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What is rape culture?

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

What is rape culture?

Rape culture is a term that describes the normalization and pervasiveness of sexual violence, as well as attitudes and practices that explicitly or implicitly support or tolerate sexual violence in a society. Rape culture is therefore not just about acts of rape, or forced sex without consent or sexual abuse; it reflects a wide range of attitudes, behaviors and norms that perpetuate the notion that objectification, coercion, harassment and/or sexual force are acceptable. All acts of unwanted attention, from verbal solicitations like cat-calling or pressuring for sex, to kissing, touching, or rape itself, are part of rape culture. When any of these kinds of acts are committed or excused or considered the victim’s fault (for example, if they are chalked up to simply “locker room talk” or that “boys will be boys,” or “she should have fought back”), either in real life or in a media representation, this is an example of rape culture.

The term rape culture may be relatively new, but the pervasiveness and acceptance of sexual violence against women is not. Feminists in the 1970’s first introduced the term rape culture in the United States as they started raising public awareness that sexual violence against women was an issue. At that time, for instance, marital rape was not considered rape and was completely legal in the U.S., until as recently as 1998 in some states.

What causes rape culture?

Rape culture is both a “systemic” problem, which means it is spread throughout our entire society, and it is an “institutional” problem, with structures like the educational and justice systems, and practices like “the walk of shame” and beliefs about gender and sexual roles in place to cause and maintain it. Violation of these norms and roles can incite sexual violence and blame for women and queer and trans people, who comprise the vast majority of people who experience sexual violence; those of color are most at risk of experiencing sexual violence. For instance, estimates for women’s rates of experiencing attempted rape range from one in six to one in four, twenty-one percent of transgender college students have been sexually assaulted, and Native Americans are at greater risk of assault than other racial/ethnic groups.

Gender norms in the U.S. hold masculinity above femininity and men above women. Men are supposed to be dominant, or give the impression that they are, over women and other men, they should not display emotion, they are assumed (or even pressured to be) heterosexual, and sexually aggressive, and always “up for sex” with women. Women on the other hand, are supposed to be people pleasers and submissive to their (male) partners’ needs. The sexual double standard and objectification of women reinforce the belief that men have uncontrollable sex drives and are entitled to have their sexual needs met even if a woman is not interested. These attitudes permeate our media, from rom-com movies to pornography, as well as our institutions.

When rape victims seek legal help, they must often answer invasive and offensive questions to defend the circumstances of the rape that are actually not allowed as part of court proceedings. Police or campus administration may ask: “What were you wearing?,” “Were you drinking?,” “Did you fight back?” Many politicians still refuse to take sexual assault in the military, in prisons, or even in the family, seriously. Young women who come forward about being assaulted have been ridiculed or rejected by their communities, and ignored by the authorities. This isn’t one victim, one rapist, one police officer – it’s not an individual problem. Rape culture is embedded in our very systems of social order.

Isn’t this term just man-shaming men?

Not all men are rapists, and not all men are potential rapists, but all men have a role to play in changing rape culture. This includes examining attitudes and behaviors that may not seem to directly support rape or sexual assault, but still maintain a society where women are at risk of sexual violence. There has been a culture shift in how we think about sexuality. Human sexuality is not black and white, and gendered sexual norms can make consent in heterosexual encounters complicated; it is often more complicated than a simple question of whether someone says “yes” or “no” in a straightforward way to a sexual activity regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. It can be uncomfortable to talk about emerging cultural shifts in recognizing sexual assault and violence or to recognize one’s previous behaviors as having potentially been harmful to another person. Men’s participation in resisting rape culture and our understanding of positive and mutual sexuality itself is vital.

Isn’t rape culture mostly an issue on college campuses?

Although rape culture is certainly an issue on college campuses, where about 24% of women and 5% of men report experiencing attempted or completed rape, rape culture is not limited to college women. It is an issue for everyone! Public attention to sexual violence has often centered on the stories of privileged white heterosexual women, ignoring the ways in which rape culture affects everyone, not just women. Although women and queer people do tend to be the victims of rape and sexual exploitation by men, rape culture is an issue across gender, age, ability status, class, race and sexual orientation. For instance, childhood sexual abuse is all too common for people of all genders. Approximately 20% of girls and 8% of boys experience sexual abuse and children who are Black and/or LGBTQ+ are at increased risk. It is important to pay attention to the ways in which people who experience multiple forms of marginalization in the U.S. are particularly at risk. For instance, rape, harassment and other abuse of prisoners is widespread in the prison system, which disproportionately affects people of color; women and other people who engage in sex work are at higher risk of sexual violence, as are immigrant and undocumented women and people, and LGBTQ+ and gender non-conforming people. Rape culture describes the society that we all live in. We all have the responsibility to eliminate it.

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