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Happy International Women's Day. How Do You Like Your Rape Culture?

Earlier this week, Barbara Kay of the <I>National Post</I> and Margaret Wente of the <I>Globe and Mail</I> took their columns to discuss how rape culture doesn't exist. With evidence from her personal life, Sarah Ratchford argues otherwise.

by Sarah Ratchford
Mar 7 2014, 10:02pm

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I’ve been sexually assaulted many times. More times than I can remember—if I’m being honest. I’m volunteering this information because, over the years, I’ve learned that it wasn’t my fault.

Too many people would argue the opposite.

On International Women’s Day, many women I know tend to celebrate. We clink martini glasses, and celebrate our status as women, our unique and varied powers, and the social and political advancements women have made.

This year, International Women’s Day comes in the midst of a debate, irate on both sides, about whether or not rape culture exists. It does exist, in Canada, right now, where one in four women  is raped. 

Culture is defined as “the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.” How ironic that people argue there is no rape culture when our justice system often fails to take sexual assault cases seriously, and anyway, maybe women shouldn’t get drunk if they plan to not get raped.

These very people are rape culture.  

Rape culture blames those who are raped and sexually assaulted, and systematizes the violence against them. And that is widely reflected on our TVs, on the internet, and in music.

Women who have made real social change always say we don’t protest enough anymore, that it’s like we’ve given up. This year, I believe, those of us who acknowledge that rape culture is a thing need to stand up, on International Women’s Day, and say so. Publicly.

News organizations tiptoe around their discussions of some groups. Rarely will an editor publish an overtly homophobic or racist piece. But sexism is accepted, and many of its elements are often lauded as a reasonable argument.

This happened again this past week when Margaret Wente of The Globe and Mail and Barbara Kay of the National Post both proclaimed that rape culture does not exist.

Why? Who are they trying to protect?

They’re not trying to protect little girls, that’s for sure. I was sexually assaulted as a little girl in middle school by a group of older boys, who were in high school at the time. I was sexually assaulted, more than once, on a school bus full of kids. Later, I was sexually assaulted in a forest when no one else was around—except for me, and a couple of boys.

I was sexually assaulted in high school—again by an older neighbourhood kid who I thought was my friend. And again, this was in a group. It was at a playground. We were totally sober except for a lone joint, floating between the three of us. Oh, and I was wearing long pants, in case you were wondering, Ms. Wente. Not that my outfit actually matters, because women should not be held responsible for crimes committed against them.

I was sexually assaulted a number of times later, too, as a young woman, both when I was out partying, and when I was completely sober. To bring alcohol consumption into the equation as a defining characteristic of the incident is an argument often used in order to place blame on the person who is raped. It is a hateful, ignorant tactic. Consensual sex is consensual sex. If there is no consent, it is rape.

I have never reported any of the times I was sexually assaulted to police, because I thought what happened was normal. That is rape culture. I wrote my master’s thesis  on the justice system’s response to sexual assault allegations, and I walked around for a year being fully obsessed with the details. I spoke about it to all of my close friends and women I love, and the majority of those women have also been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted. Too many of them have either brushed it off as being their fault, or not worth pursuing; because of apologists like Wente.

Wente claims she knows best without doing her journalistic due diligence or, you know, having a human heart. She writes about sexual assaults on campus, and the growing mobilization to stop them: “Is there a double standard here? Indeed there is. Men are treated as potential rapists, and women as their helpless victims (or, in current parlance, “survivors”). If two young people get hammered and have drunken sex, he is responsible for his behaviour, but she’s not responsible for hers.”

Firstly, youwouldn’t know “current parlance” if it smacked you in the face, Margaret Wente. And guess what? RAPE and DRUNK SEX are not the same thing. Why are you apologizing for rapists? Who are you trying to defend? Who are you trying to serve?

She continues: “The belief that universities are hotbeds of sexual violence is fuelled by inflated statistics that are widely repeated as the gospel truth.”How dare you write that sentence, Margaret Wente? You have a major responsibility as a columnist at Canada’s national paper. Yet you cite U.S. stats, which you skew to serve your own argument, rather than ones from Statistics Canada which are readily available to you.

You write that the “widespread claim” that one in five female students is sexually assaulted comes from the American Campus Sexual Assault Study, which surveys more than 5,000 women. You write that the study “stretches the definition of assault to the breaking point,” that the “majority of incidents it records involved alcohol.”

You also totally miss the point: you say the majority of women who reported incidents of sexual assault did not believe they had been raped, “even in cases that involved penetration.” That is because people like you shout at them from all sides that they were not raped, or if they were, that they should have known better. Also, FYI, there are more kinds of sexual assault than rape, and rape culture perpetuates all forms of sexual violence, all of which can be equally harmful to the person who is assaulted.

A horrifying 91 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police. Aka, only one in ten is reported, and reflected in statistics. The numbers we do have, which are reported to police, say one in four Canadian women is sexually assaulted at some point in her lifetime, and that a woman is raped every 17 minutes. Police-reported stats are all we have to go on, and that is unfortunate. Women feel shame, they feel fear, and they know, in many cases, the justice system will not take them seriously.

