On rape culture, and why I wear a whistle

This piece is written in response to Amnesty International’s just released policy on prostitution, a recent piece on “sex work” published on The Wireless, a courageous woman in Stanford, and for women everywhere.


In recent weeks many of us read the courageous, devastating letter a Standford woman wrote and read in court to the rapist who attacked her.

Shortly after the statement was released online, Ruth Syles reported that Turner had actually sent pictures of this woman to members of his swim team through a group chat app on his phone, during his attack. Olivia Messer reported that Stanford had a rape every two weeks before Brock Turner was caught; Siobhan Fenton wrote how more than half of university sportsmen admit to raping or sexually assaulting women. Mary Rose Somaribba wrote about the evident connection between Turner’s actions and boys’ widespread exposure to gonzo pornography.

Boys first view online porn at eleven years old, on average – and 88% of videos depict violence against women. It is more than worth reading Gail Dines’ work on pornography, its production and its impact.

The connections between pornography, trafficking and prostitution are well documented. Trafficking victims are often used in pornography, and each fuels demand for the other, and ups the ante on male violence both in and outside of the sex trade. This industry is such an entrenched part of patriarchy that Kat Banyard aptly describes the society we live in as a “Pimp State”. This is the pimp state that sees judges like Aaron Persky deliver meagre sentences in court because they identify with rapists on trial. It’s the pimp state that sees Brock Turner spending more time in jail than 97% of rapists; that sees most women never even get to court, because police don’t handle their cases seriously.

I myself have been to the police station to report an aggressive threat I received from a man who sent my work address to military organisations encouraging their members to pay me a visit. The policeman wrote some notes, asked “have you got any further questions before you bugger off?” and then sent me an e-mail to inform me that the message I showed him contained no threatening content. I hate to think what women go through after an assault, and the Stanford case presents a painful example.

While 1 in 3 New Zealand women are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, only 13% of cases reported result in a conviction. There is even a pathway leading to Massey University in Wellington nicknamed “rape alley” – while the University tells women that if they want to avoid assault, they should wear a whistle to school. The student magazine finds it defensible to pander to rape culture by printing and distributing magazine covers like this (while White Ribbon has a stall on campus, but says nothing).

I’m not a student, but I’ve started wearing a whistle myself. I’ve started wearing a whistle round my neck every day. It’s to protect myself, and my sisters, if that’s how I have to do it; it’s to call attention to rape culture; to call attention to the meager and pathetic responses to it from our public institutions; to call attention to the need for feminist movement, critique, and solidarity.

One thing that bothers me greatly is the complacency around the rates of sexual violence in the sex trade: 75% of women in prostitution report being raped, just like the woman in Stanford was. That is a massive number of women, while still a conservative figure. But of course: the same men who are assaulting students, young girls, and beating their partners to the point that Women’s Refuge and Rape Crisis centres are an unremarkable necessity – are visiting brothels. The sex trade does not float in a relatively safer world 6 feet above ours, as so many people appear to believe it does. Taina Bien-Aime has referred to prostitution as “domestic violence on speed”.

In spite of the violence, women continue to be coaxed into prostitution every time we walk down the street in cities where brothels are legal, with ads of radiant, smiling girls holding cash. That’s in a culture that already encourages us to perceive ourselves as sex objects, through the influence pornography has long had on media, and the beauty, music and fashion industries.

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I think you can see what I mean.

Women are coaxed into prostitution not just through its promotion (that would never be enough) but through the economic oppression that sees us own a mere 1% of the world’s wealth, while men own 99%, and just by virtue of the fact that that is the role patriarchy has long assigned for us.

In Counting for Nothing, feminist economist Marilyn Waring illustrates how this economic oppression works.  Under this patriarchy we live in – in which the state, the military, police force, finance, industry and technology are dominated by men –  women actually do two thirds of the world’s work, according to the World Bank. Waring shows how if you look worldwide at the kinds of work that are considered genuinely economically productive and valuable, and financially rewarded; and the kinds that are not valued, not remunerated, and not even considered “work” – the overriding trend is that the work that’s not paid is the work that women do. There’s no other “theme”.

The international economic system keeps women in poverty.

You can also see this in New Zealand’s pay gap, which sees women in public service paid around 39% less on average for doing the same job as men. Recent reports show how in Australia, a female barrister will receive 141% less than her male counterparts. It’s also been noted that the average pay of a given sector or industry will decrease if women start to become more prevalent within it.

Feminist historian Gerda Lerner examines how this situation emerged in her extraordinary book The Creation of Patriarchy. She says that women, not cattle, were the first form of private property: patriarchy was created when men appropriated control of women’s bodies and reproductive power. Part of the reason why women are kept poor is that the economic system we live under deems us to be sex objects. Patriarchy deems women to be commodities. Not contributors.

So – it profits from us, too. Worldwide, trafficking generates U.S.$32 billion a year; pornography about US$97.06 billion, which is more than the combined revenue of the top 10 web technology companies such as Microsoft, Google and Amazon combined.

So why am I so often pitched the idea that this industry is charitable, because it gives women a choice or a last resort if they are starving? 60-95% of prostituted women were abused as children. 75% have been homeless. Prostitution might be the reason for poverty among women and vice-versa, but neither legitimates the other. As one woman asks: “How can a woman heal from prolonged trauma by entering into more prolonged trauma? She can’t. She needs real safety.”

Poverty among women, rape and prostitution are inextricable manifestations of patriarchy. Prostitution is not the oldest “profession”, it’s the oldest oppression, the primary pillar of patriarchy. Poverty does not legitimate it. The work of feminists has always involved working to end sexual oppression by fighting for women’s spaces, support services, critical education, and amplifying the voices of silenced survivors of sexual exploitation.

Because when women who have survived the sex trade speak out critically – the world does not stop, turn, listen, and share 12 million times.

Instead, decriminalisation lobbies tend to strike back suggesting that critical expositions of violence in prostitution are responsible for stigma, and stigma causes violence. Pimps and johns aren’t responsible for it – abolitionists are, even when they’ve survived the industry themselves. This is a rather cruel form of scare mongering and victim blaming.

A recent article in The Wireless argues this point, and also states that:

When talking about the sex industry, it’s vital to complicate the picture. To avoid reducing it to discussion about women’s bodies.

With all due respect to the author, that’s just evasive.

This is a line of reasoning that comes from the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, who I believe women need to challenge as long as they produce and support these kinds of statements and positions. It looks as though the fact that the sex trade is actually about women’s bodies is an inconvenient truth to a government-funded decriminalisation lobby determined to be seen as a union, and heavily invested in legitimising prostitution.

I wear a whistle now, every day, precisely because this is all about women’s bodies. 92% of people trafficked for sex slavery are women. Rebecca Solnit’s article, The Longest War, points out that 3 women are killed each day in America alone at the hands of men, and  while rape is still grossly underreported, one is reported in America every 107 seconds. After the brave essay released by the woman seeking justice in Standford, Rebecca Solnit movingly suggested a national rape monument to all women who have experienced the violence of the war that is indeed, directed precisely against our bodies. To all the brilliant, beautiful women who should never, ever have met any version of Brock Turner in their lives.

To end rape culture, we don’t need “to intentionally complicate the discussion”.

We need feminism.

Nga mihi.


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3 thoughts on “On rape culture, and why I wear a whistle”

  1. Pingback: Why the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective doesn’t get the first and final say on prostitution | writing by renee

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