Men too must work to take back the night

October 19, 2007

With rape going unpunished, we must reshape the law and attitudes to masculinity and violence, says Joanna Bourke. Sensuality is a source of delight. At least that was what I had assumed as a young child - before sex educationists in my school associated sex with images of disgusting venereal abscesses and threats of violence. Alarming tales about rapacious penises took some of the uncomplicated joy out of my early heterosexual explorations.

Hard-nosed statistics hardly reassured. Depending on the definition, between one in four and one in female friends of mine will at some stage in their lives either be forced into having sex or be raped.

Part of the problem is that the legal system has failed to adequately deal with the scourge of sexual violence. Currently, only 5 per cent of rapes reported to the police in the UK end in a conviction. This appalling rate of conviction is almost unprecedented in Europe. In fact, only Ireland has a lower conviction rate. Furthermore, the situation is getting worse. In 1977, one in three reported rapes resulted in a conviction. Today, it is one in 20. Men are getting away with rape.

These statistics are frightening. They are often used deliberately to make women take precautions against the risk of being the next person harmed. Earlier generations of feminists tackled the problem head-on. In the 19th century, feminists were keen to portray women as resilient in the face of sexual violence. Social purity and temperance campaigners, for instance, hoped to encourage male continence and end male brutality towards women. "Votes for Women" would empower women, forcing politicians to take heed.

From the 1970s, a new generation of feminists emerged with a powerful critique of patriarchal institutions and customs. By emphasising the devastating effects of power structures on women's emotional and psychological development, they ignited a revolution. One effect, however, was an increasing emphasis on pervasive female victimisation. While passionately committed to resisting oppressive male institutions, many second-wave feminists drew attention to female emotional and psychic fragility in the face of injurious social structures.

Paradoxically, the very success of their campaigns has created difficulties for their successors. While second-wave feminists had organised themselves into political collectives, women in recent years have used their newfound freedoms (albeit still partial) to forge more individualistic paths to power and self-fulfilment. Notions of female victimisation have become disengaged from earlier assertions of collective female agency. Feminist camaraderie has vanished. Rape certainly has not.

More to the point, assuming that (all) women must pay for the crimes committed by (some) men is ridiculous. Obviously, there is an urgent need to reform the legal system so that more rapists are identified, convicted and punished for their crimes. A more thorough rethinking of the law of sexual abuse and rape is also required. Indeed, because of the legal assumption that the male acts (proposes or attempts sex), while the female simply reacts (by uttering a "yes" or "no"), the very notion of consent situates a woman as subordinate. The law is coded masculine, through and through. No piecemeal reforms will be able to change this fact.

Even more important than legal reform, though, we need to acknowledge that rape is a crisis of manliness. In the final analysis, political attempts to reduce and finally eliminate sexual aggression require a rethinking of masculinity.

We need to ask: who are these people who opt to deliberately inflict pain in sexual encounters? If we are to understand and eradicate sexual violence in our communities, we must train a steely gaze on the guilty parties.

The vast majority of these abusers are male. A disturbingly large proportion of men seriously believes that there are some circumstances in which "no" means "yes". It is cultural forces that provide excuses and rationalisations that men use to justify sexual violence. In other words, rape is a form of social performance. It is highly ritualised. It varies between countries; it changes over time. There is nothing timeless or random about it. The narratives and rites involved in sexual abuse are embedded in humdrum practices, everyday knowledges. Rapists are not born; they become.

Of course, sexual aggression is not innate to masculine identity. There is nothing "natural" about men's violence. Sexually aggressive men in modern Western society don't bolster manliness but actually enervate male power regimes. Rapists are not patriarchy's "shock troops", but its inadequate spawn. Rape is a crisis of manliness; its eradication is a matter for men - for a radically different conception of agency and masculinity. A politics of masculinity that focuses on a man's body as a site of pleasure (for others and for himself), as opposed to an instrument of oppression and pain, demands a renewed focus on male comportment, imagery and agency. Within a masculinist society, men are also harmed every time one of their brothers abuses some other person. Men, too, must struggle for a more equitable world.

- Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London. Her book, Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present , is published by Virago, £25.

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