A new study about the ongoing rape epidemic in the Congo has some rather terrifying statistics to offer. According to USA Today, 420,000 women are raped in the DRC every year.
Or, if you ask the Boston Globe, 1,152 women are raped every day. The Guardian reports that 48 women are raped every hour. And the Sydney Morning Herald ups the ante even further by putting the number at one rape every minute.
Even if all of the varying numbers did add up just so, I can’t be the only one wondering when exactly this ongoing campaign of sexual terrorism against women turned into a competition over which Western newspaper could write the most shocking headline. Nor can I refrain from asking what, exactly, is the magic number of rapes that will suddenly make us care? Would the headlines still be blaring if it were 30 rapes an hour? Is one rape every one and a half minutes just too few that the numbers needed to be fudged and made even more sensationalistic? Do we, as Western observers, care more now than we would if the number were actually one rape every five minutes?
Do we care now? Will the subject merit our true attention? Will we suddenly start listening to Congolese survivors? Are we ashamed for not having listened more closely before, for not believing the full magnitude when women were already telling us the truth? Do we feel better now that a U.S. organization has officially verified their lived experiences? Or will we remain indifferent until the numbers hit two rapes every minute? Five rapes every minute? One every second? Where precisely is the cut off point for compassion and a sense justice? How many women must be raped before we start to care enough to look at the causes? How high do the numbers have to be?
I am in no way trying to suggest that these numbers do not matter. Nor am I arguing that they are not horrific, that they do not deserve attention, or that headlines on the topic are unwarranted. What I’m condemning is the objectifying and imperialistic tendency towards disaster porn. What I’m criticizing is the refusal to engage with the issue of violence in the Congo in an in-depth and ongoing basis that puts these numbers in context, and the decision to instead resort to pearl-clutching headlines designed to shock Western readers with information we already had and will continue to ignore.
I’m also making clear that the response to this extremely extended crisis would look a lot different were it occurring somewhere other than sub-Sahara Africa. It’s not that the media takes most rape seriously, or that even the most privileged rape survivors are immune to rape apologism, victim-blaming, and indifference — this entire blog is a testament to these things not being true.
But on the one hand, that is precisely the point. These same newspapers that report these numbers with horror and very little background or analysis will tomorrow resort to shaming and casting doubt on rape victims from their own communities. Tomorrow, when it is no longer convenient to feign interest in rape, it will be back to business as usual. Tomorrow, lines will be drawn between the “date rape” that so many women needlessly whine and exaggerate about and the “real” rape that is downplayed by taking it seriously — after all, what about those women in the Congo?
Indeed, the part of this study that has been the most ignored and will continue to be pushed to the margins is the fact that this study shows higher numbers than others, in large part, because it includes rape by intimate partners instead of only rape committed as a tactic of war — a fact that makes the situation look a lot more similar to the one in countries where most don’t consider rape to be a big problem.
And, on the other hand, while the shaming and ridicule of rape victims is ubiquitous in the U.S. and other Western countries, some victims are indeed always more valued than others. We wouldn’t have to wait until the number of rapes hit “one every minute” before we started to care, if a large portion of those victims were white, cis, economically privileged women — at least, not if those rapes were in large part being committed within the context of war and with the level of violence we’re seeing against Congolese women. We wouldn’t have to wonder whether one every minute is actually going to be enough to cause real concern. We would know that there would be outrage.
But women who are black, who are poor, who are from countries labeled “third world” always fall towards the very bottom of hierarchy of rape victims who will gain Western attention. We in developed Western nations can and will ignore their plight because we have constructed them as less than women, less than human. We can simultaneously tut-tut at the atrocity and turn away from it because it is what we expect from those men we have culturally constructed as inherently barbaric, because it’s what we believe the women have come to expect, too.
And we can ignore our role — the role of industrialized nations and of consumers, especially in the U.S. We can look at the numbers and think it is “them” instead of “us.” We who aren’t living in the Congo can refuse to ask the question of why there is so much rape and assume that it has something to do with “lesser” cultures instead of so much to do with our own. We can side-step questions of rape culture and imperialism and colonialism and economic racism and consumer culture. We can forget to ask why we ignored earlier opportunities to ask hard questions and demand change.
We, we reading these headlines divorced from the context in which the news was created, can read “one rape every minute” and exclaim “those poor women!” without wondering why we didn’t care before someone made the headline sufficiently eye-grabbing, and without demanding accountability from ourselves now.