Rape culture: Defining it, acknowledging it, working to end it

“Rape is a horrific crime, and rapists are despised”…. supposedly. Hopefully, that line causes you some outrage—a little indignation. If it didn’t, well, then, case in point.

The problem is that we pay a lot of lip service to how abhorrent rape is, however we as a society have a tendency to systematically treat it with levity, if we don’t just sweep it under the proverbial rug. Rape pervades the music we enjoy, the jokes we laugh at, the media entertainment we enjoy, everything. And we don’t even notice it anymore. What could be stronger evidence than our general desensitization to the atrocities of rape?

Defining rape culture

According to the Marshall University Women’s Center, “Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.” By definition, we live in a rape culture society.

Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety. Rape culture affects every woman.  The rape of one woman is a degradation, terror, and limitation to all women. Most women and girls limit their behavior because of the existence of rape. Most women and girls live in fear of rape. Men, in general, do not. That’s how rape functions as a powerful means by which the whole female population is held in a subordinate position to the whole male population, even though many men don’t rape, and many women are never victims of rape. This cycle of fear is the legacy of rape culture.

Convinced yet? Zerlina Maxwell asked in her TIME magazine article:

Is 1 in 5 American women surviving rape or attempted rape considered a cultural norm? Is 1 in 6 men being abused before the age of 18 a cultural norm? These statistics are not just shocking, they represent real people. Yet, these millions of survivors and allies don’t raise their collective voices to educate America about our culture of rape because of fear. Rape culture is a real and serious, and we need to talk about it. Simply put, feminists want equality for everyone, and that begins with physical safety.

Consider this, too. According to an analysis by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 97% of rapists never spend a single day in jail for their crimes. But statistics take the emotion out of the heart-wrenching facts. So, Maxwell also detailed her own tragic encounter with rape and rape culture.

“You were drinking, what did you expect?”

Those were the first words that I heard when I went to someone I trusted for support after my roommate’s boyfriend raped me eight years ago. When I came forward to report what happened, instead of support, many well-meaning people close to me asked me questions about what I was wearing, if I had done something to cause the assault, or if I had been drinking. These questions about my choices the night of my assault — as opposed to the choices made by my rapist — were in some ways as painful as the violent act itself. I had stumbled upon rape culture: a culture in which sexual violence is the norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults.

“Victims are blamed for their own assaults.” I initially found that hard to believe, too. We are an intelligent, well-developed, civilized society; we would never blame the victim, right?


Voices of rape culture

       The cold, foggy weather is like a rape, and ”if it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.” -Clayton Williams, Texas gubernatorial nominee (March 1990)

       “I would hope that when a woman goes into a physician [for an abortion], with a rape issue, that that physician will indeed ask her about perhaps her marriage, was this pregnancy caused by normal relations in a marriage, or was it truly caused by rape.”-Chuck Winder, Idaho candidate for US Senate (March 2012)

       “It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancies from rape are] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” -Todd Akin, Missouri Senate (March 2012)

       “I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”  Richard Mourdock, Indiana candidate for the U.S. Senate (Oct. 2012)

        “Some girls rape easy” -Roger Rivard, a state representative in Wisconsin (Oct. 2012)

       Rape is just “another method of conception.” -Paul Ryan (January 2013)

There are more, but I can’t go on. It’s too repulsive. Consider this, though: If our politicians, representatives of us and of our country, make these “speech errors,” even after careful pruning and refining their every word, what about the rest of us?

Pardon another rant against Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” but rape victims themselves call the lyrics of the song “from the mouths of rapists.” That’s right. The blockbuster song exemplifies rapes. Please check out the link, and then delete the song from your playlists if you can.

Think about Law and Order SVU. Granted, it’s nice to see the bad guys get caught and thrown behind bars, but it gives us the misconception that a) rape only happens to women b) rapists are usually strangers c) rapists don’t wander our streets, because rapists get caught, and rapists get convicted.The fact that we are so disillusioned and so very desensitized to rape lends credence to the fact that we do live in a rape culture, no matter how much we hate to believe it.

Rape culture is when…

Maxwell created a Twitter hashtag #RapeCultureIsWhen to “spark a public dialogue about rape culture and shift the conversation away from the myths that shame so many survivors into silence. This conversation is meant to be a tool to educate people about what rape culture is, how to spot it, and how to combat it…. The following statements are made up of contributions to the #RapeCultureIsWhen hashtag, as well as the myriad personal stories of survivors with the courage to speak out:”

Rape culture is when women who come forward are questioned about what they were wearing.

Rape culture is when survivors who come forward are asked, “Were you drinking?”

Rape culture is when people say, “She was asking for it.”

Rape culture is when the mainstream media mourns the end of the convicted Steubenville rapists’ football careers and does not mention the young girl who was victimized.

Rape culture is when cyberbullies take pictures of sexual assaults and harass their victims online after the fact, which in the cases of Audrie Pott and Rehtaeh Parsons tragically ended in their suicides.

Rape culture is when, in 31 states, rapists can legally sue for child custody, if the rape results in pregnancy.

Rape culture is when college campus advisers tasked with supporting the student body, shame survivors who report their rapes. (Annie Clark, a campus activist, says an administrator at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill told her when she reported her rape, “Well… Rape is like football, if you look back on the game, and you’re the quarterback, Annie… is there anything you would have done differently?”)

Rape culture is when colleges are more concerned with getting sued by assailants than by supporting survivors. (Or at Occidental College, where students and administrators who advocated for survivors were terrorized for speaking out against the school’s insufficient reporting procedures.)

Maxwell advises that we stop teaching women how “not to get raped” and start teaching men not to rape. Because that’s rape culture.

The Marshall University Women’s Center similarly includes these societal norms as examples of rape culture:

       Blaming the victim (“She asked for it!”)

       Trivializing sexual assault (“Boys will be boys!”)

       Sexually explicit jokes (“Don’t drop the soap!”)

       Tolerance of sexual harassment

       Inflating false rape report statistics

       Publicly scrutinizing a victim’s dress, mental state, motives, and history

       Gratuitous gender violence in movies and television

       Defining “manhood” as dominant and sexually aggressive

       Defining “womanhood” as submissive and sexually passive

       Pressure on men to “score”

       Assuming that only promiscuous women get raped

       Assuming that men don’t get raped, or that only “weak” men get raped

       Refusing to take rape accusations seriously . A new study suggests thatpolice systematically undercount rape reports.


Combating rape culture

       Avoid using language that objectifies or degrades women

       Speak out if you hear someone else making an offensive joke or trivializing rape

       If a friend says she has been raped, take her seriously and be supportive

       Think critically about the media’s messages about women, men, relationships, and violence

       Be respectful of others’ physical space even in casual situations

       Always communicate with sexual partners, and do not assume consent

       Define your own manhood or womanhood.  Do not let stereotypes shape your actions.

       Get involved! Join a student or community group working to end violence against women.