Rape Culture

I’ve been talking about “rape culture” a lot lately, and so has the blogosphere. I’m also going to be talking a lot more about it. Yet I know that when I say “rape culture,” a lot of people shut off, because they don’t have a clear understanding of what I’m referring to. They think of this extreme society, and they don’t live in a world where there’s all this “rape” around them every day, so WTF am I talking about? So let’s get a working definition of “rape culture,” before we even get started on this journey. There’s the Wikipedia entry, and there’s also this definition, which I found on Shakesville, which is from Transforming a Rape Culture:

A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.”

But like the post says, that goes over people’s heads. Hell, that would go over my head, if I didn’t have a background in sociology and women’s studies. That’s not what people are really asking. They’re asking for it to be explained to them in a way they can grasp. And Shakesville’s post does *exactly* that. I’m going to repost it pretty much in it’s entirety, because I can’t do any better than this. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but for the TL;DR crowd, I’m going to bold the blatant stuff, as well as the stuff that I think we don’t even think of as rape culture.

Rape culture is encouraging male sexual aggression. Rape culture is regarding violence as sexy and sexuality as violent. Rape culture is treating rape as a compliment, as the unbridled passion stirred in a healthy man by a beautiful woman, making irresistible the urge to rip open her bodice or slam her against a wall, or a wrought-iron fence, or a car hood, or pull her by her hair, or shove her onto a bed, or any one of a million other images of fight-fucking in movies and television shows and on the covers of romance novels that convey violent urges are inextricably linked with (straight) sexuality.

Rape culture is treating straight sexuality as the norm. Rape culture is lumping queer sexuality into nonconsensual sexual practices like pedophilia and bestiality. Rape culture is privileging heterosexuality because ubiquitous imagery of two adults of the same-sex engaging in egalitarian partnerships without gender-based dominance and submission undermines (erroneous) biological rationales for the rape culture’s existence.

Rape culture is rape being used as a weapon, a tool of war and genocide and oppression. Rape culture is rape being used as a corrective to “cure” queer women. Rape culture is a militarized culture and “the natural product of all wars, everywhere, at all times, in all forms.”

Rape culture is 1 in 33 men being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Rape culture is encouraging men to use the language of rape to establish dominance over one another (“I’ll make you my bitch”). Rape culture is making rape a ubiquitous part of male-exclusive bonding. Rape culture is ignoring the cavernous need for men’s prison reform in part because the threat of being raped in prison is considered an acceptable deterrent to committing crime, and the threat only works if actual men are actually being raped.

Rape culture is 1 in 6 women being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Rape culture is not even talking about the reality that many women are sexually assaulted multiple times in their lives. Rape culture is the way in which the constant threat of sexual assault affects women’s daily movements. Rape culture is telling girls and women to be careful about what you wear, how you wear it, how you carry yourself, where you walk, when you walk there, with whom you walk, whom you trust, what you do, where you do it, with whom you do it, what you drink, how much you drink, whether you make eye contact, if you’re alone, if you’re with a stranger, if you’re in a group, if you’re in a group of strangers, if it’s dark, if the area is unfamiliar, if you’re carrying something, how you carry it, what kind of shoes you’re wearing in case you have to run, what kind of purse you carry, what jewelry you wear, what time it is, what street it is, what environment it is, how many people you sleep with, what kind of people you sleep with, who your friends are, to whom you give your number, who’s around when the delivery guy comes, to get an apartment where you can see who’s at the door before they can see you, to check before you open the door to the delivery guy, to own a dog or a dog-sound-making machine, to get a roommate, to take self-defense, to always be alert always pay attention always watch your back always be aware of your surroundings and never let your guard down for a moment lest you be sexually assaulted and if you are and didn’t follow all the rules it’s your fault.

Rape culture is victim-blaming. Rape culture is a judge blaming a child for her own rape. Rape culture is a minister blaming his child victims. Rape culture is accusing a child of enjoying being held hostage, raped, and tortured. Rape culture is spending enormous amounts of time finding any reason at all that a victim can be blamed for hir own rape.

Rape culture is judges banning the use of the word rape in the courtroom. Rape culture is the media using euphemisms for sexual assault. Rape culture is stories about rape being featured in the Odd News.

