On Dismissing Sexual Violence Against Some Women As “Cultural”

Strong Trigger Warning for discussions and descriptions of sexual violence, rape apologism, war, murder, and racism.

This morning, an incredible op-ed by Lisa Shannon was published in the New York Times, entitled “No, Sexual Violence is Not ‘Cultural.'” Of course, those of us here know that rape culture is very, very real. But the context of the word “culture” in this piece is very different. Culture does not refer to a set oppressive of social systems reinforced through every day actions, but to the way that a group of “othered,” presumably “inferior” people live their lives.

A month into my first trip to eastern Congo, site of the deadliest conflict since World War II, I had heard plenty of horror stories — from forced cannibalism to the burning alive of the inhabitants of entire villages. I was no longer easily shocked. But one exchange with an aid worker stopped me cold.

I arrived in Baraka, a town on Lake Tanganyika that was overrun with Congolese soldiers and international aid workers, in February 2007. I asked a disheveled European woman working with the United Nations about security. She enthusiastically described her pet video project, to convince refugees in neighboring Tanzania that it was safe to return home.

“Foreign militias are gone,” she said. “Just rapes and looting for the moment. No attacks.”

Stunned, I asked, “You don’t consider rape a security threat?”

“Rape here is so common,” she said. “It’s cultural.”

That was the first of many times I would hear mass rape in Congo dismissed as “cultural.”

Shannon points out the offensive nature of this line of thinking, and though she doesn’t use the word racism and I wish she had, it seems clear to me that she’s exposing the racist roots to this type of thinking nonetheless, as well as the grave insult it presents to Congolese men.

Any Congolese will tell you rape is not “traditional.” It did occur in Congo before the war, as it does everywhere. But the proliferation of sexual violence came with the war. Militias and Congolese soldiers alike now use sexual violence as a weapon. Left unchecked, sexual violence has festered in Congo’s war-ravaged east. This does not make rape cultural. It makes it easy to commit. There is a difference.

Analysts often use the phrase “culture of impunity” to describe Congo. John Prendergast, who has worked in African conflict zones for 25 years, explains: “The rule of law breaks down and perpetrators commit crimes without fear of conviction or punishment. Over time, this leads to further breakdown of societal codes and the very social fabric of a community.”

The media, aid workers and activists alike have consistently failed to tell the stories of Congolese men who were killed by fighters because they refused to commit rape. In interviews with hundreds of women, I heard countless stories of men who chose to take a bullet in the head, literally, rather than violate their child, sister or mother. In Baraka, one survivor recalled: “They tried to make my older brother rape me. He refused and was killed. So they raped me.”

At first I just wanted to share this piece with you, because it is excellent, and thought that I myself had nothing to add. But after several hours it stuck with me, and I decided to read it again. And I realized that I did have something, after all.

I think that Shannon had a good reason to focus on men in her piece — indeed, those who work against rape culture regularly argue that we need to spend more time looking at the perpetrators of violence and preventing rape, rather than only assisting victims as though rape is inevitable. And the dishonor done to those many men who gave their own lives rather than commit rape on behalf of other men matters. It matters deeply — it deserves to be known, and those doing the dishonoring deserve to be shamed.

But I want to expand on what this type of thinking Shannon rebuts says about and does to Congolese women. Of them, Shannon writes:

The European aid worker who dismissed the violence as “cultural” implied that Congolese women should expect to be raped. In so doing, she dismissed her responsibility to so much as warn returning refuges about the extreme security threat.

Later that day in 2007, I met 20 Congolese women who had returned from refugee camps in the last six months. In that time, half had been raped.

“Cultural relativism legitimizes the violence and discredits the victims, because when you accept rape as cultural, you make rape inevitable,” Ms. Wallstrom explained in a recent opinion essay co-authored with the Norwegian foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Store. “This shields the perpetrators and allows world leaders to shrug off sexual violence as an immutable — if regrettable — truth.”

