I was thinking about the term “rape culture” before Rehtaeh Parsons died. I thought about it last month, for example, when Gurmeet “Bill” Bhangal was convicted of sexually assaulting an employee. The 47-year-old Brampton, Ont., businessman forced his tongue into an 18-year-old’s mouth and groped her under her clothes. He was technically found guilty, but his sentence was a farce. A judge felt that the incident was “not as serious as it could have been” and that Mr. Bhangal had done many “good things.” Mr. Bhangal is now under a meaningless four-month house arrest that allows him out every weekday, plus Saturdays, Sundays and Tuesday and Friday nights. Meanwhile, like Rehtaeh Parsons before her, the young woman is said to be suicidal.
My heart broke for her, just before it broke for Rehtaeh Parsons, and just after it broke for a 16 year old assaulted by two teen football players in Steubenville, Ohio. All three stories stoked my fury: At the perpetrators of these crimes, and the institutions and communities that want to look the other way. All three stories also resulted in a sharp uptick in the use of the term “rape culture” in articles and online discussions by people who, like me, are trying to sort out this rage- and despair-inducing mess.
With all due respect to them, I’m not sure what “rape culture” meaningfully means. To the angry cabal in my Twitter timeline, it seems to mean everything from tasteless jokes by stand-up comedian Daniel Tosh, to the RCMP’s delay in arresting serial killer Robert Pickton, to child brides in Afghanistan. I suppose that’s the point, that “rape culture” highlights an ever-present threat, but I think the term is too huge to be useful. “Rape culture” is insider jargon for those who already agree, an argumentative firework that explodes with sad anger, leaving only an obscuring cloud of smoke. Put another way, “rape culture” is bad branding.
That’s not a trite thing to say: Other good causes have benefitted from strong messaging. Drunk driving is a formerly tolerated act that’s become acknowledged as a repulsive crime, in large part through smart use of words and pictures. Arrests in Canada, and fatalities in the U.S., have dropped by about half since the 1980s, when Mothers Against Drunk Driving began airing explicit ads identifying the perpetrators, victims, and human costs of drunk driving. It was a specific message, with specific goals. Voting against blood alcohol limits could break a politician’s career. Bereaved families and injured victims made their stories public, and were met with overwhelming compassion. (I’d never ask a sexual assault victim to do the same, since those who do often receive hateful vitriol, but coming out has also helped lesbians and gay men win their human rights.)
One huge success of anti-drunk driving campaigns was the targeting of bystanders, those who stood by and did nothing after someone who’d had too much got behind the wheel. Again, the message was direct – letting dinner party guests drive home after a boozy feast made you culpable. If they hurt themselves, or someone else, you were guilty, too.
When it comes to drunk driving, everyone decent now takes the bystander’s responsibility seriously, but focusing on the amorphous cloud that is “rape culture” slows adoption of this action-based tactic in the sphere of sex assault. I have no idea how to end rape as a war crime. I do think we can teach bystander responsibility to teens like those in Ohio and (allegedly) Nova Scotia, who passed around pictures of a horrific act rather than report it.
In Ontario, a coalition of rape crisis centres is currently promoting “Draw The Line,” a campaign aimed at reducing the instance of sexual assault by known assailants (date and spousal rape, in other words). Draw the Line tries not to label all men as potential rapists and all women as potential victims: instead, everyone is a potential bystander to sexual violence, with that same heavy responsibility.
The language is simple, and free of jargon. “A friend sends you a naked picture of a naked girl he knows. Is it a big deal to share it with others?” one question asks. Website users can click yes or no, see what other people responded, and learn why an action that seems benign might be hurtful and wrong. The campaign is most successful when it’s clear, outlining exact scenarios and actions.
It’s less helpful when it asks whether I’d listen to “a singer who assaulted his girlfriend” and tsk-tsks that doing so is, yes, “rape culture.” I’m assuming that particular question alludes to musician Chris Brown, although his attack on Rihanna (four years ago) never included accusations of rape. Sure, he seems like an abhorrent scumbag, but in this conversation he’s a red herring, allowing us to meander off on tangents about people who stay with their abusers, whether looking at leaked police photos is okay, and S&M themed song lyrics as appropriate healing. If the singer in question isn’t Chris Brown, I’ve wasted three sentences talking about him. In attempting to get macro, a straightforward message with deliberate actions once again gets blurred.
Drunk driving injuries used to be a cause of individual grief for individual families, before a targeted message identified each of our responsibilities in a way that made ignorance impossible. I believe that a similar, equally seismic shift could happen with acquaintance rape, but not through swirling discussions of an inescapable, ever-shifting “rape culture.” Rehtaeh Parsons and a teenage girl in Brampton have already been overwhelmed by the hugeness of their pain. Our duty to them is to stay on topic.
Denise Balkissoon is a Toronto writer and co-editor of The Ethnic Aisle, a blog about ethnic and cultural pluralism in the Greater Toronto Area.