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close this bookUnderstanding Violence Against Women - A Guide for Media (CMFR - UNFPA, 1998, 31 p.)
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View the documentData Card
View the documentI. Women’s Rights are Human Rights: Understanding Violence against Women
View the documentII. Sexism Kills
View the documentIII. Understanding Rape
View the documentIV. Understanding Victimization
View the documentV. The Political Aspect
View the documentVI. The Role of the Media
View the documentVII. Guidelines on the Coverage of Crimes Against Women and Minors
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III. Understanding Rape

Rape is an extreme illustration of the subordination of women’s sexuality. In cultures where women are viewed as men’s sexual and reproductive property, they also become legitimate targets of sexual aggression. In the Philippines, girls are brought up to be ladylike, to watch how they sit, talk, laugh, walk and consort with the opposite sex so that they would not be “mistaken” for wanton women, bastusin in the vernacular. A “decent woman” is expected to set the limits of propriety and intimacy, for if she doesn’t, she invites aggression and is to blame.

So while society officially condemns rape, its victims are perceived as being in some way to blame for it: because their dress and manner “asked for it;” because they were engaged in gender-inappropriate activities, such as competing with men in the workplace or being out of their homes at night; agitating for political change; or simply because they were young, or attractive, or just women.

In many cultures, rape is excused as an excess of male lust which must find release. This thinking is based on the misconception that men are “by nature” more easily aroused or lustful than women. Yet studies on sexuality have shown that in fact men’s and women’s levels of sexual arousal are about the same, that it is culture and upbringing that explains why men feel freer to express their sexual urges than women. In reality, rape and sexual harassment are expressions of male control over female sexuality, the unsaid “threat” against the independent and autonomous woman. These acts can also be instruments of political control - in military rape, for instance, or in the sexual harassment of women workers and trade unionists.

Many myths abound about rape and sexual harassment, among them:

The “stranger hiding in a dark alley”

The myth is that the greatest threat of rape comes from men unknown to women, lurking in the dark, ready to pounce on unsuspecting victims. The underlying message is that if women don’t want to be raped, they must not venture out alone, in unfamiliar places, and after dark. It is this fear of so-called “stranger rape” that has effectively kept women confined to the home, and discouraged them from taking part in the affairs of society.

But the reality of rape statistics belies this myth. Statistics on rape and other crimes of sexual violence are startlingly similar in their conclusions. The majority of rapes are carried out by men known to the women, at home, in the daytime. It also turns out that a large number of rapes were planned, which brings us to the second myth,

Rape occurs because men are carried away by lust, because the women are young and attractive or dressed provocatively, or behave irresponsibly by going out at night unaccompanied by male escorts.

Distribution of Victims According to Age

Figure 1. Chart taken from the Women's Legal Bureau Study “Making Sense of Rape” A Review of Presumptions Relied Upon by the Supreme Court in Decisions on Rape, June 1995.

If lust is the motivating factor in rape, then how explain the fact that girls as young as eight months, and women in their 80s have been raped? If provocative dress invites rape, why then have nuns in religious habits been raped?

This myth assumes that men‘s sexual drives are “naturally” stronger than women’s. And that this drive is so strong as to be virtually beyond control. But most scientific studies have found that the sex drive in both men and women are essentially the same. Perhaps the difference lies in acculturation, which teaches women to restrain and control their sexual drives and behavior, while tolerating and even encouraging men’s search for sexual adventure and satiation.

Ellen Dionisio, in a paper on gender as a social construction, brings up yet another aspect of sexual injustice: “A more subtle and perhaps more commonplace manifestation of female subordination in sexual relationships is the double standard of morality that condones male promiscuity while demanding female chastity. This double standard is often excused by women themselves as a natural law - but many other women experience it as a painful form of personal injustice.”

Portraying men as “driven by lust” or “carried away by carnality” also serves to excuse their excesses and use of violence, while masking the factor of dominance and control.