And I think that we can take that just a little bit further. In saying “it’s cultural,” the woman did even more than dismiss her responsibility to the women she was trying to get to return home — and it should go without saying that dismissing her responsibility was beyond forgivable already. She didn’t just dismiss her responsibility, she more or less said that if these women are raped, it does not matter.

A European woman readily, easily dismissed the idea of rape against African women as a genuine security threat. Never mind that Congolese women are routinely killed by rape, or permanently disabled by rape (usually without access to medical care, no less). Never mind that Congolese women are routinely impregnated by rape, and having no access to abortion are forced to carry their rapist’s child. Never mind that even if these things were not true, even if rapes in the Congo were not notoriously violent, that rape, any rape, is more than bad enough. Never mind that rape should not be committed against anyone, and yet it is admittedly being systematically committed against Congolese women.

This European woman did not reflect on the sides of privilege and oppression that she and the African women whose security she rejected each fell as both mere accidents of birth and upheld systems of subjugation. She did not stop and consider that as bad as rape culture is in her home country, no one would dare actually speak those words about her own body. And yet somehow, she still knew these things about her own position of privilege. I see no other way that the words could have left her mouth so easily, if somewhere she did not also realize that she was not at risk of falling victim to them herself.

It’s true that something more horrifying than what most people have ever experienced can occur for other people so frequently that they “get used to it,” that it can in fact become normal. Marginalized people have for centuries gotten “used to” all kinds of atrocious, horrific, and oppressive behavior. For example, untold women have “gotten used to” being beaten every night. They have gotten used to it because they had to. Because they had no choice. Because it’s what they needed to do to survive.

I don’t know whether, as the European woman seems to think, many or most Congolese women have gotten “used to” rape, whether or not it has become such a part of their lives that they see it as “normal,” and I’m not going to pretend to know. But what I do know is that if they have, if they have gotten used to it, if they do see it as normal, that what any woman has to do in order to survive violence doesn’t change a goddamn fucking thing about whether or not the violence matters. No matter how used to abuse a person gets, no matter how tragically normal violence may be as a part of a person’s life, it is never okay. It is never less of a threat to them. It always matters. It always fucking matters.

By saying that rape in the Congo is “cultural,” just “the way things are,” and “what those people are like,” we’re engaging in racism and colonialist tropes about a brutal “savage” black male that is sexually insatiable, immoral, and violent. We’re engaging in tropes that have been used to kill countless black men throughout history, and which continue to justify Western capitalist colonization and imperialism today.

And we’re also saying that some women just don’t fucking matter. That some women’s bodies just deserve to be raped. And those women’s bodies just so happen to be the bodies of poor black women in a supposedly monolithic, Othered Africa. The same exact women whose rapes by Western, white men have been excused through the same exact means. The same women who myths about what kind of oppressive, violent behavior is so “common” and normal” and deserved have always hurt the most.

0 thoughts on “On Dismissing Sexual Violence Against Some Women As “Cultural”

  1. Jennifer Drew

    Whilst I agree the European woman working with the United Nations was speaking male supremacist language wherein it is held that certain women when subjected to male sexual violence should have their experiences dimissed as ‘cultural’ as though these certain women are not human, we must take into account the wider picture.

    It is not women who devised the notion that certain women cannot be harmed by men’s sexual violence – rather it is women’s internalisation of white male supremacist thinking. That does not mean we should not hold women accountable when they repeat white male supremacist thinking but we need to understand where these racist myths come from and that is the White Male Supremacist System. Because according to White Male Supremacist system only white men have access to knowledge and only white men must be the ones to define knowledge.

    Likewise no woman has a ‘man’s child’ because this term is a patriarchal one and promotes the myth that women are ’empty vessels’ waiting to be filled by the man’s child. No man gives a woman a child – rather what men do is to impregnate/inseminate a woman and she then becomes pregnant. Certainly a woman can be forcibly made pregnant by a male raping but in no way does a woman ‘have a rapist’s child.’ Reproduction involves two individuals and one of the outcomes of men raping women is forced insemination whereby the male deposits his semen into the woman’s body. The man does not ‘deposit a child into a woman’s body.’ Aristotle believed reproduction was solely the premise of men but Aristotle too was a misogynist who believed women were not human.

