‘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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by Veronica Strong-Boag
Since the suffrage crusades, both scholars and popular observers have debated whether women would make a difference to ‘old boy’ agendas. Given many women’s subsequent identification with partisan politics, the discipline imposed by party whips and other pressures to toe the line, not to mention the multiple loyalties (of class, race, etc.) they share with other groups, and not always with one another, skepticism is understandable. There are nonetheless enough instances of political ‘sisterhoods’ that cross party lines to hearten the hopeful.
Such seems to have been the case when US Democrats (a majority in the Senate) and Republicans (a majority in the House of Representatives) stood at daggers drawn in the summer and fall of 2013. The former’s determination to, at long last, extend public medical insurance (albeit under far more constrained conditions than other leading western democracies) was fiercely opposed by the latter, notably its Tea Party hardliners. For weeks, much of the US federal government was shut down and fears grew of a national default. That disaster was averted, at least for the time being, by the compromise reached a bipartisan Senate committee composed of six women and eight men. Immediate commentators credited women senators with leadership.
Women’s influence and numbers has been growing since the election of the 103rd Congress (1993-1995), familiarly referred to as the ‘Year of the Woman’. This survived the return of a Republican-controlled House of Representatives with the 104th Congress (1995-1997), known as the ‘Year of the Angry White Male’ (Dodson). By 2013, the 113th Congress included a record 20 women senators — 16 Democrats and four Republicans. By then too, some women had gained substantial credibility as senior members and chairs of nine significant committees, including both Budget and Appropriations. Susan Collins of Maine, one of the three female Republicans on the bipartisan 2013 committee, was regarded as her party’s “most powerful moderate.” At least as influential was women’s habit, vigorously encouraged by the longest-serving female senator, Barbara Mikulski (Maryland), Chair of the Appropriations Committee, of getting together socially for dinners, showers and children’s playdates, and their “practice of meeting regularly and working on smaller bills together, even in a highly polarized Congress” (Weisman and Steinhauer).
In 2010, Democratic Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, from New York, and Collins had championed the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” For the first time openly gay and lesbian military personnel were allowed to serve. Three years later, all four female Republican senators voted with Democrats for the Violence Against Women Act (Steinhauer). Furthering a sense of ‘sisterhood,’ was the unwritten rule not to criticize each other publicly and a recognition, as one member explained, of “a different life experience than a lot of senior guys in the room” (N. Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp quoted in Newton-Small, “Women”). Shared experience of sexism before and after election helped as well (Netwon-Small, “11 Things”). While the larger group of Democrats benefitted from the better alignment of core party values with liberal feminism, Republican women moderates remained sensitive to the gendered impact of public policy (See Swers). In September and October 2013, the disproportionate injury inflicted on women workers and recipients of state services by the closure of many federal offices was easy to observe.
Women’s talent for compromise and getting things done proved popular. The bipartisan meeting of women senators was quickly joined by male moderates, including Republican John McCain (Arizona), who wondered “what they could do if there were 50 of them” (quoted Newton-Small, “Women”). The resulting compromise (one favouring the Democratic position) pulled the US back from the brink of financial disaster (though this threat was denied by the Tea Party).
The crisis in American politics was nevertheless only postponed to 2014 when budget approval would once again be needed. In the meantime, both parties and their women members will be sounding voters, who come to the polls in mid-term elections in November 2014. What will the electorate make of women’s bipartisan leadership when 33 Senate seats are up for grabs and will the impact for Democrats and Republican women, since the latter have traditionally had a harder time in winning their party nomination, be the same (Dittmar)? The result will offer a substantial comment on women’s role in American politics.
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Dittmar, Kelly. “Primary problems: Women Candidates in U.S. House Primaries,” Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. 3 Oct. 2013, http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/research/documents/Primary-Problems-10-1-13.pdf, accessed 27 Oct. 2013.
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By Veronica Strong-Boag and Kelsey Wrightson
While the conservative war against choice is far from new, tactics have evolved. In 2008 Sarah Palin, the vice-presidential candidate for the Republican Party, used the phrase “pink elephants” to describe the newest face of the global war against women, namely female Republicans working within legislative institutions to limit reproductive freedoms. In the United States, conservative campaigners and lawmakers have successfully repealed fertility rights won by champions of women. Beginning with the defunding of Planned Parenthood (first in 1976 with the Hyde Amendment and continuing into the new millennium under George W. Bush [2001-2009]) and following the 2008 global recession with widespread curtailment of state access to abortion, reproductive freedom has been increasingly ‘legislated away.’ That threat was recently exemplified in Texas where bills pushed through a Republican-dominated senate sharply limit access to abortion services, shut down clinics, and changed rules of care to impose medically-unnecessary deterrents. Even the heroic filibuster of Democrat Wendy Davis could not stop the anti-choice tide.
