Rape Culture vs. Traditional Culture

The Steubenville rape and the Adria Richards fiasco have given me an idea of what Georgians mean when they say that women are more respected in their culture. I can’t imagine either of those things happening here. I would ask Western readers to keep in mind what I normally ask of Georgian readers: when I compare the two cultures, I am not judging, I am observing – not in search of some ideal way, or right answer, but simply in search of insight.

In Steubenville, Ohio, a young girl became intoxicated while at a party. While she was passed out, two young boys raped her. Many of their peers were around, looking on, making jokes, and posting pictures, comments, and videos to social media. The issue became controversial all over again after the verdict: it was incredibly lenient for the two rapists, and yet numerous commentators lamented the fact that two promising young boys had their futures ruined over one night of drunken antics.

There’s plenty of victim-blaming to go around. It’s especially obvious how twisted and disgusting victim-blaming is in the Steubenville case, because the girl was passed out. She was literally completely deprived of all agency and yet some people still find a way to make it her fault. They say she should not have been drinking, not have been partying with boys, not have let herself get out of control. They say she should not have been doing all the things that a normal teenage girl in America is encouraged to do, that she should not have been doing the thing that all her peers were also doing at that very moment, that she should, at 15 or 16 years old, have had the fortitude to defy social expectations and peer pressure and she should have been home studying or watching American Idol or whatever. This is the double-bind that all women in America face in many, many situations: no matter what you choose, you fail to live up to society’s expectations, and you are punished for it.

In Georgia, the situation is rather different. Georgians would blame the culture. Georgians would say society has failed. Not only should women not have become drunk, but young, unmarried teenagers should not have been allowed to party in mixed company without adult chaperones. Georgians have social mechanisms in place to prevent the thing that happened in Steubenville. Are those mechanisms fair to women? Absolutely not. Are they effective at preventing awful things like the Steubenville rape and the thousands and thousands of other incidents that don’t receive the same media attention? Yes, they are. Traditional culture embraces rape culture in many, many ways – in fact, one could argue that it embraces rape culture in the name of preventing rape (much like the state embraces terrorism in the name of preventing terrorism) – and yet for many people, in many cases, that directive of preventing rape is not wholly disingenuous. It’s true that eliminating the opportunity for rape by keeping men and women physically separated prevents some rapes.

If it appears to the reader that I am arguing that women’s liberation has caused rape, I assure you, I am not. What I am saying is that traditional culture had a set of (very imperfect) mechanisms to prevent rape, and Western culture has undermined those mechanisms *without replacing them* with an equally strong, but more strongly equitable, set of mechanisms.

We are stumbling in that direction. Our rape prevention campaigns are just starting to shift their focus away from educating women on how to protect themselves and towards enculturating men not to be rapists – and in the wake of Steubenville, we’ve had calls to see how we can encourage bystanders to do something about rape or potential rape. We’ve asked ourselves why no one intervened, and how we as a society can make it so that next time someone does intervene.

When I talk about rape culture in Georgia – or in any traditional culture – I am not trying to Americanize or Westernize Georgian culture. I am trying to encourage Georgians to be proactive, rather than reactive. I am hoping traditional cultures can learn from Americans’ mistakes. Because there will inevitably come a time when Georgian traditional culture gives way to a more equitable and free society, and when young Georgians start having unsupervised contact in mixed-gender groups with alcohol involved (as they already do in Tbilisi, or so I am told) it would be really helpful to Georgian men and women to have some kind of backup social norms already in place to stop things like Steubenville from happening here.

But what I would absolutely not encourage is for Georgians to look at Steubenville and say “this is why men and women can’t be friends.” It would be very facile for a traditional or conservative person to point to this or any number of other incidents and say that they are the inevitable consequence of abandoning traditional norms. On the surface that argument appears to be motivated by a respect for women – but at the same time, on a perhaps more subtle level, that argument amounts to using the threat of rape to control women. That’s what rape culture is. In traditional societies, women are compliant and that threat is not carried out. In American society, women are non-compliant, and the threat is carried out. That’s not an argument for compliance.

***

As for Adria Richards, she has been given rape and death threats for tweeting a photo of two guys who were making jokes of a sexual nature at a tech conference. This whole scenario seems like it would also be very unlikely to happen in Georgia. In America there is a certain amount of debate over whether or not it is right or appropriate for men to make sexual jokes in the company of women. In Georgia, there is no such debate. Such behavior is unacceptable, and if a woman chooses to publicly call out a stranger who engages in that behavior, she would be virtually guaranteed to have the support of the crowd.