    We must not perpetuate patriarchal myths of male ownership of children because this reinforces belief that women do not have children but have men’s children. Science has to date not been able to prove a man produces his own child and then uses a woman’s body to carry his child (sic). This directly flouts biological fact that women play a greater role in reproduction than men.

    1. Cara Post author


      While you say that we should hold white women responsible for their racism, you come rather dangerously close to dismissing that responsibility. Just because white women are oppressed on the basis of gender does not mean that they (we, I should say, as a white woman) are not oppressors. The fact that kyriarchal structures tend to use racism and sexism in conjunction with each other does not change the fact that white women actively engage in racist oppression and actively benefit from it. Yes, it’s important to remember that there are larger structures at play. And I didn’t write the post, I hope it’s clear, because I think that one single person is being an asshole, and there is no greater relevance outside of one specific instance. But we can talk about white men and how they run everything all day. It’s not going to help, in the end, if we refuse to hold white women personally accountable for their own racism and, in this case, misogyny. Their acts of oppression, my acts of oppression, do not count any less because of their gender. The words here don’t do less harm than they would have done if they were a white man speaking them. And I find it hard to believe that if the anecdote was about a white man, anyone would be taking pains to stress that the issue is bigger than him alone.

      Secondly, I’m not surprised to see an objection to the language you point out, but I chose it deliberately. In war zones, rapists regularly intend to impregnate their victims as an act of violence. They intend, horrible though it is for me to even type it out, for both the pregnancy and child to be acts of violence in themselves. They know the pregnancy is as unwanted as the rape, and they do it for that reason, as a way to “demoralize” the enemy. And again, I am speaking of a case where a woman does not have an option to end the pregnancy, even when she very much wants to. That is an act of violence; it is not an act that the man and woman are committing together. It is something that he has done to her, in this particular case.

      If someone here who has lived these same circumstances being described were to tell me that they found my words offensive, silencing, or otherwise harmful and erasing of their experiences, I would and will very swiftly and humbly apologize for that and change the wording. As it is, it feels wrong to me to speak of an instance where we are talking about a forcible and unwanted pregnancy — and it’s important to be clear, not of any relationship resulting from the birth and from that point forward, which is indeed the woman’s — as a woman carrying “her” child or “their” child. From my vantage point — admittedly, a privileged and limited one, which is why I’m more than willing to discuss with someone who has more direct experience of the issue than I have myself — that is a minimization and an erasure of the violence that has been inflicted.

      Again, I’m open to discussing that issue, but it’s going to have to be based in a hell of a lot more than the arguments presented above, because when put in the context of what we’re talking about here, old myths about reproduction seem really out of place and mean exceedingly little to me.

      1. Cara Post author

        Also, to be entirely clear — as if several hundred words weren’t enough for me, apparently! — I’m not making an argument that “this really pisses me off, so I think we can make an exception for using patriarchal language in this case, because I’m so angry.” I hate those arguments. The argument I’m making is, “I think this is a very unique case, and because of the very specific circumstances of said unique case, I actually believe that the language which would generally be considered patriarchal is in fact in this case the less patriarchal option.” Just so we’re clear on the terms of disagreement.

    2. Ailuridae

      While I agree with your greater point that we should not perpetuate the notion that women have men’s children, this:

      Certainly a woman can be forcibly made pregnant by a male raping but in no way does a woman ‘have a rapist’s child.’ Reproduction involves two individuals and one of the outcomes of men raping women is forced insemination whereby the male deposits his semen into the woman’s body.

      is far more triggering, upsetting, offensive, creepy–whatever word you’d like to use–than Cara’s phrasing. Her point was not that it is “his” child and that philosophically anyone is implying or perpetuating the idea that he is ejaculating a fully formed child into a woman. The point is that it’s a violent act because he is committing violence against her.