Women such as Senator Kelly Ayotte (Republican New Hampshire), Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (Republican, Minnesota), Lieutenant -Governor Rebecca Clayfish (Republican, Wisconsin), and Florida Attorney-General Republican Pam Bondi are enthusiastically ploughing the anti-choice furrow. They follow generations of Republican women, who, even before the attainment of the franchise, functioned variously as ‘party women,’ GOP officials, or ‘clubwomen’ sympathizers. Applauded by the ‘pro-life’ group, the Susan B Anthony List (a name that invokes a suffrage pioneer but a cause that would have certainly caused that radical proponent of women’s rights apoplexy), today’s pink elephants pit women against women, and endeavor to plaster a female mask on a movement financed and led largely by white men. Although Rymph found female Republicans supporting equality in the past, questions have to be asked regarding the ‘New Right’ and the evident assault on gender equality: why are some women identifying with a conservative movement that threatens their own bodily integrity and what is the impact of their efforts on American anti-choice laws?
Superson identifies both religious and secular reasons for female support of conservative and anti-choice movements. She takes up the now classic arguments of Andrea Dworkin: conservatism promises women protection from supposedly naturally violent men. Given the Right’s insistence that violence and social disintegration are inevitable without traditional marriage and nuclear families, only a retreat to an imagined past can bring women economic and physical safety. Women, in other words, should appreciate that they benefit from tradition’s constraints on the ‘natural’ urges of men. Submission to patriarchal domination is the price they, and not so incidentally their fetuses, must pay for protection. Conservatism itself reaps obvious benefits from women. Not only do they do much of the daily grind of partisanship, they can also make parties appear more inclusive. In return for support, a miniscule group of women receive the bounty and recognition offered Sarah Palin and her sister-travellers.
As evidenced by surging anti-choice legislation in the 21st century, the conservative women’s movement has gained significant power as US lobbyists. Two prominent groups, ‘Women Concerned for America’ and ‘Independent Women’s Forum’, like the Susan B. Anthony List, regularly take the lead in pressing state and federal governments to curtail choice. Such advocates drape themselves in the flag of traditional morality, even as they often deploy Third Wave feminism’s recognition of diversity by claiming to stand for the ‘underrepresented,’ supposedly ‘silent, majority’ (Concerned Women for America). Despite such claims, the narrow range of class and race embodied by the Pink Pachyderms is striking: better-off whites are once again endeavouring to reduce the rights of others.
Combating such opponents sometimes appears to place feminists in a catch-22. On the one hand, fighting among women invokes longstanding misogynistic assumptions about women’s supposed incapacity for rational discourse and ‘team play.’ Ignoring the anti-feminist threat poses other, arguably far more serious, dangers: the welfare of the majority of women is deliberately jeopardized by well-placed and heavily financed zealots in patriarchy’s cause.
The American conflict is not precisely replicated anywhere else in the world, although nations where religious fundamentalism runs riot over women’s bodies offer obvious similarities. If, however, the comparison is to the United Kingdom and Canada, we see the significance of different political structures. Halfmann argues that the party-based parliamentary systems of Canada and Great Britain, unlike the US’s lobby-dominated politics, have marginalized abortion on the national agenda. National medical systems (however compromised) offer another level of difference, and sometimes protection. This is not to suggest, however, that some of the same prejudices don’t inform British and Canadian reactionaries. In Canada, Conservative Party backbenchers have repeatedly attempted to reopen the debate under the guise of preventing ‘sex selective abortion.’ With the appointment of Rona Ambrose, who previously voted against reproductive freedom, as Minister of Health (2013), pro-choice Canadians have to remain vigilant. Feminists also need to scrutinize groups such as R.E.A.L Women, which, while significantly less powerful than its American counterparts, is allied to Focus on the Family, a group with close ties to US evangelical conservatives. Even as they face the reality of the Dominion’s different religious and political make-up, such reactionary forces aspire to be the ‘true north’s’ own elephants, trumpeting the protection of women and western civilization from what an earlier generation of anti-feminists termed the apocalypse of ‘long-haired men and short-haired women.’
Around the world at the dawn of the 21st century, reproductive freedom for women, which has only a bare beginning in many countries, is under assault. That attack is occurring in the midst of a state and international world order confronting unprecedented threats to human survival (over-population and environmental collapse to name only a few) that contribute to rising distress, violence, and determination to protect immediate self-interest. As in wars of every description, symbolic women and their real bodies stand on the firing lines. According to America’s pink brigade and their global counterparts, women need to accept that their interests are served by obedience and acceptance of the ‘natural’ patriarchal order. In the meantime, anti-feminist pink elephants, much like the character of Serena Joy in Margaret Atwood’s dystopic The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) stand by to reap the benefits of defending male privilege. That sorry tale provides a visceral warning of the costs of failing to advocate and entrench reproductive freedom.
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