I want to talk a little bit about something that’s been bothering me for a while. It’s something which a lot of people think – or pretend, sometimes it’s hard to tell which it is – doesn’t exist in Singapore: rape culture. If I had to make an educated guess, I would say that this perception is the result of a number of reasons – firstly, our media doesn’t publicise rape cases as virulently as American media does; secondly, we live in a bubble of public safety that constructs a myth of immunity from the ‘bad’ things that happen in the world. I am going to try to argue a little bit that the perception that rape culture doesn’t exist in Singapore is not true.
I want, also, to respond a little bit to this fantastic article about Steubenville. Laurie Penny draws a strong comparison between the media coverage of Steubenville with Abu Ghraib from a decade ago; she notes that Susan Sontag herself drew a comparison between Abu Ghraib and public lynching of black people from the 1880s to 1930s. The key link between these three, she suggests, is the fact that the photographs and the images cannot be divorced from the fact that the photographs even exist in the first place. The images “were souvenirs of a collective action whose participants felt perfectly justified in what they had done.”
So that’s the first idea I want to pull out, and bear in mind a little bit. That idea of “perfectly justified”, of entitlement, of – for all intents and purposes – an innocence about what was really going on with their actions and laughter.
The next idea I want to pull out of context for a little bit is the idea of internalised assumptions that Penny talks quite vehemently about. She argues that this innocence and naivety is only plausible in a culture where “the assumption that women are not real human beings, just bodies to be manipulated with or without consent” is internalised.
I say that I’m pulling this out of context because Penny is talking about the act of rape, whereas what I am about to talk about has very little to do with the act of rape. Penny is concerned with the violent act of rape, of actually sticking appendages into another person without their consent. I am ordinarily concerned with this, but there is more to rape culture than thinking it’s okay, that you have the right to do something to a person without their consent, without them even being able to give consent. This is also not the part that bothers me because, for the afore-mentioned reasons, actual cases of rape don’t get a lot of airtime in our media. It’s not something that’s on our consciousness, it’s not even something we even see very commonly, it’s not something that’s all around us.
This, however, is.
Oh my god, whatever did she say to warrant being called a fucking whore?
Penny calls rape culture a culture where “one group of people sees another as less than human and insists on its right to hurt and humiliate them for fun”. She calls this ‘evil’.
My only problem with Penny’s article is the fact that she fixates on the physical violence that rape culture perpetuates. She is, of course, right to point out that rape culture encourages, well, rape. However, a lot of rape culture is also in the language of rape. It is also in the cheapening of women, in ascribing all their mistakes to sins of the flesh. (Okay, there’s also a problem with the words slut and whore and sexual double standards, but that’s an issue to be tackled elsewhere.) Whatever did this Confessor do to warrant being called a slut and a whore? Sure, her preferences are awfully materialistic, but it’s a fairly distant leap to suggest that these preferences are an indication of her sexual behaviour. She could, actually, be a very monogamous materialistic woman – but that’s besides the point.
The point here is that we think that in Singapore we’re so safe from the physical violence of rape, and that means we don’t have a culture that views women as cheap. But we do. We clearly have a culture that thinks it’s okay to insult a woman based on her sex. We have a culture that thinks it’s okay to call a woman a slut or a whore just for her selfish choices which have nothing to do with sex. We have a culture that thinks it’s okay to slut-shame a woman just because she is a woman.
But wait – what is the violence that is done to a woman who is called a slut or a whore? Just imagine if your mother, sister, aunt, or daughter were called a slut or a whore. How do you feel now? It’s demeaning. It rips away the dignity. What it does is that it reduces the female body to an object, to a sex toy, a sex doll – to be “flung in and out of cars like a deflated sex-dolly”. It’s verbally violent. It calls to mind all the sexual violences that can be done to a person. It reduces a full human being to her sex. It’s essentialising. It makes her only about sex. What was it that Penny said? Right – “the assumption that women are not real human beings, just bodies to be manipulated with or without consent.”
And this sort of language is all around us, thanks to the Internet. This is just one instance, but you don’t have to look too far for more. Just take this for instance – a bunch of men who were apparently pillars of Singaporean society finding it completely alright to ask if women on the Internet were prostitutes and ask to sleep with them, as if they were entitled to. That’s it, the entitlement word, of seeing themselves as “perfectly justified”. It’s the idea that they can say all these things, treat women like they are objects to stick their cocks into, and be completely in the right for doing so, and do it all so very publicly. And there’s way, way more out there – on our forums, on Twitter, on Facebook. So is Steubenville a problem that doesn’t concern us? Hell no. Rape culture is very much in our bubble of imagined public safety, and the worst thing is that nobody seems to find it a problem, which makes it nigh impossible for us to inoculate against it. It’ll be far too late to on the day something like that does happen here.