It took me a long time to recognize rape culture in my body.
In feminist circles, I talk about rape culture all the time — as a nuisance, as an obstacle, as a danger. Rape culture has a multitude of definitions, and it’s often misunderstood. This spring, I worked with various folks at my university in Halifax, Canada, to define the term, and to navigate its complex realities. This is the definition that we came up with, and the way I think about rape culture:
Rape culture: social expectations and values (explicit or implied) that normalize sexual violence and perpetuate harmful sexual culture. Rape culture is fostered in the media and in unrealistic sexual ideals. In rape culture, sexualized violence is viewed as ingrained and inevitable, and there is an implied inability to respond.
I always felt rape culture was external to my body, in the air I breathed, the shows I watched and the ads that popped up in my newsfeed, but not within me. In physical experiences and uncomfortable intimate encounters, yes, but rape culture couldn’t possibly be a constant physical feeling, could it?
I am Canadian. I speak English and French, but very little German. In Vienna, I am experiencing a new aspect of rape culture in my body.
When I get on the subway home from a night out, alone, a man will often sit down opposite me. I see him walk in, scope out the length of the car, and then fix his eyes on any exposed skin he can see. He scrapes women’s bodies with his gaze. The man is young, old, alone or in a group. He sits across from a woman that he feels he can talk to. On one occasion like this, a man sits across from me, leans in and starts to speak in German. When I shake my head, no, he laughs to himself, and continues to talk at me, about me, in a language that I don’t understand.
Dr. Erin Wunker is feminist author, academic and professor of English at Dalhousie University in Halifax. In Wunker’s book Notes from a Feminist Killjoy, she examines the way we learn about rape culture as children and adults, explicitly and implicitly. She posits: “I can’t remember a time when I hadn’t been told that my worth as a body-gendered-female had to do with the space I take up” (194).
We’re born afraid, taught fear, taught self defense and hypervigilance, and then we’re taught that our fears are irrational. To use the term that Sigmund Freud (a renowned psychoanalyst from the late 1800s) coined to demean emotionality in women, we’re “hysterical.”
Wunker recalls being followed by a man in a car who was cat-calling and harassing her as a young girl. She was sprinting to safety, hearing his leery remarks through the trees, yet she “was also scared that [she] was overreacting, that [her] fear was foolish” (52).
On the Subway, I could feel every muscle in my body, every minute tension of tendon and cartilage and bone. My feet sore. My hands bloated in summer heat and thighs sticking to the hard red plastic chairs. I could map the space my body occupied with my eyes closed, flesh cast in thick summer air, glazed with sweat. His words meant nothing to me but they felt suffocating, a physical barrage against my body, tense and alert. He smiled and licked his lips and leaned in closer. At the next stop, I got out and moved to the next car.
Somehow, not being able to understand his evidently sexual remarks allowed me to dissociate from the imminent experience of emotional discomfort, fear and shame, and instead feel the tension in my body.
Normally, when someone is catcalling or making me uncomfortable in a language that I understand, I can dismiss their approaches. Rationally, I know that the likelihood of my being harmed is not high in this specific situation, especially considering that I am living with the privilege of being white, cisgendered and able-bodied, among other things. But when I hear this unknown language spreading across my skin, my body reacts of its own accord.
I have started to name the automatic and ingrained feeling of fear that we learn and take on as feminized people. We’re always fight or flight, in a way that male-presenting people don’t usually have to be, and don’t usually notice. I’m learning to name rape culture when it creeps into my shoulders and tightens in my chest and stops me or walking home a short distance at night — I usually run, or pay for a cab.
When we teach a young woman to fear rape, we are teaching her to survive within rape culture, but not to transgress it. We internalize our fears, instead of using them as sites of struggle. Wunker asks the question, “how can we teach young women not to fear rape on a cellular level?” (101). This question demands that we don’t assume rape is inevitable. It is not enough to teach people about the dangers of rape. We must think about why this education is necessary.
Although it is uncomfortable, we must actively work on naming aspects of rape culture as they creep into our everyday lives. That night on the train, all I could think was, “why did I wear this shirt? These tight jeans? This makeup?” As someone who’s a proud feminist and a vocal advocate for women’s rights, I’m ashamed that those things went through my head. However, I also know that so much of what I am exposed to and subconsciously absorb — in the media, in academic and professional spaces and in relationships — reinforces exactly the stereotypes that I am so desperate to discard.
If we keep internalizing and ignoring these feelings that exist in the larger narrative of rape culture and sexualized violence against women, we cannot make progress to eradicate the more dangerous and violent instances of human rights violations against women every single day.
We can mobilize our anger, our discomfort and our frustration to demand better. We can vocalize our experiences of discomfort — even when we are seemingly programmed to dismiss them as banal or unimportant. However, while we do this work, we must acknowledge that not every space is a safe place to talk and not everyone has the privilege to do so.
Rape culture isn’t irrational, or unimportant. It’s daunting, it’s constant and it’s debilitating. When it’s safe to do so, we can each do our part starting conversations about the pervasiveness of rape culture — whether it’s with our best friends, our family members or our communities.
By Katie Clarke, WAVE Intern
Wunker, Erin. Notes from a Feminist Killjoy. BookThug, 2016.