MERAH HAREM, a lingerie and underwear webshop, breaks down rape culture with this article.
What is rape culture?
Firstly, ‘rape’ is defined as the gross act of demeaning and commodifying a person by way of forced sexual intercourse without consent. Rape culture refers to a social environment where sexual violence or assault is normalised, justified and excused, fueled by deep-rooted attitudes towards gender and sexual inequalities. Giving rise to a culture where the victim is to be blamed for their own sexual violence or assault, rather than to punish the rapist or perpetrator.
Victim-blaming would typically focus on the victim’s physical appearance such as their looks, clothes or makeup and their motives or choices leading up to the incident. This would then lend itself towards invisible social narratives to justify that the rapist was acting on sexual desires, unable to control their sexual urges or was sexually provoked, hence shifting the blame towards the victim. Further strengthened by cultural norms and institutions which would protect the rapist and subject the victim – most often women – and their entire gender to make changes on their actions and choices instead, thereby creating a society which disregards women’s rights and safety.
Rape culture would then perpetuate this inhumane act and allow sexual violence or assault to flourish, as the stigma associated to it, victim-blaming and institutional failure surrounding it would discourage victims from coming forward with their accounts. However, although the term ‘rape culture’ was first coined back in the 1970s, many recent incidences have propelled rape culture and questions surrounding it into the limelight, such as the #MeToo and #SlutWalk movements, which have addressed rape culture in mainstream outlets and encouraged people and victims to share their accounts or stories through hashtags on social media.
The Sexual Violence Pyramid
‘Harmless’ jokes and sexist attitudes within rape culture will do more harm than any good, as the use of misogynistic language such as “she asked for it”, “boys will be boys” or “women say ‘no’ when they mean ‘yes’ has elements of victim-blaming and objectification of women which trivialises sexual violence or assault. Such statements imply gender inequalities between men and women, where ‘manhood’ is to be seen as dominant and sexually aggressive, and ‘womanhood’ as submissive and sexually passive.
This is often amplified in the media and popular culture through mediums such as movies and television, which tend to gratify gender roles, sexual violence and tolerate sexually explicit jokes. An example on the last point, on a popular American dating reality show, the woman accidentally choked on her food during a dinner date and the man implied that the size of his d*ck would make her choke even more (alluding towards his crude intentions after the date). The woman confronts him immediately but was criticised for being “too sensitive” and “cannot take a joke”, which gaslights her experience. This triangle chart below by 11th Principle: Consent! exemplifies how dangerous such normalised attitudes and behaviours in rape culture can accumulatively add up towards further degradation and assault:
Wild Ginger previously wrote an article on online sexual harassment where behaviours such as stalking / following, sending non-consensual photos or videos and unsolicited dick pics would run rampant yet go ignored in this digital day and age. When the perpetrators are confronted on their actions, they would brush it off as women “overreacting” or “it’s not like it’s rape” – but it is precisely these sort of behaviours and the tolerance of them that is dangerous, because it has the potential to grow into worse outcomes as accountability was never held or pinned down to the perpetrator.
Rape Culture in Malaysia
A publication titled Enough of This Nonsense! Rape is Rape: A Malaysian Perspective (2019) shared that an average of five rape cases are being reported in Malaysia every day, alluding that it is a societal problem affecting all Malaysians who choose to engage in rape culture by endorsing rape myths. Earlier a rape myth was discussed on physical appearance, other popular rape myths in the publication refer to the emotional reactions of the victims, physical injuries, rape only happening between strangers, women lying about being raped and the idea that men cannot be raped. Another statistic indicates that one rape case happens every 35 minutes in Malaysia (Women’s Centre for Change, 2015) and, worse, towards minors; so to debunk one of the popular rape myths, an astounding seven out of ten rape cases are committed by someone known to the victim. Let these statistics sink in that these are indeed happening in our beloved country Malaysia.
Instead of seeking for justice, those in a position of power such as MPs would encourage rape victims to marry their rapists as an escape route from what they conceive rape to be – that the incident was simply sexual intercourse outside of marriage (charged under Section 376 of the Penal Code in the Sessions Court), which criminalises the sexual act rather than rape itself. Hence, rape culture in Malaysia carries heavy religious undertones to cover up perverted thoughts by harking on women to tutup aurat (cover up their modesty). For example, an accomplished woman MP was sexually harassed by a man who commented on her buah dada (breasts) despite wearing a hijab. The host, who seemed to be immuned to this degrading slur, thanked the man for his advice instead of calling him out in this public sexual harassment. This article also criticises the lack of moral gatekeeping compounded by Malaysian dramas, which tend to glamourise and vindicate gender stereotypes and violence rather than using media as an educational tool.
How can we combat rape culture?
We, as a global or Malaysian society member, have the opportunity to assess whether our behaviours and beliefs for biases permit rape culture to stay prevalent. On a smaller-scale, attitudes we have towards rape culture can be evaluated by identifying our stance towards inequalities surrounding gender and sexuality, as well as the policies we choose to support and the institutional failures we choose to challenge in order to play a role in influencing others:
- We, both men and women, can start by avoiding the use of language which objectifies or degrades the other gender or others, as it is often deeply embedded in the way we think and speak.
- Speak out if you hear someone making a sexually explicit joke that trivialises rape – for instance, the next time you hear someone say “I will rape / f*ck your mum” as an insult, address that it is vulgar and not right, nor should it be seen as funny.
- Educate yourself about rape culture – aside from having standings in law, education and the workplace, historically sexual violence or assault has been used as a weapon of war and oppression (i.e. ethnic cleansing and genocide).
- Be ever critical of the messages conveyed through media on gender roles and sexual violence by questioning its purpose.
- Create a culture of voluntary, enthusiastic and clear consent. We had a topic on Sexual Consent here.
- If someone or a survivor has confided in you on their account of sexual violence or assault, listen to them and be supportive – let them know that it is not their fault.
- When you see sexual violence happening, be an active bystander by: (1) assessing the situation; (2) supporting the victim if they are okay or would like help; (3) documenting the incident; (4) creating distractions to diffuse the situation; or (5) making a clear zero-tolerance statement to the perpetrator.
- Hold perpetrators accountable for their actions – do not allow them to make excuses, victim blame or allude to external factors such as sexual desires, alcohol or drugs for their behaviours.
These are just some actions you can take to combat rape culture – the first step is awareness that rape culture is indeed a prevalent issue, and following that, to quote a popular Bahasa Malaysia peribahasa, sedikit sedikit, lama lama jadi bukit (with little by little determination, soon the outcome will be substantial). You, can make a difference.
Note: Although this write-up debates gender inequalities between men and women, it is by no means an attempt to overlook others situated outside this gender binary. In challenging ‘Not All Men’, this is not to say that men do not experience sexual violence or assault too, however it is the notion that the majority of these incidences are perpetrated by men and this is the problem.
You can follow Merah Harem on Instagram for sex education resources and visit their website for more. If you or anyone you know is a victim of sexual violence, you can contact the Women’s Aid Organisation Hotline at 03 3000 8858 or SMS/WhatsApp TINA at 018 988 8058 .