global politics, relationally

‘Knowing’ Rape

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This is a post by Caron Gentry. Security issues at RelationsInternational make the author byline incorrect. Please forgive the inconvenience. 

The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict began in London this week. I wish I could believe that a summit attended by Angelina Jolie would end wartime rape. I wish I could believe that a conference attended by political leaders that wield power beyond the silver screen would end wartime rape. But more, I wish we could just end rape. We ‘know’ that rape is endemic in ‘peace’-time societies, such as India, South Africa, and Peru. We refuse to ‘know’ that it is a problem in the US. Laura’s post on Monday was an angry, rightfully so, response to George Will’s inane, ignorant, and, ultimately, violent comment—but he is not alone. I could make something of Rajiv Sinha, the former director of the Indian Central Bureau of investigation, who stated that those who are raped should just enjoy it. But I hate to let anyone continue to think that peacetime rape is a ‘brown’ person problem. It is an everyone and everywhere problem. I am angry, no, furious, and frankly exhausted by academics, pundits, and politicians who construct rape within post-coloniality. This allows for the West and in particular the US to construct itself within an exceptional frame, denying that any problem with violence against women exists within its boundaries.

It was not so long ago that Clayton Williams ruined his chances to be Texas governor by making a comment strikingly similar to Sinha’s. During his 1990 campaign against Democrat Ann Richards, Williams invited a group of reporters to his ranch for the weekend. Sadly it was cold and foggy. But no matter: Williams informed the reporters, like bad weather, “if [rape] is inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.” I shouldn’t need to state that the formidable Richards was elected instead. (As a Texan, I feel I can write that this is the last time Texas chose a governor wisely. But I digress.) There continues to be a pervasive minimization of rape and thus a diminishment of victims of sexual violence within the US.

Politicians are misguided on rape–please read Molly Redden’s New Republic article on some politicians’ idiocy. No, rape is not a part of a divine plan or a cry-wolf “buyer’s remorse.” And, for the love of all things holy, yes, rape can result in pregnancy. Journalists are misguided on where responsibility lies–as much as I like‘s Dear Prudence, Emily Yoffe’s advice column, I disagree with her assessment of college rape: women should be able to get drunk and not be raped. In fact, women should be able to wear what they like, say what they like, ride a bus where they like, walk where they like, And Not Be Raped. And they should not live in fear of this possibility. And academics in security are misguided on where it takes place and the severity of it. There has been quite a bit of attention placed on the vulnerability of women in the developing world–with the basic assertion being that the insecurity of women in the developing world is tied to a lack of economic development, militarization, and levels of conflict.

There is an epistemic problem here of what violences we are willing to acknowledge and where victims (not victimization or victimhood, but simply, victims) are located. This a reflection of how the masculine US Self is constructed: as an exceptional liberal state–the City on the Hill–that has lately based much of its identity on saving brown women from brown men (the Other in this binary narrative).   According to this (romantic) narrative, US women don’t need saving. In fact, according to Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in Half the Sky (2009), women in the US do not face much violence, the most they might encounter is sexual discrimination int the workplace. Steve Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), asserts that as a Western, democratic, law-based system, the US has largely dealt with the (overinflated) rape problem. In fact, the US’ problem has been so well resolved that he declares, “We are all feminists now” (after minimizing the sexual assault of one of his Harvard graduate students in a “working-class [Boston] neighborhood”). In Sex and World Peace (2012), Valerie Hudson, Mary Caprioli, Bonnie Baillif-Spanville, and Chad Emmett assert that the US doesn’t have much of a domestic violence issue and seem to imply that the issue it does have is located in the American South in the African-American community. Wow. While Hudson et al. are not addressing rape, their text alongside the other two demonstrate the refusal of American scholars/journalists to acknowledge and grapple with the reality of violence against women in the (maybe not so exceptional) US. If there is a problem it is a problem located within particular, marginalized raced and classed communities.

We could potentially excuse these texts as having been published before the military report on sexual assault in 2013 and the continuation of the problem. Or before the lid was blown off of colleges and universities covering up rape on campuses. Perhaps. But perhaps the texts are also unwittingly part of the silencing and part of constituting the US Self in a particular way.

The War on Women, the need to control women’s sexuality, and the rights of the LBGTQ community are wrapped up in this production of a US exceptionalism that is dependent upon particular, anxious idealizations of heteronomativity, religiousity, and savior-hood. It has ties to misogynistic mass-killings, like in Santa Barbara. But that is another post. And this is the ‘stuff’ of IR– because we keep making the protection and security of women in other places the stuff of US foreign policy but also of Summits meant to end it.