Of course there are caveats. The injunction against making off-color commentary around women is clearly an example of romantic paternalism, and if you want to know why that might be problematic, go ahead and follow that link. The quote at the top is from this court case. The gist is that the attitude that women should be spared sexual remarks often goes hand in hand with that attitude that women shouldn’t be in places where sexual remarks might be made, such as traditionally male-dominated fields of employment.

Georgia seems to have dodged that bullet – I never hear of Georgian men complaining about women entering traditionally-male fields, or complaining about having to restrain themselves in their comments because of the presence of women. If anything Georgian men are proud to live in a society with nominal, if not actual, equality of employment opportunity. We’ll see if that situation lasts as more women enter more fields – and if it does, I might just have to bite the bullet and acknowledge that maybe Georgian men really do have something to teach Americans about respecting women.

***

So of course, I think there are things we can learn from each other. Georgia and the US are at somewhat different stages of the same general cultural shift – towards more fair and equitable societies – and it helps to compare notes. Not so that one culture can copy the other’s – Georgia doesn’t want America’s rape culture any more than America wants Georgia’s paternalistic one – but so that we can gain deeper insight into the challenges and solutions that societies face and learn from each other’s successes and mistakes.

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9 Responses to Rape Culture vs. Traditional Culture

  1. Hmmm..... says:

    THANK YOU! I hate when people just blindly think that Georgia (or any other place that’s not Western Europe, Australia, Canada and the U.S.) is just this super-macho society that doesn’t let women do anything. Don’t get me wrong – Georgia’s super macho, but it’s not as extreme as people make it out to be. In Georgia it’s pretty normal for a women to have a job and also a family. In the U.S., I hear people ask if women “can have it all” (i.e. a good career and a family). That sort of question would be absurd in Georgia – if anything, it’s more common there (and has been for a long time) than here. That’s one thing communism got right.

    One another note, do you think that these two cases could also be due to how stressed individualism is in America? I always heard Americans say you should look after yourself, and independence and the ability to “handle it yourself” are pushed onto kids from an early age. Do you think people thought “well Adria should have just talked to them privately and get over it herself” or “that girl in Ohio needed to know her limits – this is what happens when you can’t take care of yourself.” I see that people in this country can be so individualistic that they don’t even want to ask for help sometimes; it’s quite sad. I think this cult of independence makes people more lonely and more isolated; humans are social animals, we need warmth and help. Just my two cents.

    • panoptical says:

      I do agree with you broadly that America as a society needs to focus more on how we can shift the burden from the individual to the society in cases like this, so that everyone feels responsible for and capable of stopping harassment, rape, and in general for taking better care of each other. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a matter of individualism vs. collectivism, but it certainly a problem of collective action.

  2. Hmmm..... says:

    Also, I think the feminist movement made U.S. men more confused when it came to gender roles – they’re told to treat men and women as equals, and to a lot of men this means talking about sexual matters with and in front of women. The problem is that some women don’t mind while others do, and the ones that don’t mind often say “well, I’m a woman and I don’t find it offensive. Get over yourself. Feminism sucks bla bla bla” and men think “well, she’s a woman she doesn’t care. That must mean the women who DO care have something wrong with themselves.” Because, you know, feminism is where humor goes to die and whatnot.

    The media isn’t helping either – have you heard the uncensored versions of rap songs? It’s absolutely gross and very explicit, but it’s the norm now. A lot of women love it too! It’s surreal.

    • panoptical says:

      I don’t think I agree with that. Feminists have been pretty clear about the idea that sexual jokes in the workplace are not acceptable, and harassment law has been caught up with that idea for decades. If some people choose to reduce their understanding of feminism to the proposition that men and women be treated exactly equal, the problem is that they aren’t listening, not that the message is unclear.*

      Besides, sexual jokes don’t only make women uncomfortable – there are plenty of men who don’t like these jokes or feel comfortable around them, it’s just that we’re told, starting from a very early age, that society expects us to get comfortable with them, whereas women are taught to see them as threats. Having a just society doesn’t mean we treat everyone with equal disrespect, it means we find ways to make our society feel welcoming to every participant in it.

      *I should add that there are a few high-profile individuals, like Stephen Pinker, who have deceived the public about feminism and espoused the idea that feminism is equivalent to simply treating men and women in a gender-blind manner. In Pinker’s case I think this is due to a combination of ego, confirmation bias, and intellectual laziness – and I think that anyone, male or female, who chooses to base their understanding of feminism on the word of someone like Pinker is guilty of the same. Virtually every American university has a department devoted to the study of feminism and gender issues, and the internet’s free resources are of high quality. There’s no excuse, in 2013, to be ignorant enough to think that “equity feminism” is a real thing.

