#6: Are We All Afraid of Rape?

Spoiler: The "practice" of rape isn't universal, and neither is the fear of it.

Pix credit: Unsplash, engin akyurt

A friend and I had a conversation recently, about rape scenes in Malay romance novels and movies. 

For a while, I was calling them “rape novels” instead of “romance novels”, which is how they are actually marketed. Like the typical Western romance novels, these are stories in which the male and female protagonists meet, fall in love and eventually, live happily ever after. 

What’s different though, is in how they meet or what happens after they meet. In one of these famous stories – Ombak Rindu (I’ll be honest and say that I’ve only seen the movie and not read the novel in entirety) – the female lead only meets the male lead because her uncle has sold her to a nightclub in the city. If you’re thinking that this story was set in pre-modern times, you’d be wrong. The novel was written in 2002 and the movie came out in 2011. 

The male protagonist, Hariz meets Izzah when she is trying to escape from the nightclub. It’s raining and she’s being forcibly restrained by several men, who drag her back into the club and force her to drink until she passes out. Haris goes into the club, asks the manager if he can have first dibs, then goes into the back to “have sex” (rape) her. The first thing she does when she comes around, and realises what has happened, is to ask Haris to marry her. 

Yet somehow, these movies are considered “safer” to show than movies with consensual sex. 

How could rape be “safer”?

In a journal article on youth perception of women in Malay romance films, researchers conducted focus group sessions with youths aged 18-30 from rural and urban areas, which asked questions about elements in Ombak Rindu

Although some of the participants thought that the “forced marriage” to make the rape “halal” was unfair to Izzah, most of the female participants felt that “Izzah did the right thing”. Some of the reasons listed included: “It is a way to let the man be responsible for what he did” and “Shows how religious and forgiving she is”. 

Most of the respondents agreed that religion was central to the development of the film, saying, “The storyline revolved around submission to Allah and softening Hariz’s heart…”

So, a typical romance story where the two leads have consensual sex would be considered immoral but a story in which a “bad guy” is redeemed by a “good girl” is perfectly romantic. The former is seen as a “bad influence” but the latter is a moral tale. 

My friend, who is Muslim but not Malay, doesn’t agree with this. She thinks it’s actually the other way around – Malay movies create the wrong mindset. 

She said: Rape is seen as a bad thing in Western films and TV so it “spreads awareness” that sex is supposed to be consensual. Malay movies however, promote this idea that if you “make it halal”, it’s all good.

There are documented cases in Malaysia where men have raped underaged girls and “attempted to evade criminal charges” by marrying her. Apparently it happens often and because marital rape is not a crime in Malaysia, they do get away with it. In some of these cases, the men offer money to the girl’s parents in order to get their approval.  

Perception of rape

This led me to think about how people of different cultures, religions, or upbringings might perceive rape. 

I used to think that growing up female meant being persistently afraid of rape, as if it’s something that’s hiding just around the corner, ready to spring out at any moment. 

I remember, as a child, watching a movie in which a woman kills herself because she has been raped and has “lost her honour”. I remember watching TV dramas where women are punished because they have been raped and are no longer virgins. I don’t even remember the titles of these but the ideas have persisted – as a woman, your purity is worth more than your life. 

As women, we are told from a young age that we must not go out alone late at night. We must not walk through dark alleys. When we are in the carpark alone, we must hold our car key between our fingers and be ready to run. 

The first thing I do when I get into my car is lock it. Sometimes I look at my husband chilling in his seat with the door open while he slowly turns on the engine and my heart palpitates. “Why can’t you just close the door first?” I’ll ask, and he will shrug. 

It turns out, that this fear of rape is not universal (it seems nothing is!). 

Is rape a myth?

Christine Helliwell writes in her article “It's Only a Penis": Rape, Feminism, and Difference that rape is not universal. She tells a story from her time with the Dayak community of Gerai in Indonesian Borneo, in which a widow: 

awoke, in darkness, to feel the man inside her mosquito net, gripping her shoulder while he climbed under the blanket that covered her and her youngest child as they slept (her older children slept on mattresses nearby). He was whispering, "be quiet, be quiet!" She responded by sitting up in bed and pushing him violently, so that he stumbled backward, became entangled with her mosquito net, and then, finally free, moved across the floor toward the window. In the meantime, the woman climbed from her bed and pursued him, shouting his name several times as she did so. His hurried exit through the window, with his clothes now in considerable disarray, was accompanied by a stream of abuse from the woman and by excited interrogations from wakened neighbors in adjoining houses.

The next morning, Helliwell woke up to a group of women laughing outside the longhouse verandah. She writes, “They were recounting this tale loudly, and with enormous enjoyment, to all in the immediate vicinity. As I came out of my door, one was engaged in mimicking the man climbing out the window, sarong falling down, genitals askew. Those others working or lounging near her on the verandah – both men and women – shrieked with laughter.”

When I first read the story, I was appalled. Why hadn’t she fought him or caught him? I thought. 

Helliwell wondered the same thing, and asked the woman why she hadn’t kicked or hit him. The woman responded with shock.  

Why would she do that? she asked – after all, he hadn't hurt her. No, but he had wanted to, I replied. She looked at me with puzzlement. Not able to find a local word for rape in my vocabulary, I scrabbled to explain myself: "He was trying to have sex with you," I said, "although you didn't want to. He was trying to hurt you." She looked at me, more with pity than with puzzlement now, although both were mixed in her expression. "Tin [Christine], it's only a penis," she said. "How can a penis hurt anyone?"

What a powerful sentence. Because the truth is: How can a penis hurt anyone?

It’s only because we have accorded so much power to it that we view it as a weapon. (I have some thoughts on how all sex is bellicose, but that is an article for another day.) 

Helliwell writes that we must “explore the ways rape itself produces such experiences of masculinity and femininity and so inscribes sexual difference onto our bodies”. 

What a fascinating idea! 


Helliwell, C. (2000). “It’s Only a Penis”: Rape, Feminism, and Difference. Signs, 25(3), 789–816. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3175417

Jayasainana, S. Y., Hassim, N., & Khalid, N. L. (2014). An Analysis of Youth Perception on Women in a Malay Romance Film. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 155, 422–427. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.10.316

Reading / Watching:

Scare away the devil. I came across this article talking about how the devil is afraid of women, specifically a particular body part. It contained a hilarious illustration from “The Devil of Pope-Fig Island”, a tale by Jean de La Fontaine. It seems like female sexuality has been a horrifying idea for a long time. 

Lovestruck in the City. I just started watching this on Netflix because a) Ji Chang-Wook and b) I thought it would be interesting to see a different portrayal of romance in k-dramas. (Yes, it’s one of my many ongoing obsessions.)

Porn in The Sims 4. I play games and one of the games I really enjoy is The Sims 4. Last year I discovered that there are mods that allow you to create very graphic “woohoo” sessions. It seems like there are mods that let you pursue the porn star career too. Perhaps I could venture a little into the field of Game Studies? 😂  

This issue of the newsletter was a request from one of my readers, who wanted to know more about cultural perceptions of rape. I’m always trying to find intersections between what I’m researching and what you would like to read. If there’s a topic in particular that you’d like to know more about or read here, hit reply and let me know.