There is a reason I was afraid to get drunk at parties when I was teenager growing up in Tokoroa. I wouldn’t have called what I was afraid of rape, because I’d been taught to believe that drunk girls got what they deserved.
That is rape culture. And I grew up with it. But it’s not inevitable.
I remember being at parties as a teenager and looking around at my friends – my male friends – and asking myself ‘Can I trust him? Would he do anything to prevent someone else taking advantage of me? Would he do it himself?’
I remember looking at the boys I liked and wondering, ‘Would he take advantage of me if I was drunk? Would he even know that was what he was doing was wrong? Would he tell other people that it had happened?’
That is rape culture.
Because that’s how I thought of it – not as ‘rape’ but as someone ‘taking advantage’. Someone seizing the opportunity I had given them, by being drunk. So I didn’t get drunk. I never drank from the keg. I took my own drinks to parties, wine or wine cooler, shared it only with my best friend and kept it out of sight so no-one could tamper with it.
There’s more to say about men and sex and my teen years. But this is what matters for now – I was always afraid. I was afraid that if I took any risks, something bad could happen to me and it would be my fault.
That’s rape culture. It’s what I grew up with. But it’s not inevitable.
I’ve just landed back in New Zealand after five months away. I spent most of those months talking about my book, Zen Under Fire. At almost every book talk I gave, someone would ask me, ‘Weren’t you afraid to be in such a dangerous country, especially for women?’
My standard answer was that all countries are dangerous for women.
Yes, I helped document more than 400 case reports of violence against women in Afghanistan. And they made me sad, mad and sometimes scared. But they were not fundamentally all that different to the cases of violence against women that I’ve known about, read or reported on in New Zealand. Or in the US. Or in Canada. Or Australia.
Why make the point about his happening everywhere? Why not just have a conversation about violence against women in Afghanistan?
Because I wanted to own it. I wanted to avoid the tendency I see in myself, and most other people, of wanting to make the really ugly shit belong to someone else. I was saying,
This doesn’t only happen over there, it happens here too. It doesn’t only happen to someone else. It happens to us too.’
I did worry that, by saying ‘it’s the same everywhere’, I was deflecting attention away from the brave & exhausting work my Afghan friends and colleagues are doing to change the situation for women in Afghanistan. By reminding us that we are all in the same boat, I feared I was detracting from the support and solidarity that Afghan women’s rights activists need now more than ever.
But as my book tour continued, stories kept appearing across the US and Canada. Stories of girls who had been raped, blamed, shamed and shunned. Stories of boys who believed they had done nothing wrong. Stories of entire towns that stood in support of their ‘decent boys’ who had just made a stupid mistake. Stories that were as painful, to me, as anything I’d seen in Afghanistan.
That is rape culture. And it is everywhere. But it’s not inevitable.
Then I came home on Sunday. Anyone reading this in New Zealand already knows what I came home to. If you are reading outside New Zealand, the short version is that this week one of our TV news shows broke a story about a group of teenage sexual predators who, for the past three years, have been boasting on Facebook about ‘roasting’ drunk and underage girls.
They call themselves the ‘Roastbusters.’ I looked up what ‘roast’ means in urban slang. It means multiple males having sequential sex with a single female. The origin is apparently from the UK, and refers to stuffing a bird for roasting. The sample usage sentence given came too close to comfort for me.
‘At a party: Most of the rugby team is in the back roasting Lucy.’
As I said, there was a reason I was afraid to get drunk at rugby parties when I was a teenager. That is rape culture and I’ve seen it everywhere I’ve been. But it’s not inevitable.
The police in New Zealand have known about this group for three years and haven’t laid any charges. In a stunning example of victim-blaming, a spokesman for the police claimed, “None of the girls have been brave enough to make formal statements to us so we can take it to a prosecution stage or even consider a prosecution stage.”
But they had. We have since learned that four girls, aged from 13 to 15 years, had made formal complaints. One girl, who was 13 years old at the time, has since said that the experience of being interrogated by the police – who asked her repeatedly what she had been wearing at the time – was as bad as the experience of being raped.
They said that I didn’t have enough evidence to show, because I went out in clothes that were pretty much asking for it”.
That is rape culture. It’s everywhere. And it’s not inevitable.
All week I’ve been wondering what I have to say about this that hasn’t already been said – more eloquently or effectively – by someone else. And in the end it came down to this. It takes courage to talk about rape culture. Because it’s in the nature of rape culture to shame those of us to dare to talk.
If this story had been happening in Afghanistan, I would have felt it was my place to write about it. But it wasn’t happening in Afghanistan. It was happening here, in Aotearoa New Zealand. And, although the lack of police action appalled me, the story itself shocked me less than I’d like to admit. I grew up knowing that I couldn’t trust all the boys I liked. I grew up knowing that if I let myself get into a vulnerable position, then I would be blamed for anything that happened to me. I grew up knowing that if I ever had to go to the police to report that I had been raped I would be asked what I had been wearing and how much I had had to drink.
I grew up in a rape culture. Which is why Afghanistan didn’t shock me as much as most people seem to expect. It’s why I would tell my Afghan colleagues not to give up when the Imam said we shouldn’t be talking about rape because if women heard about it they’d go out and have sex with whoever they wanted, and then claim they had been raped.
‘Don’t give up.’ I’d say. ‘This too can change. It wasn’t so long ago judges in New Zealand said that. And now, although the attitude is by no means extinct, they can’t get away with it as easily. Cultures can change.’
Earlier this week I wondered whether I’d put my Afghan friends wrong, when a RadioLive host said to a teenage friend of a rape victim who called into the show: ‘As the pressure comes on, a lot more girls who had consented… might well line up and say they were raped as well.’
Which is why I knew I had to write something this week.
Because cultures can change. Even here. But not if we don’t talk about it.
Because the solution to rape culture is not to ‘beat the shit out of those little shits’. The answer is not to shame them either, even if I understand the anger that lies behind those cries. The problem, I’m fairly sure, is not that we don’t have enough violence or shame in our culture.
What we are missing is the courage to be honest about how ugly some parts of our beloved country and culture really are, the courage to own the part we all play in letting this go on, and the courage to speak up – and as Giovanni Tiso showed us all so beautifully this week – to take action where and when we can.
So I’m starting here. Because rape culture is pervasive, but it’s not inevitable.
March 2014 Update — Over the last several weeks I’ve been looking back at a number of courage-themed blog posts (like this one) from my archives in preparation for the next round of 30 Days of Courage.
I want you to know how important your voice and your participation is for the future of our planet — and to I want you to have the courage you need to tell your story and play your part. In fact, that’s why I created 30 Days of Courage — a month-long program from women (and men) who have an inkling of the work they need to do in the world, and who need some space, guidance and encouragement to get clear and brave enough to do it.
The next round of 30 Days of Courage starts on 24 March — and registration is now open through 21 March at 5PM Pacific Time!