Rape culture is tasking victims with the burden of rape prevention. Rape culture is encouraging women to take self-defense as though that is the only solution required to preventing rape. Rape culture is admonishing women to “learn common sense” or “be more responsible” or “be aware of barroom risks” or “avoid these places” or “don’t dress this way,” and failing to admonish men to not rape.

Rape culture is “nothing” being the most frequent answer to a question about what people have been formally taught about rape.

Rape culture is boys under 10 years old knowing how to rape.

Rape culture is the idea that only certain people rape—and only certain people get raped. Rape culture is ignoring that the thing about rapists is that they rape people. They rape people who are strong and people who are weak, people who are smart and people who are dumb, people who fight back and people who submit just to get it over with, people who are sluts and people who are prudes, people who rich and people who are poor, people who are tall and people who are short, people who are fat and people who are thin, people who are blind and people who are sighted, people who are deaf and people who can hear, people of every race and shape and size and ability and circumstance.

Rape culture is the narrative that sex workers can’t be raped. Rape culture is the assertion that wives can’t be raped. Rape culture is the contention that only nice girls can be raped.

Rape culture is refusing to acknowledge that the only thing that the victim of every rapist shares in common is bad fucking luck. Rape culture is refusing to acknowledge that the only thing a person can do to avoid being raped is never be in the same room as a rapist. Rape culture is avoiding talking about what an absurdly unreasonable expectation that is, since rapists don’t announce themselves or wear signs or glow purple.

Rape culture is people meant to protect you raping you instead—like parents, teachers, doctors, ministers, cops, soldiers, self-defense instructors.

Rape culture is a serial rapist being appointed to a federal panel that makes decisions regarding women’s health.

Rape culture is a ruling that says women cannot withdraw consent once sex commences.

Rape culture is a collective understanding about classifications of rapists: The “normal” rapist (whose crime is most likely to be dismissed with a “boys will be boys” sort of jocular apologia) is the man who forces himself on attractive women, women his age in fine health and form, whose crime is disturbingly understandable to his male defenders. The “real sickos” are the men who go after children, old ladies, the disabled, accident victims languishing in comas—the sort of people who can’t fight back, whose rape is difficult to imagine as titillating, unlike the rape of “pretty girls,” so easily cast in a fight-fuck fantasy of squealing and squirming and eventual relenting to the “flattery” of being raped.

Rape culture is the insistence on trying to distinguish between different kinds of rape via the use of terms like “gray rape” or “date rape.”

Rape culture is pervasive narratives about rape that exist despite evidence to the contrary. Rape culture is pervasive imagery of stranger rape, even though women are three times more likely to be raped by someone they know than a stranger, and nine times more likely to be raped in their home, the home of someone they know, or anywhere else than being raped on the street, making what is commonly referred to as “date rape” by far the most prevalent type of rape. Rape culture is pervasive insistence that false reports are common, although they are less common (1.6%) than false reports of auto theft (2.6%). Rape culture is pervasive claims that women make rape accusations willy-nilly, when 61% of rapes remain unreported.

Rape culture is the pervasive narrative that there is a “typical” way to behave after being raped, instead of the acknowledgment that responses to rape are as varied as its victims, that, immediately following a rape, some women go into shock; some are lucid; some are angry; some are ashamed; some are stoic; some are erratic; some want to report it; some don’t; some will act out; some will crawl inside themselves; some will have healthy sex lives; some never will again.

Rape culture is the pervasive narrative that a rape victim who reports hir rape is readily believed and well-supported, instead of acknowledging that reporting a rape is a huge personal investment, a difficult process that can be embarrassing, shameful, hurtful, frustrating, and too often unfulfilling. Rape culture is ignoring that there is very little incentive to report a rape; it’s a terrible experience with a small likelihood of seeing justice served.

Rape culture is hospitals that won’t do rape kits, disbelieving law enforcement, unmotivated prosecutors, hostile judges, victim-blaming juries, and paltry sentencing.

Rape culture is the fact that higher incidents of rape tend to correlate with lower conviction rates.

Rape culture is silence around rape in the national discourse, and in rape victims’ homes. Rape culture is treating surviving rape as something of which to be ashamed. Rape culture is families torn apart because of rape allegations that are disbelieved or ignored or sunk to the bottom of a deep, dark sea in an iron vault of secrecy and silence.

