Cultural Relativism Vs. Sexual Assault

Many scholars and feminists these days are also cultural relativists, believing that a culture’s customs or beliefs that might look strange to an outsider should only be judged by that culture’s own standards. It’s the fancy academic version of “walk a mile in another’s shoes before you judge that person”: try to understand how things are from the inside of a culture rather then condemning from the outside. But where does one draw the line between “that’s cool, it’s their own unique cultural thing” and “holy crap, that’s sexual assault”?

It gets especially tricky once religious beliefs are drawn in, as in this South African news story about a church leader who resolved the problems of different women–demon possession/impregnation in one case, inability to have pain-free sex with her husband in another–by publicly touching (in some cases, probing until they bled) their genitals.

The article was sparse on some details, so it’s unclear whether the church leader’s interventions actually helped these individual women, and whether the rest of the congregation supported his invasive actions. Again, from a cultural relativism perspective, it’s not up to us to judge his actions; they must be interpreted in the context of the community’s beliefs. But given the lack of solid information in the article, and the fact that it was only women with the “problems” that needed his touch to cure, I’m going to maintain a skeptical stance. Any culture that submits one gender to public sexual assault probably has an uneven investment in power somewhere, and while it’s not up to me as the obviously enlightened Western feminist to fix it (being ironic here, in case the internet’s not conveying my intent), I think it’s worth evaluating the norms by which we judge other cultures–and our own. It’s very, very easy to justify a practice as traditional, or “that’s how we’ve always done it,” when in fact traditions can be invented, or can be manipulated to grant more power to one group than another. Tradition is often invoked to uphold sexual inequality (as well as racism and other oppressive regimes), so beware of tradition being given as a justification for sexist and harmful practices.

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About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.