I’ve mentioned before that I think that rape, and rape culture especially, are foundational parts of our society. They are serious underpinnings to the way we determine who gets power, money, respect, social resources, who gets to be important and trusted and loved and protected. This is a grandiose way of looking at rape, but I’ve taken the idea from a huge number of other writers and thinkers: Susan Brownmiller was probably the first to write it down in a book, but a whole bevy of thinkers and activists have echoed the same thought over the past forty years. Rape is the tool society uses to keep women afraid of men, afraid to move about freely, and afraid of leaving their “appropriate” station.
This often feels really academic to me, though - I can talk about a lot of things being cornerstones, or foundational components of our social structure. How does this look in real life? What does it mean that rape is a foundational part of our culture? To me, it means it’s the important Jenga block - the one you can’t pull out. I’ll hope that most of my readers have played the game Jenga at some point in the past, and are familiar with its basic structure, but for those who haven’t, here’s the idea: the players build a tower of little wooden blocks, about an inch wide and three or so inches long. They layer the blocks in groups of three, and arrange them in stacks horizontally until they’re out of blocks. The tower is something like a foot tall by that point. Then, the idea of the game once the tower is constructed is to slowly remove blocks one at a time without making the tower fall over. The higher up on the tower the blocks are, the easier this is. Devious players will actually try to remove blocks at the bottom of the tower first, to make the whole tower less stable for their opponents.
At some point, it becomes clear that the entire tower is resting on a couple of blocks - maybe the two central blocks at the bottom, or the one block in the middle of the tower in the third tier. Trying to remove those blocks is going to end badly. You can’t affect those blocks in the tower without touching a whole lot of other blocks either directly or indirectly. Those blocks are foundational to the tower.
So that’s how I think of things like rape, gender roles, racism, capitalism - they are the parts of culture that we can’t touch without poking a whole lot of other things. As we saw with this Assange case recently, the moment we start talking about rape, we also get dragged into conversations about gender roles, gender essentialism, the criminal justice system, sex and sexuality, distribution of power, and media. It’s impossible to have a discussion of rape without having these other discussions, because rape is foundational.
Here’s how this looks in real life. I’m in the midst of a big social justice project for my first year of school. My classmates and I are putting together a report about homelessness and alternatives to ordinances that criminalize behavior like sleeping in public and panhandling. In the course of our research, I’ve found a lot of good reports that provide rates, demographics, and causes for homelessness. Poverty and lack of affordable housing are consistently the top two causes of homeless, according to a variety of different reports. According to the 5th Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were roughly 1.5 million sheltered homeless in the U.S. in 2009. Of that total, roughly 500,000 were homeless families; the other million were single individuals. Of the homeless families, a little less than half (210,000) were homeless adults.
Men make up the majority of the single homeless population (by about three to one), but women make up the majority of homeless adults in families by an even larger margin (about 80%). These numbers are rough (because the homeless are hard to measure), but the important part for this post is that there are about 275,000 homeless single women, and about 165,000 homeless women with children. Of all homeless families, women are wildly over-represented, and they are responsible for (i.e., they are the care-takers and parents of, not culpable for) a huge chunk of the children who are homeless.
Homeless women in families are also almost all survivors of trauma.
About 90% have survived severe physical or sexual abuse. Roughly 2/3 of them are survivors of domestic violence, a very close cousin of rape. The US Council of Mayors reported in their 2009 report Hunger and Homelessness that domestic violence was one of the major causes of family homelessness (see the chart on page 44; although note that there are some very well stated limitations to this study). A lack of DV services, shelters, and the general inability of the criminal justice system to prevent or punish domestic violence (and the rape that often accompanies it) forces many low-income women and their children out of their homes.
We already know that homelessness exacerbates the already substantial issues of poverty. We know that it puts people at risk of all sorts of additional health concerns, both acute and chronic, due to lack of food and safety. We know that the homeless are regularly attacked and killed, although we aren’t doing a great job of recognizing these assaults as a form of hate crimes. We know that children who grow up homeless are at risk for a host of behavioral issues, malnutrition, health concerns, and social disadvantages. And we know that a huge, huge chunk of these families are pushed into homelessness because of domestic violence. Because violent partners (usually men) hurt them, and so little of society takes action to stop it. We couldn’t solve homelessness by preventing domestic violence, but we sure could take a serious bite out of it. If we touch domestic violence, we affect a lot of other power structures, including whether this big chunk of half a million people are homeless or not. That’s foundational right there.
This is, if not good news, then at least encouraging news for me, and here’s why: reducing rape and domestic violence is really hard. Doing so takes years of hard, often thankless work, and the results are not always visible. But budging those rates, changing the reality of rape and DV even a tiny bit is like tugging on a really complicated pulley system: the positive knock-on effects in a lot of other areas are serious business.