      I have very small scars from violence that has been committed against me at various times in my life, all of which by men. While those scars are mine, I also aptly describe them as “the scars he gave me” or even “his scars.” He did not affix an already formed scar to me. He injured me, and it turned into a scar. The reason I state that he gave it to me or that it’s his or from him is because I am pointing out intention, not actual ownership. His intention was to hurt me, and may even have been to leave a lasting reminder of that incident or of his intention.

      It’s one thing to say “she’s carrying his child” when it’s obviously consensual, and the child is equally wanted by both partner’s–or at least wanted by the woman. Yes, that perpetuates the idea that women are empty vessels and that children “belong” to men, and that’s not something anybody should really support. It’s an entirely different context when a woman says “I do not want to carry my rapist’s baby” or “he tried to force her to carry his baby” or any other phrasing in the context of coercion. What’s being highlighted with that phrasing is not the “ownership” but rather the coercion itself. You’re correct that it implies that she was treated as an empty vessel–because she was, that’s the point. Someone treated her as a thing to be owned or used, intentionally. That’s how it feels, because that’s how it’s intended to make (those of) us (who have survived these experiences) feel.

      To state that it should not be phrased that way because it perpetuates an “idea” seems pretty privileged to me. Your “idea” or “theory” is someone else’s reality. Stating that a consenting woman is carrying someone else’s baby is harmful specifically because it calls on the very real experience, historically and today, of women being forced by someone to carry a pregnancy/child they do not want–which normalizes such an act of violence and conflates non-consent with consent, essentially erasing any meaningful distinction. To want to throw out an accurate description of a real experience that women have does exactly the same thing.

  2. Pingback: What We Mean When We Say Rape is “Cultural” « Rad Tuna Idea

  3. Politicalguineapig

    Rape is caused by men’s sense of entitlement nothing more. Saying rape is caused by cultural mores is only a bit less silly than saying certain sports cause rape. (A line of argument that I have actually used.) Y’know what would really help the Congo- organizing all the women into an army and giving them Really Big Guns. That’d solve the problem fast.

  4. Kitty

    I agree with Politicalguineapig. If these privileged UN workers are really there to help these refugees, they damn well ought to actually help them instead of sending them back to violent environments saying it’s okay cuz the abuse is “cultural.” That makes me sick. If there aren’t already international laws against rape and murder, there need to be, and the UN should start enforcing them. This kind of brutality shouldn’t be tolerated under any circumstances regardless of who it’s being inflicted on.

    On a somewhat more personal note, it struck me as a bit odd that some men thought it’d be less traumatizing for their sisters, children, etc. to see them get shot and have them left vulnerable to rape by other men, than to just rape them themselves. I’m not saying what they did is wrong or that they should rape anyone even if they are forced to do so at gunpoint. I commend them for sticking to their principles and doing what they thought was best to protect their families, and, I imagine, in some ways themselves, as I suspect they’d feel guilty if they raped someone they cared about even if they felt they had no other choice. I just feel that personally, if I had to choose between being raped by my father or brother and being raped in addition to watching my father or brother get shot to death, I’d probably find the former slightly less traumatic. I suspect that most people including Congolese women who would agree with that, and wonder if the men who choose to be shot rather than be the ones to rape their families considered that. Without knowing whether or not they felt certain their families would be left unharmed if they gave up their lives, I’m in no place to judge them, but I think that if a man I loved made the same decision I’d be mad at him for leaving me. I’d like to clarify that I in no way think that these brave men abandoned their families, only that I would feel abandoned if I didn’t have my father or brother to help me deal with the trauma after being raped and instead was left to grieve them on top of it. Though without having heard about more casing I can’t say there weren’t men made a different choice based on this line of thinking when faced with the same situation. All that said the men who force families into this situation are some cruel, sick bastards indeed.