Rape culture is the objectification of women, which is part of a dehumanizing process that renders consent irrelevant. Rape culture is treating women’s bodies like public property. Rape culture is street harassment and groping on public transportation and equating raped women’s bodies to a man walking around with valuables hanging out of his pockets. Rape culture is most men being so far removed from the threat of rape that invoking property theft is evidently the closest thing many of them can imagine to being forcibly subjected to a sexual assault.

Rape culture is treating 13-year-old girls like trophies for men regarded as great artists.

Rape culture is ignoring the way in which professional environments that treat sexual access to female subordinates as entitlements of successful men can be coercive and compromise enthusiastic consent.

Rape culture is a convicted rapist getting a standing ovation at Cannes, a cameo in a hit movie, and a career resurgence in which he can joke about how he hates seeing people get hurt.

Rape culture is when running dogfights is said to elicit more outrage than raping a woman would.

Rape culture is blurred lines between persistence and coercion. Rape culture is treating diminished capacity to consent as the natural path to sexual activity.

Rape culture is pretending that non-physical sexual assaults, like peeping tomming, is totally unrelated to brutal and physical sexual assaults, rather than viewing them on a continuum of sexual assault.

Rape culture is diminishing the gravity of any sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, or culture of actual or potential coercion in any way.

Rape culture is using the word “rape” to describe something that has been done to you other than a forced or coerced sex act. Rape culture is saying things like “That ATM raped me with a huge fee” or “The IRS raped me on my taxes.”

Rape culture is rape being used as entertainment, in movies and television shows and books and in video games.

Rape culture is television shows and movies leaving rape out of situations where it would be a present and significant threat in real life.

Rape culture is Amazon offering to locate “rape” products for you.

Rape culture is rape jokes. Rape culture is rape jokes on t-shirts, rape jokes in college newspapers, rape jokes in soldiers’ home videos, rape jokes on the radio, rape jokes on news broadcasts, rape jokes in magazines, rape jokes in viral videos, rape jokes in promotions for children’s movies, rape jokes on Page Six (and again!), rape jokes on the funny pages, rape jokes on TV shows, rape jokes on the campaign trail, rape jokes on Halloween, rape jokes in online content by famous people, rape jokes in online content by non-famous people, rape jokes in headlines, rape jokes onstage at clubs, rape jokes in politics, rape jokes in one-woman shows, rape jokes in print campaigns, rape jokes in movies, rape jokes in cartoons, rape jokes in nightclubs, rape jokes on MTV, rape jokes on late-night chat shows, rape jokes in tattoos, rape jokes in stand-up comedy, rape jokes on websites, rape jokes at awards shows, rape jokes in online contests, rape jokes in movie trailers, rape jokes on the sides of buses, rape jokes on cultural institutions…

Rape culture is people objecting to the detritus of the rape culture being called oversensitive, rather than people who perpetuate the rape culture being regarded as not sensitive enough.

Rape culture is the myriad ways in which rape is tacitly and overtly abetted and encouraged having saturated every corner of our culture so thoroughly that people can’t easily wrap their heads around what the rape culture actually is.

*This* is the kind of thing that I angrily denounced in this post, and which many of my male readers got offended and protested that they weren’t rapists. But rape was the extreme end of that spectrum. There are much more subtle ways of participating in a rape culture, ways that many men don’t even realize they’re acting. Garnet Joyce, in her amazing post (seriously, go read it NOW), outlined some of those very well:

“You may never have raped or assaulted a woman yourself, but have you made a joke about sexually or physically abusing a woman? Have you laughed at jokes like these that your friends tell? Or have you even just sat by being offended by what someone is saying about women, but you haven’t spoken up? Has a woman told you that she has been sexually assaulted and you didn’t believe her? Or maybe you thought that if only she wasn’t such a slut/drunk/risk taker that maybe she wouldn’t have gotten raped in the first place? Have you ever assumed that a woman bringing a rape case against a star athlete was just in it for the money? Have you ever offered a woman drinks in order to try to have sex with her? When a woman says no to sex, do you try to convince her otherwise or do you just let it go? When you have sex with a woman do you make sure that she is an engaged and active partner or is the lack of “no” enough consent for you? Have you ever catcalled a woman on the street? Have you ever felt entitled to have sex with a woman because you bought her something or took her out? If you answered yes to any of these questions you are guilty of participating in rape culture. And I guarantee you that most people will probably answer yes to at least one.”

