Rape culture can be a confusing subject, but dissecting + understanding it can help us to make progress in the realm of sexual violence.
defining rape culture
Rape culture is a social attitude that normalizes, trivializes, and excuses sexual violence. It's a pervasive mentality that contributes to the perpetuation of rape, assault, and abuse, as well as the further objectification of women. It's what leads to teaching women one million strategies to avoid rape rather than teaching proper consent education and instilling a respect for sexual boundaries and autonomy. It's defining "manhood" as being dominant and sexually aggressive, but "womanhood" as submission and passivity. Though this concept is a little broad, we'll get into some practical applications of what rape culture looks like in everyday life.
what it looks like
It's important to note that rape culture is a global issue; it presents itself in just about every place on the planet. This is by no means an exhaustive guide to the issue, but here are some instances + examples of rape culture, ranging from everyday subtlety to the extremes:
- Rape as a punchline. We've all heard it: the grotesque joke that makes you feel uncomfortable, maybe gets a few stiff laughs, and dissipates awkwardly out of the conversation - but what harm can it do? A lot, actually. It's not unlikely, given statistics, that someone who has survived rape (or another form of sexual violence) will be in the audience of this "joke." In laughing off rape as just an edgy punchline, it trivializes any trauma that a survivor has gone through, and beyond that, it validates offenders by confirming that sexual violence is no big deal and even a laughing matter.
- Boys-will-be-boys, cat calls, and "locker room talk." This is perhaps the most common format for rape culture in daily life. Talking about women as objects occurs constantly - and is widely accepted. You'd be hard-pressed to find a woman that hasn't experienced cat calling or some other kind of unwelcome sexual commentary (often from a stranger). But most complaints are often dismissed; "you should take it as a compliment!" or, "this wouldn't happen if you weren't so pretty!" The heart of the issue is not that these women were too pretty for their own good, it's that there is an overwhelming demographic of men who feel entitled to women's bodies, and have no shame about expressing this with suggestive remarks.
- The friend-zone. Again, you've seen it a million times: some guy bemoaning how he was so nice to a girl, but she has put him in "the friend-zone." Somehow, showing a girl some basic human decency should earn them a relationship or sex, and women become just prizes that can be won. This mindset views women as objects that don't get to make their own decisions, couldn't possibly just have their own preferences, and don't deserve respect without an ulterior motive.
- Victim blaming. When someone reports sexual violence, it's not unusual for them to experience a myriad of comments and accusations. They're told that they shouldn't have been wearing that, shouldn't have been out so late, shouldn't have been drunk, shouldn't have been flirting. Their entire sexual history is brought into question and words like "slut" are quick to be thrown around. Rather than placing the fault where it belongs - on the actual offender - rape culture puts the blame on the victim.
- Inflated perception of false rape claims. There's a tendency to assume, when faced with a survivor, that their story is untrue or exaggerated. The fact of the matter is that only between 2-8% of accusations are false (statistics vary geographically). Victim blaming plays a definite role in this by asserting that a victim must have somehow deserved their rape, whether it was because of their dress, conduct, or sobriety, but we also can find it hard to believe when we know the offender. Often, we think that rapists and abusers are the slimy villains hanging out in the shadows, but in actuality they're people that we know, and probably don't look like what we think a perpetrator would.
- Promising athletic careers. Whether it's the media or the judicial system, people are often quick to highlight the lost future of a rapist, sympathize with all of the goals they once had, and how sad it is that the allegations against them will affect them forever. The future of an offender somehow trumps safety and justice for their victim. We've seen this a lot here in America, with one of the most recent instances being the Brock Turner case.
- Male survivors. Rape culture is a double-edged sword, hurting both men and women. The stigmas surrounding male survivors are truly horrendous: that they can't be raped because they should be able to fight back (and they must be weak if they didn't), that men who were abused by other men must be gay, that if they experienced an erection they must have enjoyed it. These beliefs are cemented by the fragile concept of masculinity. Rape culture tells men that they need to be strong, dominant beings with an aggressive and uncontrollable sexuality, defined by toughness and never allowed to experience any emotion other than anger. This makes the idea of a man being a victim unimaginable to many.
- Punishing rape survivors rather than perpetrators. Sadly, there are endless examples of this happening throughout the world. In 2011, a 19-year-old woman from Afghanistan was imprisoned for two years after she was impregnated by her rapist. A Saudi Arabian woman was given a six month sentence and 200 lashes after being the victim of gang rape, simply because she had "appeared in public with a man she was not related to." Somali police jailed a woman for merely accusing security forces of rape. A Moroccan teen was forced by a court to marry her rapist.
The effects of rape culture are vast. It discourages survivors from reporting their cases by creating a (very valid) fear that their story won't be believed, instills anxiety into women to always be on the lookout for potential offenders, and creates a misconstrued sense of masculinity that men can't and shouldn't live up to. But all hope is not lost! We can make daily efforts to change this societal mindset.
- Avoid using language that is derogatory and degrading, and shut down these conversations when you can.
- Refuse to find humor in sexual violence, and speak out when you hear it.
- Take the claims of others seriously and be supportive of their recovery.
- Analyze media portrayals of sexual violence rather than taking it at face value.
- Don't feel obligated to participate in gender stereotypes or cultural definitions.
Change on a national and international level will take time, but actively rejecting rape culture is necessary and practical step to end sexual violence.