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Roastbusters, rape culture and the problem of criminality

Roastbusters, rape culture and the problem of criminality

by Anne Russell
November 7, 2013

Trigger warning: rape, discussion of victim-blaming.

It is, unfortunately, a truism that the older you get, the more of your friends have been raped. Although popular narratives suggest that rape victims are easy to identify, many of these friends will never be known to you. It takes time for the victim to process what has happened, get past the frequent self-blaming and start their healing process. If they then tell someone, by this time the bruise marks have often faded, if there were any to begin with, and admissible legal evidence is sketchy. Even when rape victims actually want their rapists to go to jail, many are put off going to the police by the victim-blaming and retraumatisation that frequently happens during questioning, with only a slim chance of a conviction.

This is not to say that the police are incapable of being good allies to rape survivors, or that victims should never go to the police for help. But anti-rape advocates have known for a long time that the police aren't often the first port of call for rape survivors. In many cases, the function of the police is to deal with problems that we're unable or unwilling to fix ourselves. As such, it's telling that most of the public debate around the Roastbusters group has focused on how the police should deal with the problem.

Many have expressed shock and anger that the police knew about the page for two years but didn't do anything. The police attempted to excuse this with a claim that they were unable to act without a victim’s statement; but it has since emerged that four girls have come forward to the police since 2011. While such mutually supportive accounts build a comparatively strong base of evidence, it is clear that the police do not take such statements seriously. In the case of one of the girls, after making her re-enact her rape with dolls, the police told her that her case was inadmissible owing to lack of evidence and the short skirt she was wearing at the time. The idea of police as bastions of justice is clearly flawed when they won't prevent children from being raped.

I say 'won't' rather than 'can't', because these people are middle class adults with state-granted powers of surveillance power at their hands. It wasn't impossible for the police to dig up internet and telecommunications evidence to use against the Urewera 17, and yet the Roastbusters' open admissions of rape were not enough for them to even report the page to Facebook. While some suspect that the inaction on Roastbusters is related to the fact that one of them is the son of a cop, this sort of inertia is all too common in police conduct around rape cases. It's not a coincidence that an institution that frequently upholds misogynist power and violence—as in the rape of Louise Nicholas by police in 1984, not to mention ongoing prison rape statistics—is ill-equipped to understand or dismantle the misogynist power and violence that shapes rape culture.

When asked about the case, John Key expressed disgust and said that the Roastbusters crew needed to "grow up" (as though adults don't rape). He indicated that the government would be advancing the Harmful Digital Communications Bill in response, wherein posting rape videos online could be interpreted as a crime. This creates a worrying discourse whereby the further extension of surveillance powers is framed as necessary for the safety of young girls—if we oppose the bill we're supporting rapists and rape culture. Despite such abuses of state power, even committed leftists who otherwise chant "fuck the police" often pressure rape victims to make formal complaints, whether the survivors feel it would aid their recovery or not.

The cultural focus on whether or not the Roastbusters' acts legally count as rape is part of an attempt to treat them as an anomaly, neatly dividing the world into Evil Rapists and Good Non-Rapists. If the accused rapist is found guilty in a court of law they can be sent to jail, wherein many people view prison rape as a fitting retribution, and we can forget about them—the problem is sitting in a remote cell. If they are not, their friends can keep inviting them to parties without discussing the violence they've committed because it's too awkward.

Unfortunately, the legal system of "innocent until proven guilty" is not particularly helpful when it comes to the problem of rape. Outing a rapist in a public forum almost invariably risks accusations of slander or libel, because there is rarely concrete proof of rape that can be used in a court of law. Yet anti-rape organisations estimate that only around 3% of rape accusations are false—these forming only a small fraction of rapes that are reported at all.


Statistics from the US, similar to those in New Zealand. Source: http://theenlivenproject.com/the-truth-about-false-accusation/

These statistics demonstrate a second truism: that the older you get, the more rapists inhabit your social circles. It would be comforting to think that rapists were only violent psychopaths who we could easily identify and isolate, but there are too many for this to be universally true. Although sometimes spottable by their sleazy remarks, groping, or open rape apologia, many of them blend into social scenes more subtly. Rapists are our workmates, our drinking buddies, our favourite musicians, people at the front of socialist rallies, queer rights advocates, and men who talk about feminism at length. Some of these people are rape victims themselves—how then to dispense justice? Such people cannot be categorised as both waif-like victims and inhumane monsters.