I’ll be examining these less obvious aspects of rape culture over time, but I wanted to get a working definition of “rape culture” out there, so that people had a better idea of what I was criticizing. Yes, rape is a part of it. But that’s at the far end of the spectrum in terms of the behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that make up rape culture as a whole.

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  1. Sa
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 2:31 am | Permalink

    This topic is very difficult for me to talk about, because the awareness of rape culture is non-existent in France. If you try to explain, people look at you as if you're crazy/unbalanced. How can you talk about rape culture if you have never been raped, for instance?

    Ilook forward to your analysis.

  2. Epiphora
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 4:22 am | Permalink

    That post on Shakes is so wonderful. SO WONDERFUL. And I can't wait to see what you have to say. This is so important.

  3. alana
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    This post sums rape culture up well, but I hope people new to the topic won’t go to Shakesville in order to get their feet wet. Even I don’t feel very welcome there and they have a pack mentality that makes me uncomfortable (and I usually agree with their positions).

    That being said, Garnet Joyce’s post reminds me of a moving walkway analogy I read about in my Race, Class, and Gender psychology class. The idea was that racism in our society is like a moving walkway (like in some airports). The outspoken racists we tend to think of when we hear words like “racist” or “racism” are the ones running on the walkway, but the rest of us are still moving in the same direction since our society is inherently racist (even though we may not individually be racist). Some people may even try to walk in the opposite direction (by speaking up against racism or questioning white privilege), but unless you go faster then the speed of the walkway you’ll still only be standing in place. Obviously not all people are going to agree with this sort of idea, but it really hit home for me.

    I totally look forward to where this is going too.

  4. Welcome to Chicago, Jillinois
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    This is really timely for me personally. On NYE I went to a concert. The place was filled to capacity (3,000 people), mostly with drunk college-aged kids (I'm 31). At least five times five separate guys pushed their way up to me and grabbed or groped me in some way. When I said calmly "Don't touch me," I was called a bitch or another name.

    As I left the concert, I crossed a busy street to get to the train. I joined two other men (this time in their 30s) on the median waiting for traffic to ease up so we could cross. They were drunk. One spread his arms and said Give Me A Hug! and tried to hug me. I stepped back. The other got close and said Hey, do you want to share a cab home? I said No. Why not? Because I don't know you. The other tried to hug me again. "Get away from me," I said loudly. "Jesus, why don't you go play in traffic, you bitch? Seriously, go die in traffic."

    It's been awhile since I've been out and about in any sort of bar/club/social scene with strangers, I guess, but I was shocked by this. It was the sense of entitlement that they had. A) I have the right to touch you/grope you/ try to take you home for sex and B) if you say no for whatever reason, you are a bitch who should die.

    Not all men are like this, at all. But those who are, who have been taught by this culture that women exist for their pleasure, should take a baseball bat to the head.

  5. champagneandbenzedrine
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    What Sa wrote above is ABSOLUTELY true – to a certain extent.

    I remember having to tell my American students in Paris that they shouldn't even meet the gaze of men on the Metro because certain parts of the community (and I will stereotype here, because the stereotype was generally true – Arab and Muslim men) considered that an 'invitation to rape' and would aggressively follow those girls from that moment on.

    However I've actually been on hand as a translator in one rape case in Paris and wrote on my own blog about another case of rape in France and in both cases the Police Nationale were incredibly sympathetic and understanding. They were certainly aware of (and frustrated by) 'rape culture' in France because they had to deal with it on a daily basis.

    Sa's right, though – the fact that the only two cases of rape I've been involved with both occured in France – and the perpetrator was only prosecuted in one of them – totally supports her belief that rape culture is pandemic there.

  6. champagneandbenzedrine
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    On a related subject – how comfortable do you feel writing this post – and saying you're going to write many more on the same topic – given that Profilgacy wrote this a few days earlier, about his 'toy chest.'

    "Lots of ropes, leather restraints, percussion toys, chains, gags; Pretty much your typical rapist kit. They give you one when you graduate rapist school. Some of the items here I have fashioned myself."

    I mean, if you want to talk about
    'rape culture is regarding violence as sexy' you'd have a hard time finding a more appropriate quote about it. My new year's resolution is not to be negative or judgemental about this kind of thing, but in the scope of what you're writing and the point you're trying to make, this is somewhat… difficult to reconcile.

