Following high profile cases such as those of Julian Assange and Dominique Strauss Kahn, there has been much debate recently about rape and sexual assault.
Sarah Wrack, first published in “Socialism Today, magazine of the Socialist Party (CWI England and Wales)
On the Slutwalks and other protests, anger on these issues has been obvious. One response has been the Rape Is No Joke campaign launched by Socialist Students.
EVERY YEAR IN Britain alone 85,000 women are raped. One in four women and one in 20 men are thought to be affected by rape at some point in their lifetimes. The emotional and psychological after-effects of being raped are well documented. But it’s also not just about those individuals. Rape has a huge impact on our society.
Women, in particular, are told their whole lives to ‘be careful’ – watch out for the man in the bushes on the unlit country lane. This, despite the fact that the majority of rapes are perpetrated by someone known to the victim and in the home. This can mean that women live in fear of being raped, not just because of the trauma of the rape itself but a fear of being blamed for it. We have to be careful how we ‘put ourselves across’ – not to have sex with too many people, not to drink too much, not to wear a skirt that is too short.
All of this ignores the truth too. It suggests that rape is about sex – that women seem like they want it and over-sexed men can’t help themselves but take it. But in fact research shows that many rapes are planned in advance, not carried out in a fit of sexual passion. People of all ages, genders, sexualities and races are raped. In reality it’s not about sexual attraction. It’s about power and a society that teaches men they have to be in control of what they perceive as weaker people.
It hasn’t always been like this
FOR SOCIALISTS, sexism, rape and the oppression of women in general are, at root, products of the way society is organised. The institutionalised inequality between men and women hasn’t always existed, as is shown if we look at the evidence from pre-class societies. In fact in hunter-gatherer societies men and women may have had different roles but they weren’t differently valued and didn’t lead to a different social status or material inequality.
But then, with advances in farming amongst other things, human beings were able, for the first time, to produce more than they needed. There was a surplus. And men tended to be the ones administrating this surplus. What’s more, people wanted to pass the surplus on to the next generation – so men had to know who their children were. All of these changes came together to mean that women’s position in society shifted. Although big gains for women have been won during the twentieth century this fundamental oppression has never been overcome, and socialists would argue, can never be overcome until we overthrow capitalism.
This institutionalised oppression of women has, throughout history, been reinforced through the family. That is not to suggest that each individual family abuses the women within it and, as such, are responsible for the material inequality women face. But, as an institution, the family has both an economic and a social role to play in class society. The word family comes from the Latin ‘familia’ meaning household. A man’s familia included his wife, children and servants with not much distinction made between the three. The family is responsible for raising the next generation and for teaching them their place in society. It does so in a way which bolsters male authority.
In this context, it is clear that rape cannot be separated from other attempts to control women and their sexuality or other forms of violence against women. It may seem that things have changed beyond recognition since the days of the familia. But in reality the underlying idea that women should be submissive to men has far from disappeared.
It was only 20 years ago that marital rape was made illegal in Britain. And even now sentences tend to be less severe for men married to or in a relationship with their victim. In law until 1992, and in many people’s attitudes even now, women sign away all their rights when they marry or enter a relationship. They are no longer an individual with their own sexuality but are seen as a vessel to satisfy men’s sexuality and to carry children.
When a report from the Law Commission in 1992 raised the idea of ending the exemption for marital rape, 96% of married women were in favour but opposition came from predictable places. The Council of Her Majesty’s Circuit Judges thought it would be ‘impractical’ to prosecute husbands who rape their wives. Tory MP Tony Marlow argued against it on the grounds that women could always get a divorce.
These types of attitudes continue today. Tory MP Ken Clarke, while he was justice minister, told us that some rapes are more serious than others. George Galloway, the Respect MP, said that having sex with someone who is asleep is not rape if you’ve already had sex with them because they are “already in the sex game”. Right-wingers in the US have argued that the female body is capable of “shutting that whole thing down” to prevent getting pregnant from rape or that being impregnated through rape is part of “Gods will”.
