20 June 2009

Does rape tell us something about gender?

I want to ask a question that may seem obvious, but I, for one, don’t think it has such an obvious answer:

Does the fact/act of rape, or attitudes towards it, tell us anything about ‘attitudes towards women (as category)’? Rachel Jewkes, the author of the South African Medical Council study on rape, says this tell us something about

“ … the way that South African men over the centuries have been socialised into forms of masculinity that are predicated on the idea of being strong and tough and the use of force to assert dominance and control over women …” [ http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8107039.stm ]

As you might have guessed, I don’t agree. But perhaps I should just agree since this is hardly a unique personal viewpoint of Dr. Jewkes! (Aside from the fact that there is no ‘over the centuries’ in South Africa, and if there were, we wouldn’t know anything about it; or that South African masculinity is ‘predicated on the idea of being strong and tough’. Is that unique to SA? No.)

In other words, does the act or fact of men raping women tell us something about the categories of ‘men’ and ‘women’, masculinity or femininity? If so, does it really say nothing at all about ‘femininity’ and speaks only to ‘masculinity’? does it not say more about the construction of ‘person’, ‘the body’, violence, the nature of coercion, or how humans seek (and often fail) to control one another in their own social lives? Is this simply something that can be fit into a binary classification?

Just to be really provocative (but seriously so) would women rape if they could? They (women) do, occasionally, when they can, it seems. Does it make any sense to ask “what if women had penises? (all else being equal)” Can ‘all else’ be ‘equal’ in this case? Would ‘women with penises’ be men? It seems not, though we have the studies like Foucault’s study of Herculin(e) Barbin as a worthy pondering of the subject matter, among others.

Asking question like this—rhetorical, as they are called—prejudges the answer, of course. Can someone guide me towards writing that might ask similar, peculiar (I think: anthropological!) questions like this? I mean really recent. Naturally authors like Marilyn Strathern, Herdt, Kulick, Gutman, Parker … can be assumed.

I do question the received wisdom of gender studies in particular. I just can’t seem to internalise the idea that gender is determinate, or that rape tells us much about gender. Sorry for that. I know many will disagree.

Of course, the author of this study is not an anthropologist (and sounds on the voice clip on the BBC webpage not to be South African) , and may just reflect a peculiarly English and medical perspective. Or does it? (The sociologists in South Africa certainly subscribe to the same views. )

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