The narrative of rapist as unrepentant psychopath is undermined when the rapist expresses guilt, or when they genuinely didn’t realise their sexual partner hadn't consented, or really did desire their partner—since sexual desire and abuse of power are not mutually exclusive. The apology from one of the Roastbusters read: "I just want people to know I am a good person at heart and I have matured and have taken this as a massive learning experience." While these admissions are often made much of by reporters, as in the similar Steubenville rape case last year, the experiences of survivors are virtually ignored. The apology of the rapist is understood as the endpoint of making amends, rather than the beginning, and survivors who continue to experience trauma or demand further action are dismissed. When they are noticed in the media, survivors are often shamed for not responding or behaving in ways deemed acceptable, as Willie and JT did to a Roastbusters victim on RadioLive. (Trigger warning: victim-blaming, slut-shaming, rape apologia.)

Worryingly, these discourses can prevent rapists from thinking of themselves as rapists, since they have not held their victim at weapon point. Moreover, it implies that any act short of rape is socially and politically irrelevant to the crime. But rape doesn't come from nowhere, and not all aspects of rape culture are serious enough to merit a jail term. Should the man who I tried to kiss without asking have taken me down to the station for non-consensual conduct? Should I have been charged with aiding and abetting criminals when I made rape jokes at age nineteen, letting rapists in my circle know that what they'd done was not a big deal to me? The problem of rape culture doesn't only emerge when rape happens, but in micro-aggressions, poor personal boundaries, and the dreadful anticipation of the act. I didn't call the police when a man almost succeeded in attacking me on Cuba St at 2am—he was Not A Rapist, though probably only by dint of a few seconds. Nor do I call them every time an acquaintance gropes me or says that my low-cut top means I don't respect myself. Police do not and cannot always press charges for routine events that form the backdrop of women's lives.

In this context, the question of whether or not the Roastbusters crew can be legally charged as rapists is irrelevant. Even if the evidence of videos and public bragging didn't exist, it would still remain clear that these men, and countless of others in this country alone, are misogynists with lax boundaries who are willing to abuse their power. The problem of rape culture is not rooted entirely in misogyny; rape also exists within the queer community, and men can be raped by women. But the cultural centring of cisgender male perspectives at the expense of women and trans* people forms a lot of ground for rape culture to flourish, whereby cis men are told they are entitled to our bodies. Of course, many men are outraged at the Roastbusters events, but many are also responding in patriarchal ways that exacerbate the problem. The masculine vigilante violence that has been proposed against Roastbusters' masculine violence won't stop rape from happening, or indeed help many survivors to heal.

How then to take a stand against sexual violence? Leaving aside the police, one might wonder why the friends of the Roastbusters crew didn't raise objections while their friends were drugging, raping and then publicly humiliating underage women. People are more likely to listen to their friends than to strangers, and cis men generally listen to cis men more than any other gender. Groups like White Ribbon have recognised this, calling on men to take a stand against the misogyny and violence that manifests in cases like Roastbusters. Ironically, it is likely that they will receive more praise than the feminist and other rights groups who have opposed sexism and rape culture for decades.

The supposed helplessness claimed by the police and others in the face of rape culture is particularly frustrating, because certain techniques, education programmes and structural reforms have been tested and proven to work in reducing rape rates. Anti-rapist advertisements in Vancouver, for example, resulted in the number of sexual assault reports in the area dropping by 10% for the first time in several years. And as Greta Christina said, this was a one-off ad campaign; imagine what effect a sustained anti-rape movement at all levels of society could produce. On the New Zealand front, below is a fantastic anti-rape PSA, which takes the viewer up to the point of sexual assault and then rewinds to show how bystanders can make a difference. It shows the rape of a drunk woman, so commonly framed as "grey rape" rather than real rape, and avoids both victim-blaming and the Evil Rapist narrative. (Trigger warning, so only watch if you're feeling strong.)

Much of the public debate has been triggering and upsetting for rape survivors and their allies, with its framing of rape as an abstract problem rarely seen outside a law lecture. The conceptual and sometimes judicial dehumanisation of rapists disguises the levels at which the routine violence of rape seeps into all areas of our culture. What minimalist sex education is offered at schools, usually amounting to ways to avoid pregnancy and STDs, does not equip people to understand what enthusiastic consent means, or how to deconstruct models of masculinity that encourage sexual violence and coercion. Too often rape prevention is understood as catching criminals after the act, rather than preventing trauma from being set in motion.

It's possible that the Roastbusters affair could be a watershed moment in New Zealand's rape culture politics. The anger around the country is widespread and palpable; protest actions against rape culture have been organised in Wellington, Auckland, and Christchurch. Many are refusing to treat rape as a nasty but inevitable part of living in human society. The dismantling of rape culture will take time, since rape is enabled by all sorts of different institutions and social practices. But at the most basic level, the questions are: what will you do when someone you know is raped? Almost as importantly, what will you do when someone you know turns out to be a rapist, or when they display predatory characteristics? As the Who Are You ad above says, you can be the difference in how the story ends.

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Anne Russell is a journalist with a long-standing interest in feminist politics, queer rights and the cultural formations of intimate relationships. Follow her on Twitter: @elvisfchrist.

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