And it’s not just at the tops of society, but percolates down. One survey found that 29% of school students felt it was sometimes OK for a man to hit a woman if she slept with someone else. Eighty per cent thought that girls and women sometimes encourage violence and abuse by the way they dress and 76% thought that a woman can encourage violence by not treating men with respect.
It is estimated that only 15% of rapes are reported to the police. And of those only 7% result in conviction – much lower than the average for crime in general. A large part of the reason for this is that when someone reports being raped it is them under the spotlight. Interviews with police and judges have shown that they are asking themselves: ‘is she upset enough?’, ‘does she sleep around?’, ‘had she been drinking?’, ‘what was she wearing?’ Rather than seriously investigating the crime or the accused.
And all of these ideological attacks are particularly significant when combined with austerity cuts which are making women feel less safe and be less able to seek help if they are attacked. There has been a 31% decrease to funding for sexual and domestic violence services. In January 2012 Women’s Aid reported that its staff had to turn away 230 women a day the previous year because of a lack of beds. About half of all councils have turned street lights off completely or for part of the night to save money.
Saying No to sexism
WITH ALL THIS in mind it’s no surprise that there’s a growing anger about these issues – demonstrated by the Slutwalk movement for example. A big part of the anger is aimed at the sexism and victim blaming around rape, and in the last couple of years one target of that anger has been comedians who put these ideas forward.
At one comedy gig of Daniel Tosh – one of the most infamous rape-joke-tellers – a woman heckled “rape jokes are never funny”. Tosh responded by saying “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?” This got a shocked reaction around the world and eventually Tosh was forced into something of an apology which the woman concerned accepted.
But that’s not the end of the story. Because this wasn’t a one off. There is a growing trend of rape jokes, particularly in stand-up comedy. At a comedy night with four acts there is almost always one that resorts to some form of sexism, particularly rape jokes. The ‘I was having sex with my girlfriend… and then she woke up’ joke appears in various forms at many comedy nights.
The term ‘rape jokes’ does not refer to all jokes that mention the issue of rape. There may be a small number of comedians who tell jokes about rape in a progressive way which challenges common rape myths. But the vast majority reinforce these myths, place the blame on victims, and normalise things like date rape and intimate partner rape. Is it coincidence that it’s these types of jokes in particular? The trends of victim blaming, re-defining and down playing are the very same that were highlighted above in terms of comments from politicians and those in the judicial system.
In the past – in the 1970s for example – sexism in comedy mainly manifested as things like mother-in-law jokes and jokes about women in the kitchen. This was at a time when women were entering the workforce in huge numbers and men’s traditional role as bread winner was being challenged.
The similarity between the type of sexism prevalent in comedy and the type prevalent in society at large is not coincidental. Comedy, and all popular culture for that matter, reflects ideas in wider society. But it also influences them. People are not born with ideas, attitudes and ways of thinking biologically determined, these things are conditioned by the society they are brought up in. Popular culture, including comedy, is a big part of this.
Culture and society
MARXISTS UNDERSTAND that in society there is both what we call the base – the economy, the way things are produced, the division of labour – and what we call the superstructure – politics, culture, religion, education and ideas. The economic base sets the parameters for the superstructure but, contrary to what critics of Marxism may argue, this shouldn’t be oversimplified. In fact Marx and Engels argued strongly against reducing everything to economic relations.
In his Letter to Bloch in 1890 Engels said: “According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form”.
Once the superstructure exists, it develops a life of its own and can impact back on the base and on itself. Sexist ideas stem from the way society is organised and the oppression of women within that. But that doesn’t mean that sexism is static and not impacted by any other parts of the superstructure, including culture, entertainment and comedy.
And the relationship between entertainment and sexism doesn’t stop in the realm of ideas. Attitudes reflect and influence events and living conditions. When victories are won and conditions for women improve, attitudes to women improve too. In the last hundred years women have won the right to vote, some abortion and contraception rights, and the legal right to equal pay. Most importantly, women have entered the workplace in huge numbers – to the point that they now make up more than half the workforce. In OECD countries in 1970 just 48% of women worked. In Britain this number had reached 59% by 1980 and stands at 70% today. This has given many more women economic independence.
