexual violence in our contemporary local (and global) contexts should we not, as Gasa remarked, “be talking about rape cultures?”
The simple answer to this last question is yes. But the question of how to develop the theoretical concept of “rape cultures” is far more complex. I hope to be able to do this as part of my Phd.
The idea of intersecting “rape cultures” has the potential to challenge how we are currently thinking about, talking about and responding to sexual violence; challenges which are necessary in order to more meaningfully and appropriately counter the tides of sexual violence that continue to wash over all of us.