Wondering when we’ll run out of powerful abusers to expose? We probably won’t, because rape culture and imperialism are one and the same.
Matt Lauer. Charlie Rose. Garrison…Keillor?
Every week since Harvey Weinstein was fired from his own company as a result of multiple accusations of sexual assault, a new crop of powerful men has been taken down by accusations of impropriety. This week we learned that Matt Lauer had a button to trap women inside his office installed under his desk. And that Charlie Rose has allegedly wagged his wiener at at least eight more people than have wanted to see his wiener. And that the Eeyore-voiced guy from Lake Wobegon is worried that a world where he can’t sexually harass women is tantamount to a world without flirting.
Each time a new round of allegations comes out, I see the same question making the rounds on social media: “When will it end?”
Will it end if and when a man who has candidly bragged about grabbing women by the pussy is no longer President of the United States? Will it end if and when a man who has been accused of sexually assaulting multiple children is no longer the frontrunner for an Alabama special Senate election Will it end if and when enough men take it upon themselves—as Rebecca Solnit asked them to do back in 2014—to create a “culture in which doing horrible things to…women will undermine rather than enhance a man’s standing with other men”?
Unfortunately, it won’t. And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take all those steps, because we absolutely should. In almost every conceivable situation, incremental progress is far better than no progress at all. But it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than removing abusers in high places to cure our cultural sickness, because these individuals are merely a visible symptom of a problem that runs as deep as what we call “Western civilization” itself.
Here’s what I mean by that: when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its state religion in the 4th century CE, the Romans, and before them the Greeks, had already been conquering neighboring nations and tribes for centuries. In her book Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, Princeton professor and religious scholar Elaine Pagels notes that when the Romans conquered a new territory, one of their signature moves was to remove whatever altar might exist in their local temple — often that of a goddess — and replace it with a statue of a Roman soldier enslaving or even raping an indigenous woman. The message is as unambiguous as it is brutal.
Once you have noticed this art historical phenomenon, examples may be found everywhere (and continue into Renaissance depictions of classical subjects such as the Rape of the Sabine Women, an episode integral to the founding of Rome involving the mass abduction of women from neighboring cities as wives for the followers of Romulus).
The characterization of military conquest as a sexualized violent act underscores the dehumanizing “othering” that drives empire building. As new territories are annexed, the cultural practices and beliefs native to those regions are marginalized by the dominant culture demanding assimilation. Words like “heathen,” “pagan,” and “barbarian” have this imperialist dynamic built into their etymology, and a similarly racist condescension toward outsiders continues to underlie much contemporary colonialist activity, from the white saviorism of Christian missionaries to Manifest Destiny and the ongoing Native American genocide. Veni, vidi, vici, as it were.
Not only is there a direct link between what we call “rape culture” and Western imperialism, rape narratives are so central to this history that they are literally carved in stone; enshrined in the public monumental sculpture that communicates the core values of Empire to the outside world.
This is not to say that rape culture, misogyny, and racialized othering do not happen in corners of the world which are not under the immediate influence of Western imperialism. They certainly do. But it is also fair and accurate to say that many of the “classical” ideals we have inherited from Greece and Rome (and which were fetishized by the slave-rapers who founded America) are misogynistic and racist to their core, and that not grasping this basic fact is a big part of many of the problems we’re working through as a culture right now.
It is common for contemporary leftists and intellectuals to identify the patriarchal toxicity of Christian fundamentalism. It is less common for us to acknowledge that even those secular parts of American culture which stem from the Enlightenment have roots in the very same soil––namely, the egoistic myth of self-superiority that creates a pernicious sense of entitlement in the mind it inhabits.
It is entitlement, more than any single ideological form it might take, which is the engine of both imperialism and rape culture.
The same values that allow men to continue to hold power while their abusive behaviors are an “open secret” are functionally indistinguishable from the values that underly many of the other moral failures of our age, from our unwillingness to address crisis levels of wealth inequality to the environmental devastation our way of life is inflicting on the world.
Those of us who choose to accumulate wealth at the expense of others and/or the environment do so because we feel entitled to it, like a pussy we can grab whenever we want. The entire culture of capitalism is set up to reward predatory behavior. In the words of Jenny Holzer, “ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE.”
Rape culture does not end when we take down powerful men, or even when we change our cultural attitudes toward women. The only reason we’re talking about it at all right now is because Predators In High Places are a phenomenon that impacts people from all races, classes, and walks of life—including people who benefit from other forms of structural oppression.
As some have pointed out, R. Kelly might never face the same level of accountability that other powerful men have, because his accusers tend to be young Black women and girls.
Until we extend the same benefit of the doubt to these young women that we do to wealthy blonde celebrities, it will continue to be the way it’s always been.
Until we come to the understanding that many of the core assumptions of classical liberalism have their roots in the same toxic soil as Christian Dominionism, it will continue to be the way it’s always been.
Until we manage to grasp that our respect for each other’s personal boundaries and our reverence for the earth we are utterly dependent upon for our survival are one and the same, it will continue to be the way it has always been (at least for as long as any of us can remember):