‘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.
Boswell, A.A. & Spade, J.Z. (1996). Fraternities and rape culture: Why are some fraternities more dangerous places for women?. Gender and Society, 10(2), 133-147.
Buchwald, E., Fletcher, P.R. & Roth, M. (1993 & 2005). Transforming a rape culture. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions.
Grisdale, M. (2011). MP, interrupted: heckling in the House of Commons. Retrieved January 2014 from http://www2.samaracanada.com/blog/file.axd?file=2011/7/MP,+Interrupted+-+Grisdale.pdf
Hegarty, Ka. Breaking: It’s Still Not Okay to Call Women Whores. Name it Change it. 14 June 2013. Retrieved January, 2014 from http://www.nameitchangeit.org/blog/entry/breaking-its-still-not-okay-to-call-women-whores
Martin, Don. Everybody’s piling on poor Ruby Dhalla. The Calgary Hearld. 9 October 2009. Retrieved January, 2014 from http://www2.canada.com/calgaryherald/columnists/story.html?id=91d189c7-4e9b-4566-939b-70821032a1a8
Missing Women Commission of Inquiry – http://www.missingwomeninquiry.ca
Native Women’s Association of Canada. Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls in British Columbia, Canada. Briefing Paper for Thematic Hearing before the
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 144th Period of Sessions, March 28, 2012. Retrieved January, 2014 from http://www.nwac.ca/sites/default/files/imce/IACHR%20Canada%20Briefing%20Paper%20March%2028,%202012.pdf
Paperny, A. M. For NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, it’s all about connecting. The Globe and Mail. 23 September 2011. Retrieved January, 2014 from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/for-ontario-ndp-leader-andrea-horwath-its-all-about-connecting/article595464/
Roberts, H. Too hot for politics? Canadian MP at centre of Photoshopping controversy after cleavage is mysteriously retouched. The Daily Mail. 27 Septmeber, 2011. Retrieved January, 2014 from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2042177/Canadian-MP-Rathika-Sitsabaiesan-centre-Photoshopping-controversy.html.
Taber, J. Ten things you should know about Ruby Dhalla. The Globe and Mail. 16 May 2009. Retrieved January 2014 from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/10-things-you-should-know-about-ruby-dhalla/article4288145/
Zurevinski, N. Women in politics are more than pieces of meat. The Sheaf. 4 November 2013. Retrieved January 2014 from http://thesheaf.com/2013/11/04/women-in-politics-are-more-than-pieces-of-meat/
Wendy Russell Davis (b 16 May 1963)
By Kelsey Wrightson
Wendy Davis is an American lawyer and Democratic senator from Fort Worth, Texas. One of four children raised by a single mother, by 14, she was selling newspaper subscriptions and working part-time. She had the first of two daughters when she was 19 years old, subsequently working her way through Harvard Law School as a single mother.
Davis entered politics through the Fort Worth City Council in 1999, and served for nine years. In 2008 she was elected to the Texas Senate, District 10, narrowly defeating male Republican Kim Brimer. Upon entering a House dominated by Republicans and men, she began ruffling the feathers of conservative colleagues, labeling the Senate environment hostile to women and proposing multiple amendments to many bills. Davis serves as the Vice-Chair on the Senate Select Committee for Open Government, and is a member of the Committees on Economic Development, Transportation, Veteran Affairs and Military Installations.
Davis was re-elected in 2012, the same year that her offices were firebombed, an attack that remains unsolved, but speculation links it to her support of Planned Parenthood (Pieklo). Despite this attack, she has continued to be a vehement supporter of women’s rights. Her stance is most obvious in her successful 25 June 2013 filibuster of Senate Bill 5, a draconian law that attempts to dramatically reduce access to abortion. This was not the first time that Senator Davis has used radical tactics in the Texas State Senate. In June 2011, she filibustered the 82nd Legislative Assembly, preventing a $4 billion cut from public education sponsored by Governor Rick Perry. However the 25 June filibuster gathered more global coverage and heightened awareness of hard-line anti-women politics in the Lone Star State. It also created a new political heroine for many progressive Texans and activists around the United States.
