Text: Ruxandra Ionescu
Illustration: Beatrice Pura
She was hurrying home. As her breath shortened, her steps quickened. It was about 11 p.m. when she crossed the bridge near her home. She felt as if she was being followed, but she thought to herself that she shouldn’t be paranoid. She glanced at her reflection in the closed shop windows while going at an even faster pace. She had actually heard steps behind her… Months later, when she finally broke the silence, hundreds of voices echoed “ Well, that’s what you get for walking alone at night…”
But what is rape culture and why is it highly present in Eastern European countries like Romania? Rape culture is not rape per se, but rather it refers to a society where women have to sacrifice their freedom to remain safe from sexual assault given discriminatory attitudes deeply rooted in our society. The term was coined in the 1970s by second-wave feminists. In fact, Romania’s rape culture conceals a multitude of injustices against women.
Rape Culture Is Victim-Blaming
We often hear people concerned with what a victim did wrong, instead of focusing on the aggression itself. Is human nature to blame the victim rather than admit that some types of behavior are deviant? It’s more comforting to believe a person deserved a punishment than to acknowledge unfair treatment with no justification. “There’s just this really powerful urge for people to want to think good things happen to good people and where the misperception comes in is that there’s this implied opposite: if something bad has happened to you, you must have done something bad to deserve that bad thing,” says Sherry Hamby, a professor of psychology at Sewanee University.
Humans even tend to think there is no evil in the world and that everything that happens, does so for a reason. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Blaming the victim just discourages rape victims from seeking justice. Telling someone who has been assaulted that they hold part of the blame creates permanent self-damage, piling on the abuse itself.
Furthermore, this mentality creates some kind of stigma concerning sexual and violent assaults. Not being able to come forward because one might experience victim-blaming makes people believe that sexual assault is very rare and happens only if one was in an unlikely situation or brought it upon themselves. Such a toxic mentality normalizes sexual assault and fosters rape culture.
In Romania, victim-blaming has become the norm in institutions created to protect sexual assaultees in the first place. Victims of rape that do come forward are treated with skepticism, they are criticized and their cases are often overlooked. Although Romania has one of the high rates of sexual assault, it is also the one where the least number of those cases are solved.
Meanwhile, the Romanian legal system is responsible for perpetuating rape culture. According to legal authorities: “If there’s no sign of physical constraint, there is no rape”. In court, it is often customary to dismiss charges against the aggressor if there is no probable cause. The judiciary system often handles these cases not as instances of “rape”, but of “sexual activity with a minor”, overlooking the aspect which transforms those cases into sexual assault, namely: the victim’s lack of consent. This explains why 3 out of 4 cases of sexual acts with child victims are trialed in Romanian courts as consensual acts.
In this way, the assailant is sentenced to less time in prison and judges can close cases prematurely. Romania fails to protect those in need while granting rapists with shorter punishments and subjecting a woman’s character to discrediting rape allegations. Given the system designed to protect abusers and the attitudes of authorities, Romania’s rape culture keeps thriving even in 2020.
Rape Culture Is Image-Shaming
Along with victim-blaming, image-shaming is one of the core social attitudes towards women. Image-shaming has become so embedded in our lives that we tend to forget it exists. Every time a girl is called out on her looks, made fun of for “wanting attention” or “being a tease”, cat-called or told to cover up, she is image-shamed.
This kind of behavior that teaches women they need to dress a certain way in order to be safe only reinforces rape culture. Instead of teaching potential abusers what personal space, consent and assault are, our schools tend to teach girls that their appearance may put them at risk. Even though people consider this behavior to be “protecting” women, it only puts the responsibility to avoid being assaulted on their shoulders. In a gender-equal society, women should not have to give up social or career opportunities in order to feel safe in certain environments.
Today image-shaming is not happening solely in the street, it appears everywhere: from TV commercials to YouTubers spreading toxic ideas. Romania’s rape culture tells us that no matter how a woman dresses, she will still be held accountable for her choices, either for showing too much or too little skin.
Rape Culture Is Lack of Sex Education
As the hypersexualized media continues to objectify women and tell them what to wear and how to behave, even state institutions contribute to rape culture. While schools and universities are systematically refusing to tackle sexual harassment issues, considering them to be “taboo”, children and young adults’ opinions are formed solely via pop culture. Relying on the internet to get basic knowledge can distort a child’s image of gender roles forever.
It seems like no matter how much social pressure is put on victims to keep silent, Romania will not address these problems. One possible solution? Sex education in schools. As sex education is considered an “inappropriate” subject to be discussed at home, many parents leave their children to the Internet. By doing so, the majority of teenagers get a distorted image of what sexuality truly is.
Unfortunately, as both traditional parents and conservative politicians oppose the implementation of such a course, the lack of education involuntarily exposes the teenager to certain risks. Those risks can culminate with gender-based violence and sexual abuse.
The implications for society are far greater than one might imagine. An underlying rape culture reinforces gender inequality while allowing people to make light of sexual harassment. While Romania continues to have an outdated, last-century approach to egalitarianism, there are signs of slow, but steady progress with the help of NGOs’ fighting sexual discrimination against women.
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