The criminal justice system will never be the best way to end the rape culture embedded in our society. It is important that we focus most of our energy on the social factors that enable and sustain rape culture.
The law cannot ever play more than a minor role in this regard, as we saw last week when justifiably angry Rhodes University students were forced to take to the streets in Grahamstown to drive exactly this point home.
The law does, of course, matter. When a girl or a woman is a victim or survivor of a sexual crime, it is appalling that the criminal justice system is an unreliable means of dispensing justice. The entire justice value chain lets down survivors: from many investigating officers not taking cases seriously enough; some officers not investigating charges speedily and with forensic skill; to the inherently adversarial nature of our criminal trials which have no regard for secondary trauma it inflicts on survivors; patriarchal attitudes that still prevail among some judicial officers who do not always follow changes in sentencing guidelines; low levels of conviction, among other issues.
The criminal justice system isn’t a friend of rape survivors. It is a friend of patriarchy. This doesn’t mean we should not try to improve it. We have a legal and moral duty to constantly review, for example, the capacity and skill of investigative officers, prosecutorial teams and judicial officers.
However, even if the criminal justice system were to shed some of its anti-survivor tropes which are currently tolerated under the jurisprudential guise of due process, rape culture will still prevail. That is because most sexual violence involves an attacker who the survivor is acquainted with, and the evidential burden in the biggest volumes of such cases will invariably be stacked against a survivor in a “he said/she said” cross-examination battle. The standards of criminal law will always rarely be met.
These frustrations with the law shouldn’t stop us, as boys and men, from interrogating the cultural norms that result in these despicable acts of violence. We need to be prepared to make ourselves vulnerable in these discussions, and admit to poor understanding of concepts such as consent and of having internalised behaviour that does not pass standards of minimal moral decency.
Some of the expressions of violent masculinity that we have to own up to include, but, of course, aren’t limited to: an uncritical and unconscious belief that a woman I desire has a duty to let me penetrate her; casual macho language between boys and men that “scoring a chick” makes me more of a man than the person who didn’t have sex last night, or makes me more cool than the guy who engages a woman in respectful conversation instead of (literally, in some cases) walking over her; failure to show due regard for women as your equal in the workplace, at home, in the boardroom and almost every other space.
We express a range of attitudes of entitlement and ownership over women’s bodies, and systematic disregard for the inherent dignity of women. Not all of this is exhibited as physical violence. The odious ways in which you engage the women you live with, who work for you or with you or who are supposed to be your boss, contribute in silent ways towards a well-developed atmosphere conducive to rape.
The implication is that unless and until we role model and rehearse new ways of being in the world, the kind of crises we see in the criminal justice system in dealing inadequately with sexual violence will never go away. Because the number of cases stemming from a rotten patriarchal social structure will not be reduced. The legal mechanisms we tinker with to dispense justice are simply a reaction to a violation that has already happened, but which should not have happened.
No doubt some men reading this column might think the phrase “rape culture” is over the top, an invention of angry feminists and some men who think they’re better than other men. This reaction demonstrates low levels of understanding – or sheer refusal to own up to – the full scope of patriarchy’s manifestations. Rape doesn’t only mean chasing after a stranger in a veld, raping her and murdering her.
We need to stop the idea that there is a template for what violation looks like. Most survivors do not scream, do not report cases, and do not get killed. That doesn’t mean rape, and sexual violence more generally, are exceptional occurrences on campuses and in society at large.
We will only begin to understand the entire force of patriarchy, and rape culture which it props us, if we are open to a difficult and overdue set of conversations about our violent masculinities. No man is exempted from patriarchy, including this columnist, and all other self-proclaimed allies of women.