Midday in late August, Israel’s Channel 13 TV stopped broadcasting and instead flashed the words, “We are interrupting this broadcast for the following minute to stand in solidarity with the victims of sexual violence.”
Nationwide, organizations in the public, private and business sectors stopped work at noon for a full half-hour strike.
That evening, thousands demonstrated throughout the country against sexual violence.
A few days later, the municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffa permanently removed a mural of two “peeping Toms” in bathing suits peering into the women’s changing rooms at a public beach. The beach is named Peeping, after a cult beach movie filmed there in the 1970s, which includes scenes of men looking into the women’s changing room. (The name of the beach isn’t up for change.)
In an outburst of shock, rage and disgust, the Israeli public is responding to the alleged gang rape by as many as 30 men of a 16-year-old girl while she was on vacation in Eilat, Israel’s southern resort city.
The police have set up a special task force. Eleven suspected perpetrators have already been arrested, ranging in age from minors as young as 16 to adults in their thirties. The proprietor of the hotel, a woman, has also been arrested for allegedly failing to prevent crime and obstruction of justice. A 19-year-old woman has been detained on suspicion of attempting to spread video recordings of the rape on social media.
On Twitter, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the attack was “not only a crime against the girl, this is a crime against humanity itself that is worthy of all condemnation and those responsible must be brought to justice.”
Benny Gantz, alternative prime minister and defense minister, wrote in a series of tweets that he had been “trying, and failing, to understand: What is a man who is standing on a crowded line with dozens of others, on the way to a room where a young, disoriented girl is lying down, trying to prove?” Addressing the unnamed 16-year-old complainant, Gantz added: “My heart is with you, you are not alone.”
And health minister Yuli Edelstein has announced that the long-awaited “acute room” for the treatment of victims of rape and sexual attack will finally, after years of delay, be set up at Yosephtal Hospital in Eilat.
This is not an isolated event. According to information provided by the Association of Rape Crisis Centers, one in three Israeli women is sexually assaulted and one in seven is raped during her lifetime. The Association receives an average of 250 calls from victims of gang rape each year—55 percent of them from teenagers.
The emotional outpouring towards the victim is touching, but the outrage at the sordid details of the crime are badly misplaced. All crimes, even the most heinous, even if committed by a single individual—and certainly when committed by dozens—must be understood in their socio-political context.
That context is rape culture.
Rape culture refers to the assumption that the mainstream culture’s attitude toward women has an effect on the extent of sexual violence in society. Rape culture exists in a society or environment in which common social beliefs, attitudes and morals normalize sexual violence, encourage people to associate sex with violence, and minimize the seriousness of sexual violence. Viewed this way, high profile rape scandals and particularly horrific attacks are extreme examples of a culture that encourages the denigration and dehumanization of women.
The evidence for rape culture is everywhere. So-called “rape jokes” that present lack of consent to sex as funny and vulgarity as humor are part of rape culture. Advertisements that sell products by objectifying women into sexy body parts that exist solely for the purpose of male pleasure are examples of rape culture.
Poor policing and inadequate sentencing are examples of rape culture. Judges who don’t want to “ruin the lives of good boys from normative homes” contribute to rape culture. While Israeli law allows for 20 years of imprisonment for gang rape, retired Justice Saviona Rotlevi, former vice president of Tel Aviv District Court, told Israeli television that she remembers only a “few” cases in which the maximum punishment was applied.” Furthermore, she tweeted, the police are generally understaffed and not fully trained—and many are tainted with the same lack of belief in women and their value that colors much of society.
In rape culture, “boys will be boys.” That is, we are supposed to assume that boys are somehow hard-wired for violence and sex. They should, therefore, be excused from bearing the consequences of their behavior, even if it hurts others physically and emotionally—especially if they are from “good families” or, in Israel, if they have served in “elite” military units.
Almost precisely a year ago, 12 such Israeli “good boys” returned home to a heroes’ welcome after being released from jail in Ayia Napa, Cyprus following accusations of gang rape made by a British tourist. In the end, they were let off the criminal charges—although in Israel, they would have faced criminal charges for filming the sex, which they admit they did. But what about common decency, human concern and personal responsibility? That isn’t part of rape culture.
It is not coincidental that both events took place toward the end of summer in hotels and resorts that market themselves to teens by implying that there will be little enforcement of the prohibitions against alcohol and drugs and promising that there will be “lots of action.”
Rape culture that glorifies men locks girls into subservient roles. When men are seen as sexual predators, the only option left to women is to defend themselves. In a rape culture, women’s lives are policed, their freedom is constrained, and their opportunities are limited. Over time, those limitations add up, making rape culture a tax on women’s lives and opportunities.
And when women do speak out, rape culture encourages society to mock, blame or defame them. Police have increased security around the home of the young victim of the gang rape in Eilat, due to threats made against her on social media.
Yet, while ostensibly upholding male privilege, these social norms have a pernicious, repressive effect on men, too. Rape culture enforces the false belief that men cannot be victims of sexual violence, so men and boys rarely report assaults. Furthermore, the masculinity glorified by rape culture is narrow, constraining their humanity to little more than power, lack of emotional accessibility and sexual aggression. Only within the confines of rape culture can men and boys stand by and watch or know as a young girl is repeatedly raped and brutalized.
Of course, not all men are over-sexualized, misogynist brutes, nor are all women little more than helpless victims. But looking at society through the prism of rape culture, we are forced to connect the dots and recognize that we are facing a continuum of aggression. Gang rape and snuff porn are at one extreme, but that continuum passes through all of the social institutions and norms that denigrate women. It includes locker-room jock-talk to the too-quick rehabilitation of sexual predators within our own Jewish communities and extends through the expectation that women will sit at the back of the bus so that men’s insatiable sexuality will not be aroused and on to the absence of women in positions of leadership and decision-making.
In this context, the protestations of our leaders seem particularly hollow, little more than emotion-porn intended to grab attention and avoid responsibility. Netanyahu’s and Gantz’s condemnations are meaningless as long as they head a bloated, male-dominated government that has found funds for every political whim and demand made by the coalition partners—but has not allocated the budget to implement a plan to combat violence against women that was decided upon three years ago.
Edelstein’s proud announcement that he was establishing the “acute” room does not take responsibility for or even acknowledge that there are only four such facilities in all of Israel, and that all of them are understaffed and underequipped.
Most importantly, the minister of education, Yoav Galant, has yet to issue even a self-serving statement denouncing the rape. It is the educational system that can challenge prevailing norms, shift paradigms, and change the way teens think about sex, relationships and sexual identity. Research shows that the more we talk about sex and agency in late childhood and adolescence, the more inured children and teens will be to the messages put out by rape culture, and the better equipped they will be to develop secure sexual and gender identities and personal agency. Furthermore, school-based programs can also help parents to inculcate values of mutuality, respect, compassion and decency.
But in the more than a decade that Netanyahu has served as prime minister, not one minister of education, Galant included, has even proposed a comprehensive program. The Association of Rape Crisis centers has developed such a program and offered to help the ministry implement it —but the ministry has not responded.
Israel has an excellent set of feminist civil society groups that are dedicated to ending violence against women and men, including in the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors. And while it is far from perfect, we also have a reasonable legal foundation to protect men and women from sexual assault and harassment. But without financial and political support, these organizations are limited.
Understanding rape culture forces us all to realize that unless our governments and institutions, and each and everyone of us, take a stand against it, we are complicit, however inadvertently and however blindly, in the next horrific gang rape and are contributing to all forms of violence against women in our society.