Over the last week, one story dominated our news, our timelines, and, for many people, our minds. We have watched on in horror as more and more of the sordid details of the Roast Busters rape ring emerged: the Police inaction and the complicity of the school, compounded by the horrifying victim-blaming by two shock jocks on the radio. It’s been a week where ‘rape culture’ was mentioned in New Zealand Herald articles, and where the phrase ‘victim-blaming’ truly seeped into the public consciousness. It has on all accounts been a big week for feminism: rarely have we seen rape culture dominate the news in this way. The fact it took such horrific circumstances for this conversation to take place shows just how far we have to go in mainstreaming these conversations.
For me, this week has been challenging in a lot of ways. We are a diverse bunch in this country. You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, though: more than ever, we exist in bubbles. While once upon a time our bubbles were defined and limited to with whom you lived in close proximity, the Internet has facilitated bubbles along the lines of interests and experience. Feminism is one discourse that has benefited hugely from this: while the vast majority of people in your physical bubble are still likely to dismiss feminism as [insert tired cliché], the feminist community across New Zealand and the world has come together on forums such as Facebook and Twitter and created the illusion that every woman and her dog (or blog) are feminists. It has allowed people to identify with different subsets of feminism: body politics, black feminism, sex-positive feminism, and the whole lot under the tidy label of intersectional feminism. This week, in a week that to many people no doubt felt like a defining week of feminism in mainstream New Zealand discourse, I struggled with feminism.
I spend a lot of time thinking about criminal justice. I believe in the rights and plights of not only victims but offenders, too. I take issue with the entire victim/offender dichotomy because so often victim and offender are the same person. I believe that crime is so often a product of the society we have created, and until the focus shifts from placing blame on individuals to addressing the systemic issues that act as a little Petri dish for crime, we will continue to see its devastating effects on our communities. Given that many feminists are aligned with the left, and many of those who push for a shift in the way we think about crime align with the left, these views are often non-contentious and there is often a comfortable relationship between my identity as a feminist and a criminal justice advocate.
This week, and in discussions of rape more generally, there has not been such a comfortable overlap. A lot of the discussions about the Roast Buster case have focussed very squarely on demonising and dehumanising the two young men at the centre of the ring. As the story spread beyond New Zealand, international feminist website Jezebel picked up the story. In their most recent story about the police inaction, the piece begins:
As more details emerge about the self-styled New Zealand rape club that called itself the “Roast Busters,” naturally, questions arise. Namely: What the fuck? Followed by: What kind of a malformed fucksticks do this kind of thing to other human beings? And, finally, the inevitable: How the fuck did this happen?
This has not been unique to not-always-beacon-of-progressive-feminist-thought Jezebel. The demonization of people who commit rape has been seen in almost every think piece, every open letter, and every tweet on the subject.
There are many problems with the ‘malformed fucksticks’ mentality. Firstly, it builds on the myth that people who commit rape are the ‘other’: they are evil, inhumane rapists. They are not your best friend, your brother or your workmate. What we know about rape is that often it’s the latter: it’s completely possible that there was a rape at the Halloween party you went to last weekend, at last year’s staff Christmas party or even at some stage in your inner-city heat-pumped vege-gardened flat. The case of the Roast Busters was clearly not one of these, and instead a horrific example of the power play and perverted sexuality that often goes with rape, but realistically these were two 18 year old men that no doubt do very normal things like use public transport, buy laundry detergent and play in sports teams. Building the myth of the ‘other’ is part of rape culture, and it ignores many of the realities of rape.
However, it’s more than just the fact dehumanising rapists perpetuates myths about rape. It creates the illusion that this person who committed the rape is an intrinsically bad person: the blame is squarely on their shoulders, “how could anyone do this?”, “what an evil, evil person”. It shifts the blame from the victim, which is how traditionally rape has been understood, to the offender, rather than looking at the wider issues that create a culture of misogyny, a society that doesn’t respect women, and a generation of young people who don’t understand what consent looks like.
As with all criminal offending, it’s important to differentiate between apportioning blame and ascribing responsibility. These young men, and every person who commits a crime, are responsible for their actions. It’s essential that people who hurt and wrong others are held responsible in some way for what they have done. But, to me, this is very different from a culture that blames. Blame is about ascribing fault rather than responsibility. It’s your fault you robbed this store, it’s your fault you got into that car and hit that person while drunk. It’s different from saying you are responsible for that car accident, but you have a drinking problem and this is why you were driving drunk. In the context of rape, it’s different from saying you are responsible for raping this person but you live in a culture which depicts women as objects lacking in agency and in a culture where we talk about things like “blurred lines” in terms of consent. Blaming someone allows the focus to be squarely on the individual, and in doing so obscures the wider, often far more difficult to address issues.
The very obvious, and indeed valid, point about blaming in the context of rape is that it is against the backdrop of a culture that for so long has pointed the finger at women in terms of blame. Many people will argue that it is important to place the blame on the offender because for so long it has been put on the victim. Some will say that blaming and dehumanising the person who committed the rape is a reaction to the years of blaming the woman for the way she dressed, or the “mixed-messages” she gave. I get that, I do. But I think as long as the blame (again, distinct from the responsibility) is placed on the individual, the far bigger and wider issues – the blame on society – will go unaddressed. And, like in the case of all other crime, individuals will be locked up time and time again, but the real causes will remain and the crime will continue to take place. And while many feminists have argued this week that they are addressing the prevalence of victim-blaming by shifting the blame to the offender, to me this ignores the bubble. Society still victim-blames, but many of the people who are talking and tweeting and facebooking about this exist in a bubble where we have a pretty strong consensus that women are not in any way to blame for being raped. We are not talking with or to wider society, and we are fooling ourselves if we think we are. Victim-blaming is still rife in wider society, but it is not rife in the very small circle of feminists tweeting about it, or writing and reading open letters.
This is not about letting perfect be the enemy of progress. It’s about recognising that in many of the places we are having these conversations, progress has been made. And we shouldn’t be afraid of striving to achieve better: we should be open to exploring issues at more complex and nuanced level. In mainstream discourse, we need to address victim-blaming, but we should be working for a more intersectional approach within our circles that looks to truly address rape culture.
I start here: these two 18-year-olds have done horrible acts, but they are still people. They should not be defined by their acts, they are not people who are destined to be “rapists” for the rest of their lives. We know nothing about them but what we know about their acts, and therefore we should be wary of defining them solely by their acts. We know nothing about the culture they grew up: for all we know, they could’ve grown up seeing their mothers being raped by their fathers. They could’ve grown up being raped themselves. As soon as you stop looking to place blame and start looking to ask questions, more often than not you find some explanations as to why offending takes place. Not excuses, but explanations. For many victims, understanding the context in which the offending takes place – understanding the “why” – can help heal a lot of scars. For some, it won’t. Some victims will want to respond with hate, and I will be the very last person to judge them for doing so. As a victim of any crime, you are entitled to whatever feeling and emotions you have. But hate is not an emotion that allows you to move on with your life. In my interactions with people who have engaged with more restorative approaches to crime, for example meeting with their offender and being able to ask questions and explain the impact of the crime on their lives, many people feel a sense of healing and closure.
When we place ‘blame’ on people and speak of ‘malformed fucksticks’, we encourage hate and we restrict understanding. We look for how we can punish the individual rather than address the wider culture. I say this as someone who never wants to see my friends, my family, my colleagues or myself victims of rape – in many cases, again. I say this as a feminist who finds rape abhorrent, and as a person who also believes no person is intrinsically evil. This week has shown me how important it is we don’t treat the two as mutually exclusive.