Is rape universal?

I just read a fascinating article by Christine Helliwell, who asks the question: is rape a universal phenomenon? She proves that it is not, using her ethnographic research in Indonesia. She also criticizes western feminism for not only universalizing rape, but universalizing the threat and effects of rape. She asks: “Why does a woman of Gerai see a penis as lacking in power to harm her, while I, a white Australian/New Zealand woman, am so ready to see it as having the capacity to defile, to humanize, to subjugate and, ultimately, to destroy me?” It all started when she was talking to a woman from Gerai who said: “Tin, it’s only a penis. How can a penis hurt anyone?”

Peggy Reeves has shown that while rape happens widely throughout the world, it is by no means a human universal: some societies can indeed be classified as rape free.” There are 2 reasons for the universalization of rape among western feminists: so deep is the fear of western women of rape, they anticipate the possibility of rape everywhere – rape comes to be understood simply as part of the “natural” human condition; and second, because the practice is widespread in “civilized” western countries, it is assumed to pervade all other societies as well, since these latter are understood as located closer to the savagery end of the evolutionary ladder. Under this logic, practices deemed oppressive to women that are not commonly found in the west, such as clitoridectomy and sati, are explained as resulting from the barbarism of Third World peoples, while oppressive practices that are common in the west, such as rape, are explained in universalistic terms.

Even the view that women everywhere are oppressed has been critiqued by anthropologists. In some societies, while men and women may perform different roles and occupy different spaces, they are nevertheless equals in value, status and power. Moreover, notions such as “inequality” and “domination” cannot necessarily be applied in societies with very different conceptions of agency and personhood (Strathern).

The western emphasis on sexual difference is a product of the heterosexualization of desire within western societies over the past few centuries, which “requires and institutes the production of discrete and asymmetrical oppositions between “feminine” and “masculine” where these are understood as expressive attributes of “male” and “female” (Butler).

The act of rape “feminizes” women in western settings, so that the entire female body comes to be symbolized by the vagina, itself conceived of as a delicate, perhaps inevitably damaged and pained inner space (Marcus).

One of the main arguments is that by painting rape as such a brutal act, we are making it powerful; whereas in some societies, rape (and the penis) are not given that much power and therefore they do not have the potential to hurt women the way they do in the west. If everything is a social construction, then so is the construction of rape as an act that can literally tear a woman apart and end her life. What if we saw it differently? I’m not sure how I feel about this argument. I, too, have been socialized to see rape as the worst thing that can happen to me as a woman. However, I do find this argument fascinating, especially the fact that not all societies see rape as something bad and destructive! Not to say that it is seen as good, but rather that it is not given the power and significance that allows it to end a woman’s life.

I have not finished the article yet, so I will write a second post about it once I’m done. Here are the aims of the article:

First, in providing an account of a community in which rape does not occur, I aim to give them lie to the widespread assumption that rape is universal and thus to invite western feminists to interrogate the basis of our own tendency to take its universality for granted. Second, by exploring understandings of sex and gender in a community that stresses identity rather than difference, I aim to demonstrate that western beliefs in the “sexed” character of specifically western gendering and sexual regimes. And since the practice of rape in western societies is profoundly linked to these beliefs, I will suggest that it is an inseparable part of such regimes.


8 thoughts on “Is rape universal?

  1. almostclever

    I hear you saying that rape does not HAVE to be traumatizing, as many of us westerners have been taught to view it as.. I agree with this and it was part of a discussion I was having just recently with a professor of mine.

    If a woman comes in saying she was part of a sexual act that she didn’t really want, but that she takes responsibility in the act also – essentially seeing it as both people’s fault and not seeing it as rape; are we supposed to tell her she experienced a trauma?

    The answer is no, as hard as that may be for some people to accept. Why create a trauma for someone that they do not view as such?

    If a woman drinks too much and by all definitions is “raped,” but she doesn’t see it that way, and is not expressing signs of trauma – are we supposed to make her see it as such?

    I think this is essentially what work out of Indonesia is showing about women’s resiliency.. It is not traumatizing for them (in general) and maybe we should stop seeing it as such for every woman, instead looking at the individual, their level of resiliency and how they see and feel about what happened; not what we assume or see.

    Rape is rape when we see it as such, it is not about the actual experience itself, but how we process it. I disagree with her claims a bit as if Indonesian women cannot be raped and western women all are traumatized and spreading some kind of vile message to the world about rape – but I can see the importance in what she is trying to convey.

    1. Very interesting example!! It is so interesting to hear women reject the idea that they have been raped, and in the end this is very liberating for them!

      I think for the Indonesian women it is not even about resiliency. The act of rape just doesn’t exist. It’s not that they are being raped but are refusing to be affected by it: they are NOT being raped. Mind blowing!!

      Hope you enjoy part 2 🙂

  2. I don’t know if I understood the writer. Is she trying to say that rape is a Western-constructed phenomenon? What about the punishment for rape and its recognition in ancient religions? Mahabharat is based around the suspected rape of Sita. There are punishments for rape in Islam.

    “The act of rape “feminizes” women in western settings, so that the entire female body comes to be symbolized by the vagina, itself conceived of as a delicate, perhaps inevitably damaged and pained inner space (Marcus).”

    That is disturbing. What about young boys who are raped? What about women who are raped repeatedly like those kidnapped and kept as sex slaves in Austria?

    Maybe I misunderstood her article.

    Look forward to your next post, Sara and thanks for sharing this. Really interesting!

    1. She’s saying that rape does not have the same effect universally – in the west it is constructed as even worse than assault – it is THE worst thing that can happen to a woman. Rape exists in non-western cultures as well, of course. It would be interesting to see how she would address that.

      The act of rape can still feminize women, even though it is also enacted against young boys, etc. I do agree with her that rape serves to enhance the binary between men and women.

      Hope you enjoy part 2 🙂

    2. @sara Interesting article… I cant agree with you wholly on this… however it was still an interesting concept to read about
      @Metis Just a correction – Mahabharat is based on the Suspected(implied) rape of Draupadi. not Sita.
      Sita is from the hindu epic – Ramayan.

  3. Fascinating. I think that some of the commentators are confused. The claim is NOT that rape exists only in the US (any more than burglary exists only in the US). Rather the claim is that whether rape is seen – and perhaps even felt by victims – as extremely traumatic or not is not universal, and some cultures consider it worse than others. Perhaps “Is Rape Universally Traumatic?” would’ve been a better title.

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