This week the Australian Vaccination Skeptics Network released an advertisement comparing the ‘FORCED PENETRATION’ of inoculation with rape. The black and white image was of a woman staring fearfully down the lens of the camera, a man’s hand clenched over her mouth and his head bent threateningly close to her ear.
This sort of politically-charged referencing to rape, or threats of rape, is nothing new. Nearly a hundred years ago, during World War One, a well-known Allied propaganda poster featured a dark, animalistic figure with a wide, gawping mouth carrying off a distressed white woman, whose breasts hung freely and whose garments were rent. The emblazoned message ‘DESTROY THIS MAD BRUTE. ENLIST’ implied that men should join the war, or ‘the Hun’ would rape their girlfriends.
Such references are also used to support and reinforce xenophobic political messages today. Last week I was stuck in a cab in traffic as a result of an anti-immigration rally near Sydney’s Central station. A white man shouted through a megaphone about how allowing Muslim immigrants into the country would create a “chauvinistic” culture dangerous to women. I contemplated exiting the cab, approaching him and challenging his racist statements, but quickly determined that the risks of verbal abuse (my bet would be in the form of being called a “bitch”) or even physical threats were too high.
Even when I’m not trapped in a cab, I notice messages of rape everywhere I go. They are inescapable.
I was sexually assaulted four months and five days ago, by my now-ex partner. I imagine there’ll come a time where I can no longer remember how many months and days it’s been; it hasn’t happened yet.
I have had incredible professional support from a sexual assault counsellor in the public system. I have had support from friends (including friends who’ve personally experienced rape) and, more recently, some family (again, including some family members who understand all too well).
Within the first two months after the assault, I spent two days unable to stop crying in front of my computer. I told my boss in case there were any concerns about motivation or performance issues and her response was incredibly supportive. I work in an organisation comprised of a 95% female workforce, and a fairly high number of my colleagues would have intimate experience of rape or domestic violence.
I can’t – and would never wish to – speak for all people who have experienced sexual assault. We’re not a club and God knows we never signed up to anything. I don’t know the degree to which having been raped qualifies me to write on the subject. It’s tempting sometimes to throw it down like a trump card but it’s not a trump card. And using my experience like it is would just be another way of using messages of rape to further an agenda, which is what I’m trying to fight against in this piece.
Speaking only for myself, then, as a woman in a misogynistic culture and as someone who is picking up the pieces after a sexual assault, here are some of the reasons why I think using rape to sell political messages is damaging and abhorrent:
- Making false comparisons to rape is hurtful and offensive to me as someone who has experienced sexual assault.
- Rape of women by men is a specific kind of violence involving numerous societal factors, the most integral of which I consider to be entitlement. There’s entitlement behind appropriating and using imagery, messaging and stories of women’s rape to sell a political idea. Stop taking something that doesn’t belong to you, that didn’t happen to you, that you don’t understand, and using it for your own purposes.
- The lack of accuracy bothers me. Sexual assault is a complex beast. Making false comparisons to rape simultaneously normalises and yet twists stories of rape, and helps to create and foster existing myths around sexual assault. The kind of obviously violent imagery that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror film may grab attention, but my understanding of most rapes is that they’re quiet, almost prosaically so. A quiet horror, if you will. My sexual assault counsellor says that the most common response by factors rather than degrees is for women to freeze and that only two of her clients (out of hundreds, including some as young, or younger than, 12 years old) have fought back. Freezing is a survival skill. Most sexual violence occurs within intimate relationships or is perpetrated by friends or family members. Not all assaults involve a man and a woman*. Sexual assaults exist on a continuum, and not all of them involve penetration. Most intimate violence is intra-racial. The lack of nuance and reliance on stereotypes in rape messaging used to bolster political arguments, could be reinforcing wrong-headed societal ideas of rape and sexual violence. It could be making it harder for those who have experienced assaults to seek help, or to even self-identify as having experienced sexual violence, if what they’ve been through doesn’t look anything like the ads.
- People or organisations who invoke rape run – not even the risk – the certainty of triggering sexual assault survivors. If you set out with a communications strategy that includes the use of rape imagery, know that you are going to hurt people who have already been badly hurt. You might remind them of one of the worst days of their lives. I work in the communications section of a public health organisation and it’s part of my job to be across news stories related to public health. The way I found out about this advertisement was when a colleague said, “Did you see the new ad comparing vaccination to rape?” I shouldn’t have to deal with casual mentions of rape or loaded images of rape just to write a media report. It’s fair to say, I have enough to deal with.
- I find it galling that there does not seem to be a huge overlap between the people who invoke rape to send political messages and those who actively, or even generally, care about women’s safety. They’re not activists who’ve fought hard to return women’s domestic violence crisis services to Sydney after the defunding of numerous specialist shelters in NSW as part of the Going Home, Staying Home policy. They’re not refugee advocates who are rightfully concerned about sexual violence on Manus Island. They’re not clinicians in regional and rural areas doing an incredible job of providing sexual assault services across vast distances and with limited funding. Fairly or unfairly, when a racist shouts into a megaphone about the threats to Australian women posed by Muslim immigrants, I think: “this person would never ask a Muslim woman how she feels, or probably even show her basic respect, or even recognise that Australian Muslim women exist and have existed for a long time”. A more cynical thought occurs, borrowing the form of a man’s ‘ocker’ voice through a loudspeaker: “only white blokes should have the right to rape Australian women!”
In the end, even if a political message I agreed with and found very worthy was being promoted using rape imagery, I would still have a problem with this method of delivery. I don’t actually give a shit what the content of your political message is: stop using rape to sell it.
* I understand that sexual violence can be committed by any gender towards any gender; however for the purposes of this article I have confined my comments to sexual violence perpetrated by men against women, as this is what I personally experienced and also what is most commonly referenced in rape imagery used for political purposes.
The author of this piece is known to Women’s Agenda and wishes to remain anonymous.