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US media portrays rape culture as a foreign problem. Here’s why they’re wrong.

The public gang rape of a college student in India has rightly sparked global outrage about violence against women, forcing rape to become a topic of discussion for even US media outlets. For the first time that I can recall, mainstream publications are using the phrase “rape culture” to describe the environment that fosters and accepts violence against women. But I can’t help but notice that it’s being portrayed as an exclusively foreign phenomena, something found only in nonwestern cultures in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

If one were to rely solely on US media coverage, they would get the false impression that India is plagued by a rape-glorifying, sexist culture, whereas the west is some sort of global safe haven for women’s rights. 

The New York Times singled out India in an editorial, saying, “India must work on changing a culture in which women are routinely devalued. Many are betrothed against their will as child brides, and many suffer cruelly, including acid attacks and burning, at the hands of husbands and family members.” This is not to say that India doesn’t need to change it’s policies, but when was the last time the New York Times urged its own country to “work on changing a culture in which women are routinely devalued”?

This is the part where people (almost always men) get angry with me for suggesting that the US treats women like crap on a scale even remotely similar to those “other” parts of the world. So for those suffering from selective amnesia and who like to pretend that sexism is a foreign, brown people thing, let me point out the ways in which the US, both culturally and legally, not only hinders equality for women but also blames them for the physical and sexual abuse perpetrated against them.

Rape culture is indeed prevalent throughout the United States, where 1 in 6 women are victims of attempted or completed rape.

Remember when those two NYPD cops got away with raping a Brooklyn woman despite the overwhelming evidence against them? After all, she had been drinking, so it was all her fault. That happened in America.

The police rapists came from the same department that went around last year telling young women  not to wear short skirts because there was an attacker on the loose. Yeah, that’s how rapists choose their victims, by how attractive and slutty they dress. (This must mean women are NEVER raped in Saudi Arabia, right?)

Remember when that middle school in Missouri forced a seventh grade special education student to write a letter of apology to her rapist for telling on him? The school expelled the girl for the rest of the year and refused to grant her mother’s requests for extra monitoring when she returned. As a result, she was raped again by the same boy in the school library. This didn’t happen in India, it happened in 2009 and 2010 in the US.

These aren’t isolated incidents as some prefer to imagine. If you have any doubts, I suggest you visit a college campus like AmherstBoston University or the University of Missoula.

Better yet, check out the United States Military, where women in combat are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire; where “soldier rapists have an 86.5% chance of keeping [his] crime a secret and a 92% chance of avoiding a court-martial“; where one out of three servicewomen are sexually assaulted, twice the rate for civilian women in the US; where 22,800 violent sex crimes were reported in the US military in 2011.

It’s likely far worse for the women residents of the countries where US military bases are located and wars fought, but there’s no way to know for sure since no body collects that information. As a result, only the most extraordinarily grotesque rapes are brought to light.

One of the most confusing aspects of the media’s very understandable outrage over India’s gang rapes is the absence of outrage at crimes against women in the US. Just last year, the New York Times published a story about an 11-year-old girl who was gang raped by 18 men and teenage boys in an abandoned trailer in Cleveland, Texas. The Times didn’t break the story, but their article received tons of attention for its shocking level of victim-blaming and rape apologia:

Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.

How the Times found it relevant to print the opinions of neighbors about the alleged “sluttiness” of a child rape victim’s wardrobe is beyond me. But I still haven’t decided which is worse: the victim-blaming or the article’s obsessive focus on the plight of the rapists:

The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?

“It’s just destroyed our community,” said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”

Sadly, it wasn’t just the Times, as Jezebel pointed out.

I suppose these “mishaps” shouldn’t be surprising in a country where all-male panels of elected officials routinely discuss limiting women’s bodily autonomy; where male legislators say rape is a “gift from god” if it results in pregnancy; where male governors mandate invasive ultrasounds for women seeking abortions; where powerful interest groups want to give more rights to the unborn than to living, breathing females who they view as nothing more than incubators; and where the GOP’s latest vice presidential candidate actually sponsored a bill that would allow a rapist to  stop his victim from getting an abortion.

Then there is the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which has been reauthorized every year since 1994, until now. Since April, VAWA has been stalled by GOP House members because it extends protections to LGBTQ, immigrant and Native American women.