  5. Catherine

    Hi Cara,

    I’ve been reading here for a few months, but this is my first time commenting. Thank you for highlighting this article – I have a great deal of admiration for Lisa’s work, and I think so much of what she says is spot on. I am curious, though, if you think that it might be too glib to simply say “Rape is not cultural.” I absolutely do not think that mass rape is “traditional” to the Congo, or that it is somehow particular to African societies. But I think that culture is something that is constantly created, changed, reinforced, etc., and that even though rape is not cultural in the way that we think of certain religious practices or holiday rituals as being cultural, over the last few years, as the result of systemic violence, the breakdown of security, and the destruction of villages, homes, and havens, there has been the creation of a *new* kind of culture in the Congo – one that says rape is an acceptable tool of warfare, that women expect and in some ways deserve to be abused. This is not to say that there are not incredibly courageous men and women standing up to these cultural expectations. Or that this culture is the dominant one. Only that it is there, and that these rapes are not solely the product of individual decision making, with no input from a wider cultural/sociological forces. There is a reason so many of the rapes in the Congo are gang rapes and rapes committed by militias and government soldiers.

    I have heard feminists use the phrase “rape culture” to describe the kind of objectification and violence that even women in Western countries are subject to on a daily basis – and I think that Congo is struggling with its own “rape culture.” To acknowledge that America has its own “rape culture” is not to dismiss the fact that the vast majority of men are good, kind, decent people who love and respect the women they encounter. But it is a means of diagnosing the problems that women still face in this country, and it is a way of forcing us to recognize how we contribute to that kind of dysfunctional culture, sometimes even without being aware of it. Might not something similar be said about people living in the Congo?

    1. Ailuridea

      There is a difference between “rape culture” and “congolese culture” or “rape culture” and “islamic/muslim culture” or “rape culture” and “american culture.”

      American culture can be complicit in or part of rape culture. In many ways it’s conflated almost to the point of being indistinguishable. The point of this article, however, is that no one points to America and says “rape is just part of their culture.” No, they point at other cultures and say that, essentially saying that it’s to be expected because those cultures are less than, those women are less than. There isn’t really any part of the world that escapes it, so singling out this geographical location or that geographical location (always locations that tend to be primarily populated by people of color–hmmmm) serves no real purpose other than to cover up the fact that it isn’t legitimately part of any culture, but rather this invasive culture of its own that attaches itself to the dominant culture of the area, and that we are all complicit in it wherever we happen to live.

  6. Politicalguineapig

    Catherine: “Most men are good, kind, and decent people who are kind and respectful to the women they encounter.”
    Er, considering the uptick in rapes, several recent murders and the uptick in domestic violence, I’m having a lot of trouble believing that.
    Men in stressful situations, especially in war or troubled economic times have only one emotional outlet: violence. They may be violent to other men, or take the rage out on themselves, but usually, they tend to take their problems out on women.
    That’s why I get worried about my friends/ relatives who are in relationships. It’s dangerous to be around men who are stressed, or spend extensive time in an all male environment.

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  8. Catherine


    One of Lisa’s points is that a “rape is cultural” argument unfairly slanders the “countless” (her words) men who refuse to participate in sexual violence against the women in their lives. That even in a society where mass rape is a fact of life, there are many men – perhaps even most – who would rather die than violate a woman they are close to (and maybe even a woman they do not know at all).

    Similarly, I think that it is a misdiagnosis and frankly quite counterproductive to approach all men as if they were simply ticking time bombs waiting to go off on the nearest woman. I realize we may fundamentally disagree on this subject. But if someone like Lisa, who sees violence up close and personal every day of her life, can see that there are many Congolese men who respect and protect women, I have no problem saying that there are many American men who respect and protect women as well, and who do not react to stressful life situations with violence (honestly, I think the fact that life is so much safer and healthier for the average American woman than for the average Congolese woman, means that many American men are doing a lot of things right, despite all the work that still remains to be done).

