How and Where to Undercut Rape Culture?

Imagine that your wife or sister was gang-raped for hours on the back of a bus. Imagine that it was not only penises that were used to administer the torture but also metal rods. Imagine that the perpetrators pulled her intestines out of her body. Imagine they tossed her from the bus and then tried to run her over. Imagine she is dead, lost to you forever.

There’s nothing imaginary about the crime. These are details from rape murder of a women the press labeled “Nirbhaya” (Sanskrit: fearless), an infamous Delhi incident in December 2012 that brought tens of thousands of Indians into the streets to protest India’s cultural normalization of violence against women and girls. 

For Mumbai-based photographer Raj Shetye, apparently normalization isn’t enough, because a recent photo shoot called “The Wrong Turn” is a series of glamour shots of an elegantly clad woman being literally manhandled against her will by several male model types, including a quasi-shirtless figure supine so as to maximize the six-pack outline of his abs.

Not surprisingly, the Nirbhaya’s parents are outraged. ”[This photo spread] has once again brought us face-to-face with the incident,” says Nirbhaya’s mother, “and [Shetye] has done it for his own publicity and to make money. He has tried to hurt the sentiments of parents and has mocked a girl’s struggle.”

Shetye claims his shoot was “in no way meant to glamorize the act, which was very bad. It’s just a way of throwing light on it. […] And the aim is to create art that will gather some reaction in society. […] The message I would like to give is that it doesn’t matter who the girl is. It doesn’t depend on which class she belonged in—it can happen to anyone.”

If Shetye is confused why people are labeling him despicable rather than nominating him to be the photographic consciousness of his generation, the simple way to get through to him might be to ask whether he would have done the shoot had Nirbhaya been his sister. 

In recent months the term “rape culture” has been bandied about somewhat irresponsibly, overextended to include all societies and labeling all men as complicit by virtue of their gender. But indiscriminate usage of the term shouldn’t mislead anyone into thinking that there isn’t a real point here.

The fact that rape culture, the normalization of sexual violence against women, isn’t perpetuated only by men would be shocking if we didn’t keep in mind the reason that Shetye did a photo shoot he most certainly wouldn’t have done were Nirbhaya his wife: many people don’t care much about the horrors of the world unless they strike very close to home. So it is that at least one woman participated in the photo shoot. She wasn’t raped on a bus. Her mother didn’t lose her intestines and her life to metal rods. 

But normalization is such a powerful force that it can lay a groundwork allowing for even intrafamilial horrors. Last year reportedly 869 women in Pakistan alone were murdered by family members in “honor killings,” usually for “crimes” no worse than refusing an arranged marriage in lieu of marrying someone of her choosing.

Then there’s the practice of female genital mutilation (a.k.a. “female circumcision”). In subcultures where the practice continues, mothers willingly deliver up their daughters for the procedure, which is typically performed by a woman. The World Health Organization estimates that there are 125 million living victims of the practice, which occurs in 29 countries.

While the United States may not be a hotbed of “honor killings” and female genital mutilation, rape culture is here, too. Many of its manifestations are relatively (i.e., compared with places like Pakistan and Africa) subtle. But even if some claims regarding the frequency of rape in the United States are inflated—such as a claim that 1 in 4 female college students has been raped, which Steven Pinker cites as an example of “junk statistics”—it is universally acknowledged that rape continues to be (in Pinker’s words) “notoriously underreported.” That’s not because women like being raped: it’s a combination of the persisting stigmatization of the victim and the fact (n.b. not merely belief) that most perpetrators will go unpunished.

As a kid I knew what rape was, but I figured it was so rare that I was unlikely to meet a rape victim. Then in my 20s I began to meet woman after woman who opened up to me about terrible experiences. My first college girlfriend had been raped. My next girlfriend had been raped. The first girl I dated in grad school had been raped. At least four of the last six women I’ve dated were raped or otherwise sexually abused. 

This is to say nothing of the number of women who may not have been physically assaulted but were harassed or threatened. I have a clear recollection of chatting with a coworker by her car one night when another coworker, one who had an obsessive “like” for her, came up to us and began yelling at her. I shudder to think what might have happened had I not been there.

And that is to say nothing of the objectification of women I’ve witnessed that was not even ill-intended. “That’s a nice red dress,” a guy once said as my red-clad girlfriend and I walked by. “Thanks,” she said. “I was talking to my boy,” he rejoined. Being only 20 and still oblivious to the import of such attitudes, I laughed. 

Eventually I became more conscious of what was implicit in such exchanges. Numerous times I have been asked whether it’s okay to dance with my female companion. “That’s for her to say,” I say. 

I’m also no more likely to open a door for a woman than I am for a man. As I see it, treating someone differently solely on the basis of gender is sexism no matter how you slice it. Calling it chivalry doesn’t change the message that women inherently deserve to be regarded not as individuals. There are good reasons to open a door for someone: because he or she is in a wheelchair, because his/her hands are full, etc. Secondary sexual characteristic don’t qualify. 

Pulling up the roots of gender otherness, the simple attitudes that females have or deserve less agency than males, may be a better long-term strategy for killing off rape culture than chopping at it while its in full bloom—although that, too, should be done, and with vigor. 

Whatever the case, one thing’s for sure: photo shoots gussying up gang-rape aren’t going to do the trick.

Love and formic acid,
G.I.Ant

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