At my first university debating tournament in 1994, my team and I were faced with a moot that the Affirmative had defined to be about feminism. I don’t remember the exact moot, but I do remember my other male team member and I turning to our female team member and asking “what is feminism?”
She explained it in the very short time we had before I had to stand and speak as First Negative to be about equal rights for women. Both of us males guffawed and proclaimed we had never heard anything so weird. We got well and truly trounced in the debate.
I was raised in middle class Pākehā Christchurch and I attended a Catholic boys college. I lived with my Mum and my sister, through secondary schools debating I had female friends, I enjoyed reading and studying; I had never ever heard of feminism. I have never asked my mother or my sister whether they are feminists, but I can imagine them being at the very least cautious about replying, and likely to say ‘no’. I lived in a world in which men reigned supreme: men were the leaders; most of the educators; men ruled the sports fields; powerful men were on the silver screen; men encouraged boys like me to become men like them.
Men, men, men. The world was for men. Women, in contrast, were a series of symbols. The divorcee career mother in ET: our mothers, our servants, cooking, baking, cleaning, encouraging, cajoling, correcting, restricting our hopes and heroics. The gold bikini in Return of the Jedi: women were objects of fascination and desire, to impress, to rescue, to capture, to enslave. The hyper-sexualised innocence in Blame It On Rio: women were available, ready, welcoming of male attention, whilst haughty, judging and inaccessible. The facehugger in Aliens: women are fearful, emasculating, hateful. Women were always symbols, never fully human.
With the latest public display of rape culture from young men in Wellington College and criminal acts at St Patricks Silverstream, our media and other commentators have returned to hand wringing about how to name and overcome rape culture. Optimistic commentators have again talked about this as a moment for a national conversation on what we’re teaching our youth. But this incident and the flurry of commentary are smoke that will drift off within the week.
I see you, my brothers. I know you. New Zealand men and boys today are not one iota different from the men and boys I grew up with. There is no growth nor development nor maturing. Women and young women today remain your symbols for your pleasure, for your self-hate, for your rage because we have refused to teach or learn anything different. Any commentaries of concern on rape culture are swamped by the symbols of rape culture and feminism has made no inroads into formal or informal systems of education. There are no consequences for our rape culture so there is no change in our rape culture.
I don’t believe men in Aotearoa New Zealand actually want to overcome rape culture. Women are our greatest assets: our almost human objects. No virtual reality or robotics can yet provide the canvas upon which to carve our male fantasies in the way our current society does.
If we are not going to teach feminist theory and history in our schools and in our tertiary institutions to all students then we are not serious about overcoming rape culture. We are not committed to the emancipation of our mothers, sisters, aunts, nieces, our friends and our lovers. Women may not be bound to the home as they were 50 years ago, but the binds remain.