Wente’s final, vile graph: “The manufacture of ‘rape culture’ is a triumph of ideology over substance. It has inflated a serious but uncommon threat into a crime wave… As for those armies of would-be rapists lurking in every shadow—they’re your sons, your grandsons, your nephews and your brothers. I used to think the war on men was an exaggeration. I don’t think so any more.”

You think one in four is “uncommon?” Yeah, rapists are, most often, people’s sons, grandsons nephews and brothers. But the people being raped are usually your daughters, granddaughters, nieces and sisters. And this is no “war on men.” What it should be, though, is a war on rapists.

For clarity: I say “most often” and “usually” because it’s not only women and girls who are sexually assaulted. That is most often the case, but trans* folk, boys, men and people of other genders and ages are sexually assaulted, too, which is also the fault of rape culture. Rapists are the ones at fault, but our society condones it, allows it. We have Globe and Mail columnists saying it’s all NBD and perpetuating all of the rape myths, at the same time as dudes at the University of Ottawa are reeling from their entire hockey team being suspended for an alleged gang sexual assault on a woman. This was just after four student politicians resigned after they were caught in some “sexy talk” about sexually assaulting the student president.

This is a shameful time for Canada.

And what kind of antiquated garble does Kay, the Post columnist, have to spew onto this pile of garbage? “The fact is that “rape culture” is a form of popular mania like so many others before it. It does not exist. Or if it does, nobody has yet brought forward evidence of it.”Isn’t that nice?

When I was sexually assaulted, almost every time, I thought it was completely normal, or that I shouldn’t have been alone with a boy. And even though what was being done to me was terrifying, and I knew I had less physical power in the situation, I felt mildly flattered by the attention because I thought it was so normal. I thought men were supposed to be sexually aggressive, or they just didn’t like you. This, all of this, is rape culture.

And I didn’t think women should be passive in sex. I just didn’t know what sex was supposed to look like, what was normal and what wasn’t. I was an 11 year old virgin. I didn’t know how to stand up for myself. And a 12 year old virgin. And a 13-year-old virgin.

You get the picture.  

Young girls often do not know that unwanted grabbing and touching of their bodies—their breasts, their asses, their genitals—is sexual assault. They see these interactions take place on at least two screens each day as normalized, even desirable behaviour.

I’m not embarrassed about my experiences with sexual assault being out there. I know that anyone can read this, and I hope they do. Especially the kids, now men in their late twenties and thirties, who thought my body was their property, and the wretchedly ignorant individuals who claim rape culture is not a thing.

I remained silent about all of the times I was inappropriately touched and groped because our society does not make it clear that this is especially wrong.

And for the record, I am not a “victim.” Neither are other people who are sexually assaulted. The victims are the people who abuse. They’re victims of a society that does not care for women.

The only people who should be ashamed about sex crimes are rapists, and people who make such ignorant, cruel statements as, “there is no such thing as rape culture.” You are cruel people because you are only thinking of your own interests—and you need to stop and consider other human beings before you open your mouth.

I don’t feel ashamed in the slightest. I feel shame for the people who touched my body, uninvited, and I feel shame for the many people who tell them that behaviour is okay, whether that message is delivered directly, or indirectly.

I know many people do feel shame when they are sexually assaulted, and I am not trying to shame them, in turn not saying they should “just get over it” and adopt my stance of refusing that shame. It’s a totally normal feeling, completely valid, it needs to be dealt with and lived through, and I send love to them. But the only people who should be ashamed are those who say there is no rape culture, or those who perpetuate that statement through their actions, or lack thereof.

Sexual assault makes many people feel worthless, as though their body is a tool to be used by another as they please. To say that rape culture does not exist is to deny those experiences, or to say that they do not matter to you.

To those who know that rape culture exists: please do not stay silent. Say something. We need to stand up, point our fingers at Wente and others like her, and say: “No. You will not tell us that rape is our fault, and you will not tell us that rape is not a systemic problem in our society.”

If you disagree with her and others like her, whether you’re a woman or a man or any other gender, whether you’ve been sexually assaulted or not, I believe you should find a way to make that clear. Because we need to protest not only rape culture, but lack of affordable childcare, affordable housing, adequate transit, laws being created to police sex work, and the general misogyny that still persists like second hand smoke on our society at large. There are protests going on in cities across the country, from Vancouver, to Halifax to Torontoall of Canada, really. If there’s nothing you find compelling where you live, write to your local councilor or MPP (if you’re not sure how to navigate that, email me and I’ll help). Even just post something on Facebook or write a letter to the editor, or a helpful comment on an article—anything is better than all of us remaining silent.

And if you think that there is no such thing as rape culture? I mean this very sincerely, putting all sarcasm aside: I hope that it doesn’t take the rape of a woman you love to change your mind. Because that probability is high.