      • Hmmm...... says:

        I agree that feminism has been clear on that sexual jokes and lewdness are not OK to make about/around women, but what I’m saying is that a lot of men either didn’t get it or they distorted the message to fit their beliefs. That goes for some women as well, since some are very anti-feminism and blame feminism for everything.

        Do you think widespread acceptance of feminism is feasible anytime soon in the U.S.? From what I see a lot of people are still very hostile to it.

        • panoptical says:

          I think that feminists have been very effective at making progress in society and the enemies of feminism have been very effective at scaremongering about the feminist agenda. The thing is, since anti-feminists generally don’t paint a realistic picture of what feminism is, people end up opposing “feminism” in name while more or less being okay with 90% of what feminism has accomplished.

          If you ask the average person in America if women should be allowed to vote, own property, work in bars, go to college, drive cars, etc., they’d say yes with no hesitation. These are battles feminists have fought.

          Women have just been allowed to serve in combat positions in the US military. Women are still fighting for equal pay for equal work, for access to birth control, for laws and social habits that prevent rape and domestic abuse, and for the end of the double standard that rewards men and punishes women for being sexually active. Most people agree, more or less, that women should have these rights and protections, and a lot of the opposition comes not because people are opposed in principle, but because these things are hard to do in practice and people who are struggling just to get by don’t want to have to pay extra money or observe extra rules just to give some women some marginal benefits.

          So even though feminism is a dirty word in some circles, the direction the US is moving in is to slowly but steadily embrace feminist ideals and then subsequently implement policies to make them a reality. It just takes a lot of time.

  3. Billy Bob says:

    Minor complaint, you didn’t link to an article explaining who and what the Adria Richards scandal was all about. The Adria Richards story was a much more accurate description and explanation of the differences between American and Georgian cultures, especially in relation to gender roles and expectations.

    The Steubenville case is more than about rape – to me it’s an example of the extreme asshole-dom of portions of America.

    There’s a lot of small towns in America where the if something like Steubenville had taken place, there’d be no need for lawyers. Football players or not, they’d be taken out one by one. Could you picture Steubenville happening in Oklahoma? There would be blood.

    Maybe it’s just a stereotype, but i’d always heard that the PA/NJ/Ohio/NY corridor was the most absolute backwards regarding relations between the sexes.

    Just a thought.

  4. lefteyelooking says:

    The Steubenville rape case reminded me of the Coach Sandusky case in Pennsylvania, in that the sports machine and the of championing sports were considered more important than ethics and morals. So people in Ohio were angry that young boys were being called rapists when they are, in fact, rapists and Pennsylvanians were angry that Sandusky was being called a pedophile (or child rapist) when that is what he is. The United States has a long way to go with many things, but especially how the cult of celebrity (even local small town celebs) and sports worship are prized above all. It’s a sexism problem, misogynist, and it’s also a sign of a moral decline in the culture. I blame the parents for not teaching their sons in the Steubenville case, how to act like human beings. I blame the coaches, school administration, and parents for preferring a winning coach, Sandusky, over the life of an underage boy whose life has been ruined.

    As for sexism and misogyny in the US vs Georgia and other non-Western parts of the world; sexism and misogyny are everywhere just like other social ills. The US just dresses sexism and misogyny up in better clothing and PC language to soothe the masses whereas Georgian sexism and misogyny is blatant and out in the open. I don’t like either version it.

    Iceland is the only country (lesbian head of state), other than Sweden that has really made a dent in the culture that is significant to alleviating the stress caused by gender inequality and putting and end to sexism.

    Interesting fact, neither the US or Georgia have had a female president. Something for all of us to remember.

    Argentina and Brazil (Latin and Catholic countries) have female presidents. Even Turkey had a female head of state. Thailand has more female CEO and CFO’s than in the US.

    Some food for thought…..maybe the US isn’t as culturally and socially advanced as it think it is? The US needs to quit patting itself on the back with so much self-congratulation.

  5. “It’s true that eliminating the opportunity for rape by keeping men and women physically separated prevents some rapes.” Yup, but when a woman violates those cultural barriers, it almost guarantees that she will be susceptible to rape and receive no sympathy for it if it does happen. I lived in Georgia for over a year, and many times I was treated like a free-sex-vending-machine because I was a foreign girl out drinking and having a good time in Tbilisi. Enough that I quickly learned to stop going out without a “male chaperone”.

    I think this whole idea of Georgian culture preventing rape (or any misfortune) through paternalism is described nicely by Tamar Vashakidze as “The Invisible Hand– Benevolent Sexism?” in her TEDx Tbilisi discussion:

    Thank you for writing about this topic!

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