That comes on top of the US refusal to ratify the UN treaty on women’s rights, otherwise known as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Though the US originally drafted the treaty under President Carter, the US Senate has failed to ratify it for the last 30 years thanks to the unfounded fears of right-wing legislators who are convinced that the treaty is a radical feminist screed that legalizes abortion and prostitution on the international level. This is, of course, complete bullshit, as the Christian Science Monitor explains:

For one, the committee of independent experts that monitors the treaty’s implementation urges countries to decriminalize abortion – criminalizing it leads to unsafe procedures – but the treaty is actually “abortion neutral,” according to the US State Department. The convention does not enshrine a right to abortion. Countries in which abortion is illegal, such as Ireland and Rwanda, have ratified the convention.

Second, the treaty requires decisive action against trafficking and exploitation of women through prostitution, but the committee urges that trafficking victims are not prosecuted. That’s far from legalizing prostitution.

The US  joins Iran, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Tonga and the Vatican in refusing to ratify the treaty. (Ironically, India has indeed ratified it.)

To the skeptics preparing to ask me whether I’d prefer to live in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan since I think the US is so awful, I wonder if you realize the level to which US foreign policy towards certain parts of the world has intensified violence against women. Backing sexist dictatorial rulers, knowingly arming religious fundamentalists who throw acid in women’s faces and forcing neoliberal economic policies that leave small farmers (most of whom are women) and their families starving; these are the policies that define the United States to many women abroad.

What it comes down to is this: violence against women is a product of patriarchy that takes many forms, some far more brutal and grotesque than others. Whether in the US or India, this dynamic has to be addressed and dealt with if we’re serious about putting an end to rape culture.

  1. john simino #

    In the last week alone even the “progressive” media msnbc somehow DECLARED, in two separate stories, that two separate countries were suffering from “Rape Culture”. One story was on India the other was Kenya.
    Very good article. A friend re-posted it on fb where I read it. Thanks

    January 3, 2013
    • Thanks for reading, John 🙂

      January 3, 2013
    • Wow, that’s just mind-boggling… Anyone who doesn’t think “rape culture” is a GLOBAL problem, doesn’t actually understand what it is.

      January 3, 2013
  2. Boyce C Smith #

    A very good and insightful piece… Indeed women have been failed but the US media

    January 3, 2013
  3. Bravissimo for writing this. Excellent and concise, with references to follow up on.

    Thank you.

    January 3, 2013
  4. avinash #

    They always say there are two sides to a coin and finally the other side was written. Great article. Fantastic job

    January 4, 2013
  5. Vimal #

    Well written, insightful article.
    How do the people that you mention holding back women’s rights get elected?
    Also why aren’t clever, well balanced and unprejudiced people running the US and other countries around the world?

    January 4, 2013
  6. Excellent. Thank you.

    January 4, 2013
  7. Very, very well written! Now this is what is called an excellent piece of writing. Concise, clear, unbiased and thoroughly researched.. Look forward to reading many more posts by you..

    January 4, 2013
  8. George #

    In response to the first paragraph:

    Southeast Asia = Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia etc.
    South Asia = India, Pakistan, Bangladesh

    Clearly the latter was intended. Many people make this error and it is annoying.

    January 7, 2013
    • Thank you for the clarification, George. I apologize for making that mistake, which I’ve corrected.

      January 8, 2013
  9. People need ot read this article and understand how bad rape is in America. They want to deny it, and more than anything they blame the victims.
    And the US military is the most disturbing group. They are supposed to be protecting us but are just protecting each other!
    But most of the media will cover the issue one time then move on and not hold anyone accountable.
    We are trying to not only educate people on how the marines ignore rape but to teach future enlistees what their chances are for being raped if they enlist!
    And we helped take out a congressman who ignored a military rape. When we start working together and voting out politicians that will do nothing, maybe that will force them to do something!

    This congressman who allowed rapes to happen in the military has lost!

    Sign This!

    January 10, 2013
  10. Mariam Fakhar #

    Excellent writing and I also get the same feeling while reading the book ” half the sky”,that women are so oppressed in third world countries.

    January 14, 2013
  11. This happening in the world’s most powerful state . Just to remind that when Saudi’s identify such act they give severe punishment. I believe that at that point, they do the right thing. If laws won’t be strict, there will be no fear of doing wrong. By the way, that is why Islam has strict punishments, even for robbery. Nicely written.

    January 14, 2013
  12. Excellent article.

    January 16, 2013

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