    I mean, I get it – Profilgacy only ever 'rapes' totally consenting and willing 'victims' in the safety and comfort of a 'scene' with preestablished boundries.

    However, you quoted this:

    "Rape culture is treating rape as a compliment, as the unbridled passion stirred in a healthy man by a beautiful woman, making irresistible the urge to rip open her bodice or slam her against a wall, or a wrought-iron fence, or a car hood, or pull her by her hair, or shove her onto a bed, or any one of a million other images of fight-fucking in movies and television shows and on the covers of romance novels that convey violent urges are inextricably linked with (straight) sexuality."

    And then it's arguable that you have posts on your blog totally selling into that same mindset which you're complaining about.

  7. Britni TheVadgeWig
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Champagne and Benzedrine, maybe you should read my response to someone else about that before you ask that question.

  8. champagneandbenzedrine
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    And where might I read that?

  9. Britni TheVadgeWig
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    In the comments section of that post. I said:

    "I can see how it seems inappropriate. However, part of our D/s dynamic is consensual nonconsent. I am "helpless" and He can do what He wants with me. He tells me He is going to rape me. I ask Him to rape me. All under the guise of nonconsent, but thoroughly discussed and consensual beforehand."

    Since He and I discuss and call it "rape" among ourselves, it *is* consensual and it isn't something that is being assumed as being linked to His/our sexuality; it's something we've both chosen to link to it and desire.

    Profligacy, in the comments, said:

    "Tasteless joke obviously. I was attempting to make fun of myself and the dicotimy of our relationship, that she so often refers to. Perhaps I failed. So be it. I won't defend it."

  10. Truly
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    This weekend I heard the recent alleged (statutory) rape of a 12-year-old girl described like this: "Well, she's 12 going on 30, and from a terrible family, and he's really a young 18, it's just so unfair…" SHE WAS 12! The thought that her supposed maturity or poverty somehow made her a responsible participant just made me sick. It's such a pervasive attitude, though I'd never thought of it as a "culture" before. Thanks for the great points.

  11. champagneandbenzedrine
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Good answer – I didn't read the comments from that post.

    I still find it fascinating, if wildly contradictory, how the word and concept of rape is used in the realm of consensual sexual relationships.

    I think you manage to balance it by being so open and honest about your relationship.

  12. twg
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I tried to explain this to my ex many times before giving up. He would always respond "I think you're just more pessimistic about society" when interrupting me. This from the anxiety-ridden, parents-blaming-for-his-emotional-problems misanthrope himself. Yeah, I'm the pessimist.

    Great post and loves shakesville.

  13. Britni TheVadgeWig
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    I still find it fascinating, if wildly contradictory, how the word and concept of rape is used in the realm of consensual sexual relationships.

    I think you manage to balance it by being so open and honest about your relationship.

    I can see how it can be confusing for people. Especially those that don't fully grasp the concept of rape culture. It can see contradictory, but when you look at it more closely, it's anything but. It's not an assumption that our sex will be violent.

    The only reason it is an assumption is because it was discussed and agreed upon beforehand. This is entirely different than me going home with a man and him holding my hands down or slapping my face without a discussion beforehand.

    However, I totally understand how it can be confusing and seem contradictory to many. A submissive that talks about being beaten and "raped" criticizes rape jokes? WTF? But when you get to the heart of the matter, it's really very different.

  14. Meg
    Posted January 5, 2010 at 1:18 am | Permalink

    Truly–I work with 12- and 13-year-olds, and let me tell you, anyone who says they are mature enough to know better is full of shit. I share your outrage, because I've never met a 12-year-old girl who is mature about sex.

    When I was 13, a friend of mine was pushed down on a couch by her 16-year-old boyfriend, and he made her have sex with him. Some of my friends were so jealous of her for being so grown-up, and having sex. I didn't have the vocabulary to describe it then, but as an adult, I now know that was rape, plain and simple.

    Great post, Britni. Very informative.

  15. Another Suburban Mom
    Posted January 5, 2010 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    This was a wonderful post Britni. You should be proud of yourself. Its informative and well written and absolutely worth posting.

  16. BELLA
    Posted January 8, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    What an eye-opening post. I look forward to reading more as you explore this topic.

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