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 .
“I’d lick your sweat.”
It was the middle of the day, I was eating my lunch and I found myself staring at my phone in total shock. What had I just read? Did I mistake it for something else? I clicked backwards on Instagram Stories to double check, and I was mortified to see that I wasn’t mistaken.
A moment ago, I had been applauding a video of my friend Talitha having successfully achieved a pull-up challenge milestone. Lifting your bodyweight once is a very impressive feat for anyone, let alone multiple times. Straight after her video was a screenshot of a message from an unknown follower, however, what she had been rewarded with wasn’t congratulations, but rather an invasive, vulgar and very direct message written in a disturbingly aggressive sexual tone.
Talitha Tan is a popular personality and a successful singer with passions for both fitness and food. Talitha’s popularity is not hard to understand seeing she is blessed with an endearing personality briming with positive vibes. If you visit her Instagram page, you will be met with her infectious smile and a variety of posts with one thing in common – they are all enthusiastic and encouraging in nature, whether in the form of delicious meals to try, new songs for our enjoyment or inspiring workout habits. However, what she exports in feel-good factor is not always reciprocated, instead she is an uncomfortably regular victim of Internet harassment.
“I get a lot”, she revealed as I tried to develop an understanding of what I was seeing unfold far too regularly on my Instagram stories. “And I think I could say the same for 99% of girls on social media. They send me a bunch of dick pics or random porn GIFS. I ignore them, but sometimes it’s just never-ending spam”. I was truly taken aback, however, what really saddened me was her revelation that she was used to it, in fact she had “just kind of came to terms with how humans are just horrible creatures”. For a young lady, who dedicates so much of her free time to creating feel-good factors for others to enjoy, to become so desensitized by sexual harassment seems desperately unfair.
As time passed I learnt that Talitha wasn’t the only friend I had suffering from such abuse, with more and more alarming screenshots appearing on my social media feed. PR guru, DJ and trendsetter Ira Roslan posted an inappropriate and unwarranted message she received from one of her followers. I was surprised it was an all too regular occurrence that left her feeling “disrespected, disgusted and shocked!”, she shared. “It feels like the sender has no respect for my person, my boundaries”. The fact that innocent women were being disturbed during their day-to-day life is disgusting, and even though the senders don’t get a response from the women they stalk, it doesn’t stop them. “The persistence of these senders is shocking considering their attempts are always ignored”, Ira sighed.
Over a third of Malaysian women have experienced sexual harassment, with the All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) reporting an increase in online sexual harassment during the movement control order (MCO). Despite the cases I have cited mostly arising from Instagram, it is not alone as a medium facilitating abuse. Wild Ginger’s Editor, Aida Azrin, recently shared that the Reddit group r/MalaysGoneWild, which was exposed for sharing leaked intimate images of local women and underaged girls without their consent, had still not been taken down. She was shocked to find a subreddit with men she had never met asking each other for her pictures, but was even more appalled that after reporting it, Reddit had said it didn’t violate their Content Policy. “It’s terrifying to know that such a big platform actually enables this predatory behaviour through their own policies. What kind of unsafe community guidelines do they have to still allow women to be violated?”, she said.
Social media companies have attempted to restrict access from strangers to their intended targets, with the presence of the secondary inbox allowing the recipient the chance to vet their messages from unknown entities. Images are blurred, offering a good filter from inappropriate senders. Yet there are still glaring incompetencies, such as the ability for users to mask their identities by using fake profiles, and limited controls to stop this from happening. AWAM has urged the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) and police to take sterner action to protect women.
Whilst everyone I spoke to, who has experienced this harassment, revealed a joint sense of belief that the social media companies should keep increasing their efforts to combat such antisocial behaviour, what is more apparent is the general consensus that this isn’t a technological problem – the core issue is a human one, and it isn’t just limited to sexual harassment, it also overlaps into using social media to pass judgement onto others. “There are just so many horrible human beings out there”, Talitha remarked, “people just feel like they have the right to tell us to be who they want us to be because it’s what they expect us to be, and we get sh*t on when we’re not what they want us to be”.
After hearing all of these stories from people I admired, I began feeling greatly unsettled on their behalf. If these online abusers felt so comfortable launching verbal abuse from the shadows of anonymity, what would stop them from gaining the courage to do so in public? Recently, media outlets in Kuala Lumpur reported harassment arising from organised police roadblocks.
Talitha admitted feeling fearful at times, “I do feel unsafe. As much as I want to be this independent strong woman, I really don’t know what people are capable of”. Ira pointed out that she no longer feels comfortable to post in real time, to avoid being traceable and easily located. “The effect of these messages makes me think about whether I am sharing too much on my account”, she stated, debating taking her profile private. The acts of these Internet bullies were diminishing the social aspect of the media.
Despite the undermining effects that these abuses have created for far too many, I was inspired to hear of the efforts that women were taking to protect each other from these vile and unwarranted aggressors. Ira hasn’t sat back and allowed the online deviants win. Along with her friends at Brand New Waves Running Club, they have taken proactive efforts to combat this unsettling feeling by creating a community environment for women to run within that feels safe. BNW is a collective that meet all over KL and allows individuals to enjoy the thrill of public exercise in a welcoming and encouraging environment – one that many women wouldn’t have engaged with before due to the fear of running alone, unwelcome victims of cat-calling, wolf-whistles and derogatory remarks.
During my time writing this article, I was alarmed at the prevalence of online sexual harassment, not just in general, but alarmingly amongst my own close friendship circle. Too many people were being inappropriately disturbed with messages with zero restraint, and it was concerning to witness its correlation to potential safety fears. I hope that in understanding that it exists, and that it is far from harmless, those on the receiving end will feel comfortable to speak up, and look for help from the social media companies, and indeed the law agencies, in a bid to clamp down and stop the perpetrators. Despite its shocking regularity, we cannot accept that this is ‘normal’, and the first step is to be aware that it is occurring, not allow it to simply exist in the background. As friends, we should offer a support structure to listen to those in need, and attempt to use our social circles to put a stop a very anti-social problem.