Imagine for a minute a society that has no sexual assault at all – a society that is totally rape free. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if on this strife-torn planet such a place could actually exist? Think about it: a place where women and children (and men) could live their entire lives not having to fear that someone might invade their bodies (and their spirits) through sexual aggression. Where a date would never turn into the thrust and parry of aggressive sexual advance and attempted refusal. Where our daughters, sisters, girlfriends, wives, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, female friends, female colleagues, female classmates and female neighbours would never wonder if a noise that they hear in the night is someone coming to violate them in this most personal and potentially devastating of ways. Where a man wouldn’t have to worry that some guy might rape his daughter at a party, rape his wife at work, rape his sister in her own home. Where a woman would never fall victim to the brutal betrayal of marital rape – or to the utter horrors of gang rape.
Sigh.... if only such a place were possible.
A rape-free world is possible.
It really is.
The reality is that there are all around the planet societies where rape is essentially unknown. Almost unheard of. Does not happen. Simply not a problem.
What??? Where??? When I bring up this point in public speaking engagements, I often encounter two reactions. The first is simple disbelief. Many of us are so heavily influenced by the assertion that our violent behaviours (including rape) are just part of “human nature” that we have difficulty even believing that a rape-free place could actually exist. The second – and possibly related – reaction is to ask where this place could be. But it is not just one place – these communities are scattered throughout the globe.
The anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday, in her article “The Socio-Cultural Context of Rape,” discusses prior research that reports that at least 47% of world societies have been identified as places where rape is either totally absent or extremely rare. 47%! This number was greater than the number of societies – like ours – where rape is “present and not atypical” (33%), and far greater than the number of societies labelled as “rape prone” (18%).
Societies that are “rape free” include the Taureg of North Africa, the Pygmy and the Nkundo Mongo of Sub-Saharan Africa, the Jivaro and the Cuna of South America, the Khalka of Mongolia, and the the Gond of India. That’s a wide geographic spread!
So what makes the difference? According to Sanday, societies that are rape-free have the following characteristics:
- Women are sacred and are heavily involved in ceremony and worship – unlike in the patriarchal religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
- The contributions of women are respected. (No one would suggest that women’s traditional work is of limited value to society.)
- There are balanced power spheres between the sexes. While the work of women and men might not always be the same, both sexes are equally valued. Women are not considered to be property or chattel.
- Other forms of interpersonal violence are rare – unlike the comparatively high rates of general interpersonal violence and physical assault in North America.
- There is a close connectedness to mother earth. (No Alberta Tar Sands, no clear cutting of the forest, no scraping off the surface of the earth in order to attain the minerals underneath.)
So what? How do the practices of these societies impact us? The absence or near-absence of rape in these human societies provides strong refutation of the claims of the sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists that rape is an inherent part of human existence. Sanday writes: “It is important to understand that violence is socially and not biologically programmed. Rape is not an integral part of male nature.”
Sanday argues that we can learn from these peaceful societies: “Men who are conditioned to respect the female virtues of growth and the sacredness of life do not violate women... The incidence of rape in our society will be reduced to the extent that boys grow to respect women and the qualities so often associated with femaleness in other societies – namely, nurturance, growth, and nature.”
The path ahead is clear. All of this information leaves us in a pretty hopeful place. We know that not all men rape. And now we know that in some societies, no men rape! We know that rape is not an innate and inevitable human behaviour, but that it is in fact linked to cultural beliefs and societal practices. And we know how to change those beliefs and practices.
Honour women’s work. Honour women’s amazing ability to give life. Honour the earth.
It’s really not that complicated.
A rape-free world. Believe it. Then work to achieve it.