Saturday, 21 March 2015

Rape is not about sex

Every so often, I facilitate gender training. One of my favourite ways to get discussions started is a quiz, inspired by the 1994 classic, The Oxfam Gender Training Manual (Suzanne Williams with Janet Seed and Adelina Mwau). I read a set of statements - for instance, recent research findings related to the field the participants work in - about sex and gender. For each statement, the participants are asked to determine whether it is about sex (as in biologically male, female or a bit of both - not sexual activity) or gender (roughly speaking, the behaviour societies expect from people according to their sex).

The discussions are always interesting. In a recent quiz of that type, I read the statement:  "A survey in Botswana revealed that 67% of school girls interviewed had been subjected to sexual harassment by teachers; 10% had consented to sex for fear of reprisals." (That was about a decade ago.)
One participant argued the statement was about sex.

I said, "we don't define sex as sexual activity here, but as a person's biological identity."
She responded that  women's sexual identity and the anatomical features that came with womanhood made women more liable to be raped.

Seems obvious. But it is not obvious at all. Actually, it is quite wrong. 

Rape is a form of sexual violence. Women and men, girls and boys can be raped. You could argue that it is biologically harder for women to inflict sexual violence on others, but anyone can handle such non-biological objects as broomsticks, toilet brushes and bottles. It does not matter whether you are a man or a woman when you push an object into an other person's vagina or anus. Yet, the vast majority of perpetrators of sexual violence are men and boys, and most victims/survivors are women and girls. 

Sexual violence against women and girls is something lots of people have heard about and a growing number of people speak about. Conversely, many people cannot deal with the idea of men being victims of sexual violence, describing the crime in convoluted terms of the type "they did terrible things to him, things that turned him into a woman". And here is where gender comes in. Women and girls face the risk of being raped because social norms put women at the receiving end of violence. Theoretically, it could be the other way round, with men and boys being systematically abused by women and girls - not a particularly desirable situation, either. We could also simply live in a world where women and men, girls and boys respect and treat each other as equals - a very desirable situation.

Rape is not a normal risk that women and girls face because of their physical features (unlike menstruation pains, complications during childbirth and ovarian cancer). Biology plays a very tiny role in rape. There is a natural need for biological reproduction, but societies control natural urges. Defecation, for instance: We spend part of our young childhoods learning to control our sphincters, and to relieve our bowels in special places only. This is not because children love potty training, but because society expects us to postpone that urge until it we are in a toilet, latrine or, say, behind a tree. Positing rape as something natural misconstrues men and boys as brainless automats who cannot keep themselves from forcing their body parts (or any oblong object they happen to carry around) into other people's body openings. That is unfair. Even animals have elaborate mating rituals. Rape is nothing natural or inevitable. We can do something about it.


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