So Common, It’s Cultural: How Outdated Ideologies Normalise and Silence Atrocities

By Shawn Francine Alexandra Reo​


Notoriously deemed as a social justice problem by the community, sexual violence is unfortunately a common by-product of a country experiencing ongoing conflict, poverty, or another sense of instability within that state territory. As a result, various forms of sexual violence are committed against both the male and female gender by several belligerent actors – of which include rebels, government forces, and non-combatants. The significance and widespread of this issue has prompted coordinated policy responses from both formal and informal actors. However, policy attempts remain futile as though it managed to give plenty of international support and attention to the vulnerable lot; male victims are almost entirely excluded from its scope of protection. This arguably puts the male gender in a much more difficult position from where they started. The inadequacy and impotence of the policy may follow from the primary ideological reasoning that laws would be ineffective if they do not reflect cultural and social norms – the majority of which predates back to the late thirties and is thus greatly outdated.

Social and Cultural Norms

Social and Cultural norms (or ‘socio-cultural norms’) are (often unspoken) rules that are meant to guide and govern interactions among individuals within specific groups in an orderly fashion – usually by offering social standards in terms of what is socially acceptable and appropriate behaviour in society. While norms essentially persist in helping individuals integrate within a group or culture, the secondary aspect of their nature and create and form our understandings of what is socially acceptable or tolerable behaviour from one group to another. Given the divergent nature endowed within these norms means acceptable behaviour of one group or culture might not be indulged by others. The importance socio-cultural norms play in the running of society is exemplified through the influence that one group can have over another’s mental outlook, which is possible even when conformity to accepting their behaviour as righteous does not happen. Pressures from various internal and external channels, as well as the possibility of provoking social disapproval and being labelled as a social pariah, further, indoctrinates these ideals and discourage individuals from violating norms even when an individual disagrees with the fundamental aspects of the norm. Despite the intrinsic function of socio-cultural norms to protect society against all forms of violence, in times of war or societal chaos, it becomes possible that they are capable of supporting or instigating such behaviours – depicting the double-edged nature and thus darker side of these norms.

Linking Norms with Policies

The fact that sexual violence is a multi-pronged problem shaped by the interplay between personal, situational, and socio-cultural factors effectively means that underlying socio-cultural norms and beliefs a community often makes it difficult for victims to obtain support and redress – particularly for the male gender. This is owed towards the vast influence of outdated and rigidly defined gender models, which include the emphasis on masculinity, patriarchy, and overall male superiority. This anachronous mentality effectively suggests that due to concepts of masculinity revolving around ideas of toughness, honour, and dominance of the male gender, the latter is not capable of becoming victims of sexual violence. This also influences behaviour and attitudes on sexual relations, both factors of which plays a significant role in community responses to sexual violence. A couple of significant facets of social and cultural normative influence often simultaneously occur – including male entitlement to sexual relations and sexual relations as a taboo subject matter of conversation. The international community would poorly construe this rationale, leaving the male gender in an ill-fated position. The former would attribute the absence of mutual consent to the so-called individual right for males to have sexual relations. The anathema that sexual relations have also made it difficult for discussions on sexual violence with public health and medical professionals, as well as law enforcement to take place. That being said, seeking public acknowledgement and accountability would almost be virtually impossible. Under such circumstances, sexual violence is only given due consideration as a “confidential and private matter” or as an unfortunate casualty of armed conflict. Re-victimization, ostracism, and discrimination are only some of the things male victims of sexual violence face in seeking accountability. The affiliation between dishonour and sexual violence has led male victims to experience neglect, ignorance, and abandonment by their communities. Sexual violence reporting particularly endangers the status and social standing of males. The relationship between perpetrators and victims within the community can also be a factor preventing males from speaking out. Moreover, male victims might be intimidated by the likelihood of presenting claims to inimical or unscrupulous authorities.


Addressing this issue is only possible if the socio-cultural context in crimes is considered, as well as the calamitous effects sexual violence has on the individual and their community. The fact that people shape and are shaped by the environment they inhabit means that an individual’s well-being and welfare cannot be separated from the community in which they populate. The knowledge, behaviour, and attitude obtained by individuals are determined by what cultural or social relations they have experienced in their community. The traditional and cultural portrayal of the male gender in social-cultural norms managed to result in a seemingly harsh depiction of the male gender – putting them in a bad light. Policymakers should instead be aware that while the law is a lasting social institution, in a constantly changing society, it must also be open to change.