Sexual assault is a symptom, not the disease. The disease is the patriarchy, and we’re treating the symptom

CW: sexual assault and violence

My argument is simple: right now we have an unprecedented opportunity to effect social change, most specifically to redress large gender inequities in Australian society, and we risk squandering this opportunity if we concentrate on the symptoms and not the disease.

What are the symptoms? “Mansplaining” is a symptom. Gender-unequal pay is a symptom. The “glass ceiling” is a symptom. A sole female Prime Minister is a symptom. Sexual harassment is a symptom. “Domestic” violence is a symptom. Rape and gendered murder are symptoms, the most extreme and violent symptoms of the same disease.

The patriarchy is the disease.

Right now, for over two weeks, two very politically sensitive rape allegations have monopolised media headlines in Australia and catalysed public debate around topics ranging from the culture in Parliament House to the rule of law and gender bias in the media.

More importantly they have unleashed—and that’s not too strong a word—a torrent of pent up female anger and resentment, most particularly about the treatment of crimes of sexual assault, but more generally about gender inequities in Australian society.

This is clearly a conversation that is long overdue and won’t now be gainsaid, regardless of the wishes of either the political or media establishments; however two aspects of the current conversations worry me greatly.

The first is the fixation on sexual assault, most particularly rape, and the second is the almost total absence of discussion about the patriarchy.

The two are obviously related, although the former is a very specific and concrete instance of gendered inequality—violence, in fact—and a symptom, whereas the latter is a general, diffuse and extremely abstract idea, but it’s actually the disease.

My very great concern is that much of the conversation is so focussed on the specifics of sexual assault that there’s a real risk that all of the resulting energy will go into treating that symptom, and not the underlying disease. 

I’d argue that discussions about “how to stop sexual assault” that ignore the fundamental and pervasive causal influence of the patriarchy are just treating a symptom, and as a result are never going to result in useful or lasting or widespread change, precisely because they’ll fail to deal with the real underlying cause.

It’s important to understand at this point that I’m not arguing that sexual assault isn’t a real, dangerous and serious issue, and reducing it—somehow—wouldn’t be a great social improvement. Rather I’m arguing that trying to deal with it as a somehow isolated problem—rather than an expression of a much larger problem—is unlikely to be successful, and a terrible waste of the current climate and appetite for change.

Let me give two concrete examples.

First, consider the following phases typical of numerous discussions recently:

  1. Rape is not a female problem, it’s a male problem
  2. The male problem is that men don’t understand consent
  3. To ensure men understand consent, we need to improve how we teach boys about consent
  4. Etc.

A second concrete example is the framing of the problem as being something to do with “workplace culture”. The sexual harassment and assaults of people in Parliament House are said to be the result of the specific “culture” of that workplace, and the argument runs that changing the “culture” will address the problem.

Simply, these are both bullshit.

Rape is one of the most extreme forms of gendered violence there is. However it’s not an act that occurs in a social or behavioural vacuum, or without obvious precursors. A man who rapes must have built up a particular view of his own entitlement, and built up a view of the acceptable use of violence, and of women. That man won’t have arrived at those pervasive views simply through a faulty understanding of “consent” as a boy.

The same argument applies to the idea that “workplace culture” is an important determinant of violent sexual assault. For this to be true you have to accept the idea that the same man will, or will not, rape women in a particular workplace depending entirely on the “culture” in the workplace. This in effect assumes, first, that the propensity to rape is already there, and then that it can be successfully suppressed simply by an appropriate workplace “culture”.

I’d argue that in both cases this is clearly rubbish. There is no doubt that murder and rape are violent, usually gendered crimes, but they are at the extreme of a spectrum of behaviours that are in turn the result of beliefs and attitudes that drive the much greater range of behaviours than just these most violent ones—behaviours I’ve already listed, ranging from mansplaining up.

To talk about preventing rape as though it’s an isolated criminal act, like speeding or shoplifting, and not the most extreme form of something much more pervasive is to completely misunderstand what has to be changed—in other words treating the symptom, and not the disease.

So while the trigger for discussion and change right now has been two specific (alleged) instances of violent gendered crime, the discussion and debate must not now be framed in terms of “how to stop rape, specifically”, but rather “what is currently allowing rape, and other gendered violence and inequity?”; and I’d argue that the simple answer to that question is “the patriarchy”.

Of course in the first instance that brings us no closer to any specific, concrete “solutions” to the problem of gendered violence and inequality, but it will mean we’ll start off looking at the real problem—the disease—and not simply one of its most extreme symptoms.

Now not every man is a rapist or murderer, and no matter how enlightened a society it’s probable that there will always be deeply disturbed individuals who will commit those crimes, however the tidal wave of anger and resentment currently sweeping through the women of Australia isn’t a result of those few pathological cases. It’s the result of deep, long-term, systemic gender inequalities woven into the fabric of our society, and the many injustices and crimes that result from that imbalance—in other words, the patriarchy.

Unless we accept that we are currently a society that creates, supports and perpetuates male power and dominance, no amount of treating symptoms will effect real change or treat the disease.

So please let’s stop focussing on rape as a problem that can be dealt with in isolation, and recognise it as a symptom of the real disease, the patriarchy, that needs systemic treatment much earlier and more broadly than when it finally presents as violent sexual crime.

It’s still true that men are the problem, but the problem isn’t our gender perse but the society we’ve built that enables all the gendered inequities—from mansplaining right up to rape and murder. 

And the first challenge is getting us men to see it; women understand it intimately, for it baulks them every day, but for us it’s as invisible as water is to a fish—it surrounds us from birth, supports us, and we’re either unaware of its benefits, or violently protective of them. 

That is what men have to understand, and what has to change.