Why Does Systemic Violence Persist Against Women?


This year, tens of thousands of women worldwide have marched and rallied against sexual assault. Ignited by a Toronto Police Officer’s claim that the best way to avoid getting raped is to “avoid dressing like a slut,” the Slutwalks movement is among the most successful feminist actions in the last 20 years, due to its global popularity and ongoing momentum.

One in six U.S. women will be raped in her lifetime, and 60% of them will never report it. Why, despite all the gains women have won, do epidemic levels of violence against women persist? Why are a majority of rapes never reported?

For the new movement against sexual violence to achieve change, it must move beyond surface level answers and squarely tackle the root of the problem.

Re-enforcing Rape Culture

The situation in colleges and universities provides a good case study. On paper, many have structural support for rape survivors in the form of rape crisis centers and periodic restrictions on fraternity parties. Yet one in four women experience sexual assault in her college years, and more than 95% of these rapes are not reported to the police.

Colleges and universities may have rape crisis centers, but these are overshadowed by a culture that relentlessly objectifies women while demanding impossible double standards of behavior.

Training law enforcement to be politically correct is clearly not enough. Violence against women, even rape, is normalized under capitalism. The corporate media sensationalizes rape trials, routinely investigating prior sexual activity of victims to paint them as “sluts” and therefore partially responsible for being raped. Meanwhile, the profit-driven advertisement industry promotes female sexuality to sell products, as television and film constantly portray sex and violence as natural counterparts.

The corporate media uses euphemisms instead of rape or sexual assault, refusing to acknowledge the reality of the rape epidemic, while excusing and watering it down. Recently, Oregon Representative, David Wu, announced his resignation, as the New York Times reported, “in the wake of allegations that he engaged in unwanted sexual activities with a teenage girl.” Why is this powerful political figure accused of “unwanted sexual activities” rather than “rape” or “sexual assault”? (07/25/2011).

Legal equality for women has not erased structural inequality. In her lifetime, a woman still earns 59 cents for every dollar earned by a man, and she still performs 70-80% of unpaid labor in the home. Like all other forms of systemic violence, the constant threat of sexual violence functions to reinforce systemic exploitation and material inequalities. Right-wing moral code frequently blames poor single women for being irresponsible in order to justify cuts to social services, just as it blames them for irresponsibly being in the wrong place at the wrong time if they are sexually assaulted. Rape culture cannot be isolated from the other issues that women face in all aspects of their lives in order to oppress them.

The conditions are even worse for millions of undocumented women facing the threat of deportation if they call the police, women of color who are more likely to experience police brutality in their families, or LGBT couples who fear reinforcing the stigma around same-sex relationships. In this way, racism, homophobia, and other oppressive relations in society re-enforce a culture that tells women not to get raped, rather than developing institutional responses to end systemic sexual violence.

Challenging Capitalism

When the Toronto officer advised women to “avoid dressing like a slut” if they don’t want to get raped, this was a perfect example of victim blaming and “slut shaming” and why a majority of women never report rape. Why would you report that you’ve been sexually assaulted when your neighborhood law enforcement believes that it was potentially your own fault for what you wore, where you were, or how you acted?

Together, victim blaming and slut shaming compose much of what is described as “rape culture,” a set of sexist ideas deeply embedded in capitalist society that excuses and normalizes violence against women. Rape culture puts a false sense of responsibility on women to “not get raped” by setting up impossible standards of how to dress, behave, etc., rather than holding rapists fully responsible or tackling the underlying causes of systemic violence against women.

Despite the media’s continual promotion of fear of strangers, women are three times more likely to be raped by someone they know than by a stranger, and are nine times more likely to be raped in a familiar location than the archetypal dark alley. The dominant image of innocent rape victims randomly attacked by monsters is a false caricature. Yet spouse and date rape are often stigmatized as somehow less legitimate. The reality is, rape is rape.

But rape is not an inevitable part of women’s lives under all systems. Class society generates the oppression of women and the misogyny of rapists. And it is capitalism that continues to divide us and maintain varying levels of inequality, to subordinate based on race, class, immigrant status, gender identity, sexuality, disability, etc. Without confronting these inequalities, the working class will remain incapable of organizing serious resistance to capitalism’s divide and conquer strategy.

Ending the culture that allows rape to be systematically unreported and widely accepted as inevitable is not imaginable without ending capitalism, the system which breeds these attitudes. This does not, however, mean standing aside from fights to expose and reform sexist institutions. While the Slutwalks lack a working class perspective, the movement has brought tens of thousands of women into the streets against oppression. Mass demonstrations, placing demands on political and legal institutions, on colleges and on employers, are crucial tactics for building women’s collective power and educating the wider movements of working people to fully integrate a women’s rights agenda into our struggle.