    I simply find it strange that the feminist blogosphere is intent upon denying that the situation in the Congo can be attributed to cultural factors (in *any* sense of the term) while, at the same time, insisting (quite rightly) that women in America are subject to a “rape culture”. If the average western woman lives in a rape culture, then surely the average woman in the Congo does. We should make the argument that rape is not a traditional tool of warfare in the Congo, that mass rape is not endemic to the Congolese, or part of their religious, ethnic, tribal, etc. customs – or that they “have always been this way” and will never change, and thus Congolese women should accept their lot – but at the same time, we should not ignore the reality that people consciously and unconsciously create cultures every day, and sometimes those cultures can have very pernicious effects on the women living under them.

    I’m thinking of “culture” in the way that Durkheim describes it – as something that is greater than the sum of individual behavior. When you have thousands upon thousands of women being raped, roving packs of militias raping women in groups, refugee camps instead of villages and homes, you have created a culture that normalizes and rewards violence, that raises the stakes for the brave people who stand against it, that greatly impacts the lives of people who are not directly involved in the fighting and victimizing. And of course it is not cultural in the sense of being particular to this one group of people. But that doesn’t make it any less cultural in other ways – in its pervasiveness, its ability to resist attempts at change, the fact that it draws support from a wide variety of people, and influences individual thinking and behavior in both subtle and overt ways.

    Finally, I absolutely agree with you that rapists act out of a sense of entitlement. But where do they get this sense of entitlement from? It doesn’t spring, fully formed, out of nowhere. Maybe there is a biological component. But I think it’s also a learned attitude, something formed at home, among friends, in the workplace, during leisure time activities, etc. – all of which add up to create something called “culture.”

    1. Cara Post author

      Catherine — what Ailuridea said above is precisely correct. We’re talking about two different definitions of the word “cultural.” And I tried to address this in the very first paragraph of the post, so I’m not sure why you’re intent on acting like it has been completely ignored. No one is denying rape culture. I said so explicitly.

      1. Catherine


        I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to give the impression that I was ignoring what you had written. But the NY Times piece was penned for a mass audience – one that is probably unfamiliar with terms like “rape culture.” Lisa’s piece seems to reject the idea of rape as cultural in any way – hence making it more difficult for feminists to make arguments that we, or the women in the Congo, are subject to a rape culture. Also, other commenters have made statements here like “Saying rape is caused by cultural mores is only a bit less silly than saying certain sports cause rape” – which again, I think is simply too blanket a declaration, because it doesn’t make the distinction between different types of culture. I really liked Ailuridea’s comment – I think Lisa’s piece would have been even more powerful and effective had she included a similar paragraph.

  9. Politicalguineapig

    Catherine: I can’t make the distinction between the two cultures, because I don’t and never have lived in the Congo. I refuse to make irresponsible comments about another culture, but what I can do is look for parallels in our culture.

    And the parallels are: stressed men, men who spend a whole lot of time in a male-only environment, and a legal system that can’t/won’t do a thing to help the victims. Also, the only emotional language men are taught in both these cultures is violence. All of these contribute to an environment where men rape with impunity.

    (I am aware that SOME rapists get convicted, but conviction is a total crapshoot even in “civilized” countries.)

  10. Politicalguineapig

    And I don’t see why one shouldn’t ‘treat men as if they are ticking time bombs’- rapists don’t come with tattoos. If a woman wants to be safe, she must assume that at some point, her nears and dears will want to hurt her, and she must take steps to prevent that. Yes, they deserve affection, but that affection must also be tempered with wariness.

  11. Pingback: Interesting posts, weekend of July 4, 2010 « Feminists with Female Sexual Dysfunction

  12. Pingback: The Wholestyle Network » Blog Archive » Dismissing Rape as “Cultural” in Eastern Congo

  13. Pingback: For Some Kenyan Women, Toilet Use Means Sexual Violence — The Curvature

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