‘Rape culture’ is the social practices, public and private discourses, and beliefs that enable us as individuals and a community to ignore sexualized violence against women and fail to attribute appropriate blame and punishment to perpetrators. Rape culture at its most innocuous passively enables sexualized violence and at its worst reproduces, condones, or encourages it. It is victim-blaming and ‘slut’-shaming; it is collective skepticism and minimization of accounts of rape and the objectification of women’s bodies. It is more than gendered power structures; rape culture exploits other forms of social power – including race, class, sexuality, and ability (Buchwald, Fletcher, and Roth). The implications are far-reaching. Communities with high rates of sexualized violence tend also to be defined by male domination and male control over resources (Boswell and Spade).
Rape culture operates and persists at a range of social sites, including pop culture and advertising, law enforcement, the judicial system, and education. But does rape culture play a role in politics? Does it shape political competition, discourse, or debate? It does. Rape culture is both pervasive and dangerously absent in politics. How can something be both present and absent? Rape culture informs discourses around women politicians and discussions of sexualized violence, while also contributing to a notable silence and lack of reflection about the ways that society enables such oppression.
Examples of rape culture in politics are commonplace. In 1982, when she rose in the House of Commons to speak about domestic violence, BC NDP Member of Parliament Margaret Mitchell was greeted by jeers, taunts, and laughs from her male colleagues. In 1984 Liberal Leader John Turner described himself as a “tactile politician” when confronted by public criticism of his touching Party President Iona Campagnolo’s rear during the federal election campaign (she, incidentally, responded by returning the favour). In 2011, British Columbia Premier Christy Clarke’s cleavage sparked media discussion when former New Democrat MLA, now political pundit, David Schreck questioned whether her attire was appropriate. Unsure whether these incidences constitute examples of rape culture in our politics? Try to imagine a woman initiating a familiar pat on the posterior of a male colleague or a tweet mentioning the tightness of a male MP ‘s pants. Ask whether such real life incidents reproduce or at the least leave unchallenged the violence or threat of it, with assumptions of male entitlement that define rape culture. They do.
The objectification of and focus on women’s bodies (portrayed as flawed, unacceptable, and available) remains a staple in politics. Diamond Isinger’s startling Tumbler site “Madame Premier” has highlighted the misogynous comments on sexuality and appearance directed at Canada’s record number of female premiers. Many are violent and most are obscene, crude, and vulgar. Offenders extend well beyond social media. During the 2013 GOP convention in the USA, where, ironically, reaching out to a key constituency of women voters was supposedly on the Republican agenda, one vendor sold campaign buttons that attacked and deconstructed Hillary Clinton’s body. The “KFC Hillary Special” reduced her to “two fat thighs, two small breasts, left wing”. While partisans can be expected to target threatening potential opponents, the attack focused on Clinton’s gender and simmered with implied violence. And as one student writer put it – no one compared previous Democratic contender, John Kerry, to fries and gravy (Zurevinski).
Recent Australian politics is no better. In 2013, a candidate for the Liberal Party hosted a fundraiser dinner with a menu item titled “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail: Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & a Big Red Box.” Prime Minister Gillard’s body was deconstructed while her Labour rival Kevin Rudd attracted attention solely for his political failings. The menu contained “Rudd’s a goose fois gras”, subtitled “we were going to serve the Swan fois gras this evening, thought it lost when we put it to a vote”. Although outstanding for its particular level of vulgarity, the fundraiser was not the only time Gillard was reduced to body parts during her time in office: one broadcaster had earlier characterized her as a “lying cow” and a “horrible mouth on legs”. Then Liberal opposition leader and now Prime Minister Tony Abbott positioned himself to speak before anti-carbon tax signs reading “Ditch the Witch” and “Julia: Bob Brown’s Bitch,” the latter reducing Gillard to the sexual toy of a powerful man. Elsewhere the CEO of an Australian agriculture company advertised his commercial equipment as “designed for non-productive old cows … Julia Gillard’s got to watch out.” Implied violence was ubiquitous.
Even when women’s political choices provoke debate, rape culture is evident: political actions are often allegorized as sexual and slut-shaming is used to demean political decisions. When Toronto Conservative MP Belinda Stronach crossed the floor to the Liberal Party in 2005, much commentary focused on her relationship with Conservative Peter Mackay: one headline reported “Stronach leaves boyfriend as well as Tories”. She was called a “blond bombshell” and “an attractive dipstick” out and about breaking hearts. In essence, Stronach was a slut for changing political allegiances: “I said that she whored herself out for power, that’s what she did,” confirmed Tony Abbott, a Christian fundamentalist minister and Alberta MLA. In dismissing Stronach, a Saskatchewan Tory MP told the Regina Leader-Post that “some people prostitute themselves for different costs or different prices.” Given the important cues political parties provide voters, floor crossings always invoke condemnation but Stronach’s targeting was a visceral attack on her as a woman, without semblance of reasoned political debate. In 2013, in a similar demonstration of misogyny, one radio host unrepentantly labeled Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath a ‘whore’ for dealing with the minority Liberal government. When someone objected to the term, the host replied “What do you mean? She was bought”. Her political tactics were assumed equivalent to sexual actions: made in exchange for political goods they made her a prostitute. Horwath herself has fallen into the same trap, further confirming the normality of sexist political discourse. When asked why her party did not release their full platform all at once during the 2011 Ontario provincial election, she replied “Look, I’m a woman…I know you don’t give it all up at once.”
