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Rape culture: power and privilege in New Zealand

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Samantha Lee
Samantha Lee

Wellington College has been in the news recently. Two young men from the school were reported for posting Facebook messages about raping drunk and unconscious girls – they were talking about sex without consent which is, by definition, rape.

What has been really surprising (or unsurprising, depending who you talk to) has been the level of discomfort and bafflement around the phrase rape culture, which evidently has never entered the national conversation before.

“Rape culture? Surely, this is just locker room talk, boys will be boys? They’re good boys; it’s just a bit of steam being let off, right?”

I think some of the permissive, passive reaction to this is due to a lack of understanding about the way men and women walk through the world, the privileges that men have and women don't, and a lack of understanding that not wanting to rape someone doesn’t mean that you are not contributing to rape culture.

In our society, men have expectations laid on them around their masculinity from a very young age (be a man, don’t cry, don’t be a girl, don’t have emotions, make sure you get laid.) This contributes to rape culture.

The expectations around women are to be nice, feminine, quiet, kind, unassuming, polite, smile, be sexually available on demand, but don’t be a whore, be virginal but don’t be frigid, be tough, but not too tough, because that’s threatening to masculinity, don’t be shrill, be good looking, be shaved, be made up, be thin, be accepting, be compliant, be placid, be uncomplaining, don’t nag, be popular, be heterosexual, be intelligent, but not too intelligent…

…It’s worth noting that this list has a starting point from a young age also, and in my experience it doesn’t really ever stop.

Rape culture includes some of the following:

Trivializing sexual assault and abuse by framing the argument for rape around what the woman was doing, wearing, saying. (“Was she dressed like a slut?”)

Athletes who are charged with rape and call their victims career-destroyers, liars, or attention-seekers is rape culture. (As a side note no one in their right mind would willingly go through the soul-destroying rape reporting and court process in New Zealand in order to become famous.)

People who think that women “allow themselves” to be raped is rape culture i.e. “she wouldn’t have just lain there if she didn’t want it.”

Media who substitute the word “sex” for “rape” is rape culture – it’s not a substitute.

People who think reacting negatively to street harassment is an over reaction, is rape culture.

Joking about rape is rape culture.

Women being told it’s their job to prevent rape rather than men being told it’s their job not to rape, is rape culture.

That 3% of rapists spend a day in jail is rape culture at play.

Women being told stay together in clubs and not to walk alone at night is rape culture.

We have a serious problem.

If you are of the opinion this is solely a storm in a teacup, ask any women in your life when she was last harassed. Ask your Mum, your sister, your daughter, your friend. Chances are it was recent. Chances are she’ll have more than one example. Chances are she’ll know someone else with a recent example too. Ask them what they did to provoke it. Notice how they look at you when you ask that.

“Not all men do this!” Is a constant refrain around sexual harassment and the perpetuation of rape culture. The best analogy I have heard in response to that is, “by the “not all men” logic, Russian Roulette is a perfectly safe game to play. Sure, one of the chambers has a bullet in it…but not all chambers.”

1 in 5 New Zealand women experience a serious sexual assault; statistics which are not concrete given only 9% of sexual assaults are reported to police. Being a woman in New Zealand is the game of Russian Roulette mentioned above.

Wellington East Girls’ College, Wellington Girls’ College and Wellington High School are planning to protest at Parliament tomorrow.

It is absolutely appalling that these young women are having to take it into their own hands to ask for behaviour that treats them like a human being, and that asking for this behaviour somehow means that they are asking for too much.

It is absolutely appalling that these young women know what rape culture is and have articulately explained how they experience it every day.

It is absolutely appalling that in many corners of the country these young women are going to be called Feminazis, Man-Hating Feminists, Sluts, Skanks, attention-seeking, in need of a good fuck, and whatever other filth enters the heads of these men.

It is absolutely appalling that in many corners of the country the fathers of other daughters will ignore these young women entirely, and fathers of other sons will not have any kind of conversation around what consent is.

The fear of being associated with a Man-Hating feminist comes from a fear of being perceived to hate men (women, reinforced by men), and a fear of betraying what it means to be a man (men.)
We need to change this dialogue, and this perception. Ellen Page recently said “You know you’re working in a patriarchal society when the word feminist has a weird connotation.”

If you are standing with the young women protesting tomorrow, it means that you are concerned that women in New Zealand, from a young age, are being sexually harassed in irreversibly damaging ways, including being made to feel afraid by men who are taught to reinforce a way of living that benefits them.

Why would you give up power, if you’ve always had it? Why would you think about the daily lived experience of a group of people when it doesn’t reflect your lived experience?

I don’t know. It’s a question I ask myself often, and lack of compulsory teaching around consent and women’s rights in schools, gender pay equity, and focus on the domestic violence rife in this country I think is a reflection of an unwillingness to do so.

But, if tomorrow’s protest is anything to go by, young New Zealand women aren’t willing to wait for men to start asking themselves the hard questions anymore – and anything other than a willingness to have hard, uncomfortable conversations and demonstrable change isn’t going to be an acceptable outcome.

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