On 25 June Davis stood for 11 hours to stop a bill that would have reduced the number of state abortion providers from 42 to 5. Such restriction was to cap longstanding efforts to curb women’s control over their own fertility, which includes state-directed anti-choice counseling and 24 hour mandatory wait times.
It initially seemed that the Republicans had won when Davis was cut off on procedural technicalities, but Democratic State Senator Leticia Van De Putte from San Antonio, who rushed back from her father’s funeral, took the floor. After she finished speaking, hundreds packing the gallery cheered, further delaying the vote. Just after midnight, the Senate’s own website stated that the bill had become law. This claim had to be rescinded when it was publicly revealed that the Republicans had changed the time stamp in order to declare the bill passed. In fact, Davis, and her pro-choice supporters inside and outside government, had won.
Unfortunately, SB 5 and the dangers of the anti-choice renaissance survive to burden women another day. The last six months have led to 35 measures to restrict abortion procedures being passed in 17 different states, both conservative and the traditionally more socially liberal “swing states.” In Texas, Governor Perry has added SB 5 to another special session. It is unlikely that the Democrats will be able to stall the bill a second time since the vote will likely be taken earlier in the session, making a filibuster near- impossible. Perry has also been noted for his personal attacks on Davis (Holpuch) a strategy that recalls the vitriol that regularly rains down on outspoken women and links the growing battle against pro-choice to misogyny within the public domain. However, Davis’ courage and determination (accessorized by pink sneakers) have won her many supporters.
Dubbed the “LeBron James of filibustering” on Wikipedia (a reference to American Basketball legend), Davis has become a rising star in state politics (Ramshaw). No sooner had the filibuster succeeded that rumours spread that Davis will challenge Republican Perry. Such a contest will inevitably evoke memories of a former Democratic governor, the charismatic Ann Richards (1991-95; 1933-2006) who was celebrated as a progressive and a feminist but was eventually defeated by Republican George W. Bush, later better known as the 43rd president of the U.S.A. (Sheeler).
The filibuster of Wendy Davis in Texas, like global phenomena such as Pussy Riot and the Idle No More movement, positions feminism against reactionary conservative politics. Texas may soon face the prospect of a third woman governor (after Richards and Miriam A. Ferguson [1875-1961]). If Davis is successful, she will have been well-trained in tactics needed to challenge misogyny and the new campaign of “death by legislation” deployed by the anti-choice movement.
Eilperin, Juliet. “Antiabortion measures gain momentum in the states,” Washington Post, April 11, 2013
Eilperin, Juliet. “What does Wendy Davis mean for the larger abortion debate?” Washington Post, June 26, 2013
Holpuch, Amanda. “Texas governor Rick Perry attacks Wendy Davis over teenage pregnancy,” The Guardian, June 27, 2013
Levs, Josh and Michael Martinez. “Wendy Davis: From teen mom to Harvard law to famous filibuster,” CNN Politics, June 27, 2013
Pieklo, Mason. “Abortion Rights Under Fire: Why Wendy Davis Matters,” Rolling Stone, June 26, 2013
Ramshaw, Emily. “A Filibuster Creates an Overnight Celebrity,” New York Times, June 4, 2011
Sheeler, Kristina K. Horn. Women’s public discourse and the gendering of leadership culture: Ann Richards and Christine Todd Whitman negotiate the governorship, Indiana University, 2000.
