The Context of Rape and Sexual Assault
Women and Rape
Historically, violence against women has been associated with beliefs that women are not equal to men and therefore do not have the same rights. This was apparent, for example, in their lack of the rights to voting and education. In relation to marriage, women were regarded as property exchanged in marriage arrangements. Young women were seen as property of their father and when marrying, they became the property of their husband. Virginity was an integral part of this “property deal”. Until the fifteenth century, bride capture was seen as an acceptable way of acquiring a wife. After a man raped a woman he was able to take her as his wife. In ancient Babylonian society, the price of brides was lower if they were not virgins. If a daughter was raped before marriage, it was considered a crime against her father, as he would receive less money in the marriage deal.
The blame and responsibility that is frequently put on victims/survivors of rape and sexual assault can also be traced back to historical roots. Under Hebrew law, a woman who was raped within the city was stoned to death with the rapist, as the belief was that she could have escaped or screamed. If the rape occurred outside the city walls, it was assumed that her cries for help were unheard. Therefore the victim/survivor had to marry the rapist and her father was financially compensated. If she was already promised to another man, the rapist was stoned to death and the woman sold for a lower price. If the victim/survivor was married, it was considered adultery and she and the rapist were stoned to death.
Medieval common law in Britain had similar traditions: A woman who had been raped was required to cry and carry on and show torn clothing to men of good repute. If she failed to do this immediately, the allegation was dismissed and she was prosecuted for making a false allegation.
(Mason, 2001; Macleod, 2000; pubweb 1999)
As women were considered the property of their father, and upon marriage, their husband. Rape within marriage was not regarded as a criminal offence until recent times.
Under South Australian law, the legal definition of rape was that “of having sexual intercourse with a woman, not one’s wife, without her consent”. In 1976 changes were made to the Criminal Law Consolidation Act 1935 of South Australia. These changes made rape within marriage an offence and extended the definition of rape to include penetration of the anus of a man or woman without his or her consent. Current law includes penetration of other parts of the body and covers oral and anal rape. Although, in recent times, the law in relation to rape has changed, many myths and misconceptions are still widely held in the community. For example, victims/survivors do not need to demonstrate physical resistance for the assault to be legally defined as rape, but many people may think that "she didn't fight back, so it couldn't have been rape", or "he didn't have a weapon so it can't be rape".
Many of the beliefs underlying these historical traditions are still prevalent in our communities. Some people still believe that women cannot be raped. Many victims/survivors are blamed or held responsible for what happened. It is still very difficult for victims/survivors to receive justice through the legal system. These traditions of thought serve to silence victims/survivors and make it hard for them to speak out and seek help. In addition, these traditions do not invite perpetrators to take responsibility for the crimes they have committed.
Men and Rape
As in female rape, the inequality in power is reflected in the history of male rape. In Greek mythology stories of the abduction of males for the purpose of sexual abuse are documented, for example, when Zeus the king of the Gods abducted Ganymede for sexual purposes. In other societies the rape of males who were defeated in battle was a common practice. Gang rape of men was committed by the Romans as the ultimate punishment and humiliation for adultery and by the Iranians for violation of the sanctity of the harem (http://www.ai.mit.edu/people/ellens/SPR/docs/malerape.html
). During World War I, Lawrence of Arabia was raped by the Turks, who were well known for this custom. Until recent times the rape of men was not punishable under law as the definition of rape reflected a male perpetrator and a female victim. With the introduction of a broader definition of rape, in 1976 male rape was recognised as a criminal offence in South Australia.
Feminist Analysis of Rape and Sexual Assault
Feminist explanations locate the cause of this crime within society. They suggest that the crime of rape and sexual assault is a crime of power. Rape and sexual assault is an abuse of power, which:
- is a result of unequal power between perpetrator and victim;
- reinforces the inequality of power in this relationship; and
- reinforces the inequality of power between men and women.
Feminist theory focuses on the wider picture of women living in a society which is dominated by men. Rape and sexual assault is seen as one of the ways in which men enact their dominance in a violent way over women, children and other men. It rejects ideas that rape results from sexual attraction or from the way victims/survivors dress or behave.
When looking at our society, and indeed, globally, men are in the most powerful positions in social, political, legal, economic, military and religious institutions. The dominance of men leads to patriarchal societies in which men make the rules and the laws. These rules and laws are structured in ways that uphold the status quo and thus the powerful positions of men. As a result, there is systemic and structural discrimination of women and other vulnerable and marginalised groups in society. These inequalities lead to increased vulnerability and negative social, economic and health outcomes for marginalised and disadvantaged groups. In regards to rape and sexual assault, this means increased vulnerability to become a victim/survivor of rape or sexual assault and to disadvantages when dealing with health, legal and other social systems.
There is strong evidence that a significant proportion of men - and some women - still believe that it is alright for a man to force a woman to have sex, whether she wants to or not.
Three research projects have been carried out in different areas of South Australia, involving over 1000 young men. About one third of them could identify situations in which they believe that it is OK for a man to “force a woman to have sex”. The circumstances include:
- they have had sex together before;
- she has had sex with other men before;
- she has let him touch her ‘above the waist’;
- she has let him touch her ‘below the waist’;
- he has spent a lot of money on her.
(Family Planning South Australia, 1997)
These attitudes are often referred to as men’s sense of sexual entitlement. People who hold these beliefs may think it is their right to force a woman to have sex and they use these attitudes as excuses for their behaviour.
Socio-Political and Cultural Context of Rape
With changes in society, values, beliefs and practices about the nature of rape and responses to this crime change as well. The broader reformist and feminist movement in the 1970's challenged traditional roles of women and, to a lesser degree, of men. Women began to actively participate in legal, health and political systems. Issues such as domestic violence and rape that used to be regarded as personal issues, were increasingly located in the political and societal context. Attitudes to seeking help changed with the growth of self help groups and services were developed to assist powerless and disadvantaged groups in society
Despite these developments rape and sexual assault is still a topic that is not openly talked about in our community. Many survivors find it difficult to tell friends and family for fear of being blamed. The media contributes to this silencing by writing articles or making comments that perpetuate myths and misconceptions that locate the responsibility for the rape or sexual assault with victims/survivors. The tensions in relation to this issue are also reflected in the struggle between silencing and acknowledgment of victims/survivors by public and religious institutions.
The cultural and linguistic diversity in Australia means that in addition to societal factors, cultural factors will need to be considered when exploring issues relating to rape and sexual assault. What is understood as rape and sexual assault varies in diverse communities. The understanding of the nature of rape and sexual assault in turn determines the responses of the specific community to victims/survivors, their families and perpetrators. The silence surrounding this crime is greater in some cultures, particularly when rape and sexual assault are perceived at bringing shame on victims/survivors and their families