It is hard to imagine comparable treatment of male behavior. Did anyone reduce BC’s David Emerson’s switch from the Liberals to the Conservatives a mere two weeks after the 2006 election to sexual indiscretion? Was strategic maneuvering by Conservative Stephen Harper, NDP Jack Layton, or Liberals Paul Martin, Stephane Dion, and Michael Ignatieff during the seven years of minority governments (2004-2011) construed as sexual philandering? Their changing allegiances, tactical talking points, and behind the scenes deal-making were portrayed as tough party politics and plays for power not prostitution.
The rape culture of politics does not restrict itself to gender. As University of Toronto political science professor Erin Tolley argues, race (and for that matter sexual orientation and class) always interact. Minority women encounter not only preoccupation with their appearance and sexuality but an exoticization of their person and, often, politics (Tolley, 2013). After the 2011 election, New Democratic MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan (Scarborough—Rouge River) attracted international coverage not so much for her politics but for her Parliamentary headshot. “Too Hot For Politics?” asked London, UK’s Daily Mail after the cleavage of the 29-year-olds was photo-shopped out of her official picture. In 2009, former Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla (who was defeated in the 2011 election) was judged to have “undeniable Bollywood-actress good looks”. One article began its “Ten things you should know about Ruby Dhalla” with the phrase, “young, single and fond of stiletto heels and figure-hugging pencil skirts” (Taber, 2009). Revealingly, the current (2014) online version of the article features Dhalla only from the neck down, a shot reminiscent of advertising which uses women’s bodies merely as objectified props. Minority sexual orientation offers similar opportunities to express rape culture. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynn, Canada’s first openly gay premier (of either gender), has been subject to criticism of her appearance and sexuality simultaneously – one tweeter commented that she “doesn’t want an election. She doesn’t want an erection either” (Madame Premier). Political decisions by women are construed as wanting ‘it’ too much or not enough. In either case, their political autonomy is undermined and their use of political power policed.
The language of rape culture also shadows parliaments. A recent report surveyed MPs on the heckling they encountered and the impact it has on their participation in debate (2011). Gender was a significant basis for the jeers. Liberal front-bencher (1984-2004) Shelia Copps reported the recurring use of the slut epithet, while an anonymous NDP MP said a Conservative backbencher used the c-word to heckle her. In the United Kingdom, when the Labour Party elected a record number of women in 1997, they were familiarly termed “Blair’s Babes” and occasionally worse, with some Conservative MPs “put[ting] their hands in front of them as if they were weighing melons” (as reported in Childs, 2003).
The effect of rape culture is also evident in how rape is talked about and when it is not. During the 2012 American election campaign, Tea Party candidate Todd Akin infamously (and wildly inaccurately) stated that abortion wasn’t an issue in cases of rape because “From what I understand from doctors… if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” His statement echoed dangerous myths – that if women do get pregnant it wasn’t sexual assault and, perhaps more generally and troubling, that some and maybe even most rapes may somehow not be ‘legitimate’ – women were asking for it, enjoyed it, or had consented whether by dress, drink, or previous consent. A few months later, Indiana GOP U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock said that when rape resulted in conception (suggesting at least it can happen), God intended it to happen. Not only men but god(s) it seemed conspire to violate women.
Just as significant as its repeated implicit and explicit invocation, rape culture remains dangerously absent when it comes to policy and protection. Elected representatives ignore that rape myths are indeed myths and that slut-shaming, victim-doubting, and objectification of women form part of a society-wide culture that perpetuates and condones violence against women. The two tragic cases of young Canadians Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons who took their own lives garnered much public and political attention. Largely unmentioned, however, was that both women experienced sexualized violence and were targeted on this basis. Conservative Justice Minister Peter Mackay, for example, announced the changes to the Criminal Code from a podium with the generic slogan “stop hating online”. While bullying is a topic worth tackling a loud silence remains about sexualized violence and exploitation of women.
The extent and the specifics of the pervasive culture of violence were also typically sidestepped by BC’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. The Commission focused narrowly on a specific and limited time period, location, and perpetrator, despite evidence that 600 Aboriginal women and girls have been missing or murdered across Canada over the last three decades (Native Women’s Association of Canada). Important voices were stifled when the Commission failed to fund the participation of women’s, First Nations, and other social justice organizations. The Federal Government in turn has routinely rejected calls for a national inquiry. Politicians thus refuse to recognize the broader systematic rape culture behind the day-to-day violence.
The prejudices of politics and politicians deserve serious attention. Commonplace acceptance and expression of rape culture lends credibility to rape myths, perpetuates silences on sexual violence, and legitimizes women’s objectification. When breasts rather than policy priorities are the target of discussion, more women can hardly be expected to run for office. BC’s Premier Christy Clark understood this in responding to comments on her cleavage: “we all want our daughters to be willing to step up and be leaders someday … I don’t think we can groom a lot of young female leaders if this is the level of comment we have.” The deterrent is all the greater for visible minorities or Canadians who identify as LGBTQ. The result– the perpetuation of Canadian men who are most often white and straight in positions of power– is not just an effect of rape culture – it is a key part of rape culture. Only by naming its presence in politics can we hope to challenge the pervasive narratives and practices of violence that restrict the diversity, equality and vitality of political life and impede Canadians’ ability to construct a healthy democracy for all.
This appeared, in part, as part of a presentation for the event “Is There a Rape Culture In Politics?”, co-hosted by the Canadian Women Voters Congress and the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, January 29th, 2014 at the University of British Columbia.
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