All of these things have had a massive impact on how women are seen and see themselves. Women are much more likely now to feel that they can achieve just as much as their male peers – and indeed, they’re much more likely to. Social attitude surveys show that on the surface at least, people are much less likely now than in the past to think that women should take all the responsibility for childcare and housework.
And the link between ideas and attitudes and material conditions doesn’t stop there. The idea that women are inferior, that their worth is almost entirely in their looks, is easily used to justify attacks on our living standards and rights. As a result of the huge cuts to the public sector (where two thirds of workers are women) twice as many women as men lost their jobs in the last quarter of 2011. There is evidence that the pay gap is starting to widen after decades of narrowing. Seventy per cent of money taken out of the benefits system has come from women’s pockets.
The importance of campaigning
SOCIALISTS FIGHT FOR a better society. That means fighting all attacks on working class people and all attacks on women. Socialist Party members have been involved in the campaign to save nurseries in HMRC civil servants workplaces. We have played an important part in organising the solidarity campaign over the death of Savita Halappanavar after being denied a medically necessary abortion in Ireland. But socialists also have to fight sexism itself and all manifestations of it. Half the working class are women and they will not tolerate any perception that they’re not taken seriously or are seen as having less worth than men.
The Rape Is No Joke campaign was launched with this in mind. The woman at the Daniel Tosh gig was very brave but why should she have to stand up alone? More importantly, socialists believe that standing up alone is much less effective than mass struggle. The campaign is challenging the idea that culture is off limits for politics. To suggest that comedy exists in some sort of bubble and so can absolve itself of responsibility for any of the backward attitudes that exist in society is wrong.
Even raising the idea that we don’t have to put up with sexism or victim blaming and laugh along politely can have a big effect on women’s consciousness and confidence. Going to the women who feel they have to sit quietly or people will think they’re prudes or have no sense of humour and say ‘it’s OK to stand up to this’ is a novel idea in a society that has quite successfully convinced people that men and women are equal now so it’s OK to laugh.
Culture can and should play a progressive role – this will always be limited under capitalism but where campaigns can have an impact, they should. Working class people should be able to have fun, be entertained, be made to laugh without falling back on backward ideas. We want comedy that punches up, not down – that attacks the politicians and the bigots and the system, not that divides people by attacking the victims of those things.
In 1917 the Bolshevik party led the Russian revolution to overthrow Tsarism and put in its place a real workers’ democracy. They undermined the material conditions for sexism. And they changed the law – at a time when women in most other countries were still struggling for the vote, the Bolsheviks legalised divorce and abortion on demand and abolished marital immunity for rape (75 years earlier than in Britain!). They introduced equal pay for equal work, 16 weeks paid maternity leave and the right for nursing mothers to work no more than four days a week and to have regular time off for breast feeding. They set up day nurseries, public laundries and restaurants to relieve the double burden of employment and housework facing most women.
But these changes didn’t eradicate sexism – the old ideas didn’t disappear just because laws were changed. A popular Russian saying at the time was that ‘a hen’s not a bird and a woman’s not a person’. The Bolsheviks had to have big campaigns after the revolution on things like language and culture, trying to break down the hangover of backward ideas that still existed. Big efforts were made to involve women in decision making. In 1918, a national women’s congress was organised which discussed a range of issues, including sexist language. The congress voted to ban the word ‘baba’ (meaning something like ‘peasant woman hag’). Campaigns like these were necessary to stop cultural backwardness cutting across the progress of the revolution.
The opposite was true when the revolution went into retreat in Russia. Attitudes were hugely thrown back and in fact the Stalinist regime fostered and propped itself up with reactionary ideas. Many of the material gains were undone too: for example abortion was made illegal again in 1936.
In the same way that the Bolsheviks saw campaigns on backward attitudes as necessary to protect the revolution, we need to tackle reactionary ideas which threaten the unity of the workers’ and anti-austerity movements. It is not enough to say that sexist ideas and their dominance in popular culture will be dealt with after the revolution. We can have that type of campaign now, which is what Rape Is No Joke is all about.