Wendy Davis Campaign Website, Accessed June 28, 2013
Opposition occurs along side demands for equality and justice. Patriarchy, like related prejudices such as racism and homophobia, always has defenders. Canadian ‘antis’ who had resisted women suffrage had successors in R.E.A.L. (Realistic, Equal and Active for Life) Women founded in 1983 as a supposedly ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-family’ lobby. Claims to those values were a clever tactical move. In reality the group defended one kind of life and one kind of family, namely a narrow version of the middle-class, heterosexual, and Anglo-Celtic model for which it claimed moral universality. Representative of the ‘New Right’, best known in the United States in the person of Phyllis Schafley and the Eagle Forum, this group has been associated with the Christian Heritage Party and Ontario’s Family Coalition Party. They have opposed birth control other than abstinence and the ‘rhythm method’ and condemned homosexuality as unnatural. They targeted all efforts to give women real control of their own bodies, namely access to birth control and abortion, but their wider agenda constituted an attack on women’s right to determine their own lives in every arena, from employment to politics. R.E.A.L. Women channeled not only conservative hopes for continued entitlement in bedrooms and boardrooms but more pervasive fears about the unpredictability of change in the modern world.
In the U.S., the modern anti-feminist movement organized in response to modern feminists’ renewal of efforts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment beginning in the 1970s. Like her Canadian counterparts, Schlafly idealized the ‘homemaker’, ignoring the reality of most women, who were expected to balance the competing demands of work at home and in the market place, and the failure of the status quo to provide for the protection and security from violence and poverty of women in domestic space. Ironically, however, many Canadians and Americans, not to mention many others in the rest of the world, have attacked feminism as an assault on ‘the’ family and even as an expression of ‘godless Communism. The ‘pro-family’ candidates in the 2011-12 U.S. Republic primary campaigns embody such fears and contradictions. Related apprehension helps explain the similar emergence in Italy of “Eowyn, a group of women associated with the neo-fascist party,” which fought “abortion, divorce, and daycare as destructive of the family,” and Australia’s ‘Women Who Want to Be Women’ (Steuter 297).
Despite its resistance to expanded opportunity, R.E.A.L. Women applied for funding from Canada’s Secretary of State’s Women’s Program, although it had been established to promote equality. That application, successful finally in 1989, prompted strong resistance from Canada’s umbrella feminist group, NAC (the National Action Committee on the Status of Women) that had been founded to promote the recommendations of the Report (1970) of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. The emergence of R.E.A.L. Women encouraged feminists to explain more fully their own perspective on families, namely to distinguish “between what types of families are seen as unacceptable (where there is exploitation, violence, abuse, incest, stifling of growth) and which ones are not only acceptable but indeed deserving of social support (where there is mutual caring, support, respect, commitment and growth)-irrespective of their structure and composition” (Steuter 303).
At the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century, R.E.A.L. Women continues to exist. In the midst of neo-Conservative victories in Ottawa, it is, however, far less visible on the political landscape. Even as the gap between rich and poor deepens and women and children increasingly join the lineups at Food Banks, anti-feminist women and men appear as parliamentarians. In the meantime, it is easy to suspect that R.E.A.L. Women, neo-Conservatism’s ‘reserve army’, will reappear whenever feminism becomes again, as it was in the 1980s, a significant force on the national stage.
Resources & Further Reading
Dubinsky, Karen. 1985. “Lament for a Patriarchy Lost”: Anti – Feminism, Anti – abortion and R.E.A.L. Women. Ottawa: Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women.
Dubinsky, Karen. 1987 a “Really Dangerous: The Challenge of R.E.A.L. Women”. Canadian Dimension 21(6):4-7.
Eichler, Margrit. 1985 “The Pro-Family Movement: Are they For or Against Families?” C.R.I.A.W. working paper, pp. 1-37
Kamerman, Sheila B. and Alfred J. Kahn. Eds. 1997. Family Change and Family Policies in Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Steuter, Erin. 1992. “Women Against Feminism: An Examination of Feminist Social Movements and Anti-feminist Countermovements.” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology. 29:3. 288-
Tatalovich, Raymond. 1997. The Politics of Abortion in the United States and Canada: A Comparative Study. Armonk, N.Y.. M.E. Sharpe.