Rape Culture: What It Is And How It Works

Rape culture is the trivialization of rape, and it permeates our society to an alarming extent.

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I’ve written about a lot of sensitive subjects, things like abortion, white privilege and breaking down traditional gender roles, but nothing is guaranteed to generate more vitriol and hate mail than when I write about rape culture.

People tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to the term rape culture. They think that it’s a way of saying that all men are rapists, or all women are victims. At best, my critics think that I’m fear-mongering; at worst, they think that I’m a “misandrist” who approves of women making false rape accusations. I promise that I’m not a misandrist, and I’m as appalled by false accusations as anyone else.

That being said, I do believe that rape culture is real.

Let’s start out with a definition:

Rape culture is a system that everyone, men and women, unconsciously participate in. It’s a system that promotes the normalization and trivialization of rape. It’s a system that encourages the idea that male sexual aggression is the norm, and that violence and aggression are themselves sexy.

Three questions that frequently come up are:

  1. Does rape culture really exist?
  2. How can rape culture exist when penalties for rape are so heavy?
  3. How can it exist when people clearly think that rape is such a heinous crime?

First of all, obviously, as stated above, I do believe that rape culture exists. And yes, I understand that there are harsh penalties for rape—some of the stiffest sentences in North America are given to rapists. However, the problem lies in how we talk about rape, and how we perceive it. The problem lies in the fact that many things that should be seen as rape are celebrated as being romantic or sexy or even just normal. Yes, some of the harshest sentences are given to rapists, but often cases are thrown out because the justice system doesn’t view them as “legitimate rape” (to borrow a phrase), or because the victim is pressured into dropping the charges. On top of that, many victims don’t report the fact that they’ve been raped (for a variety of reasons), or else are too afraid to press charges or testify.

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If you want evidence of rape culture, I can give you plenty:

Rape culture is the fact that 1 in 6 women have been sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, and it’s also the fact that 1 in 33 men have also been sexually assaulted.

Rape culture is the fact that, when reporting the gang rape of an 11 year old girl, the New York Times chose to quote residents on how badly this event would affect the lives of the perpetrators of the crime. It’s the fact that the New York Times chose to print that the victim wore “makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s.” It’s the fact that the article wonders, “how could [the] young men have been drawn into such an act?” as if repeatedly raping a young girl was an accident, instead of a choice that they had made.

Rape culture is blaming the victim, saying that they incited sexual assault by what they wore, how they acted, or where they were. It’s saying that an unconscious woman was sending “mixed signals” to her rapist. It’s telling victims that if only they’d been more careful, more thoughtful, or less vulnerable they wouldn’t have been raped.

Rape culture is the fact that Roman Polanski drugged and raped a 13 year old girl, pled guilty to “unlawful sexual intercourse”, fled the country and continues to make Oscar-winning movies. It’s the fact that so many celebrities that I used to admire choose to either publicly defend Polanski or else tacitly give him their support by starring in his movies. It’s the fact that Polanski’s victim repeatedly told him no, but he continued to rape her anyway because he thought that she was enjoying it.

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Rape culture is the fact that in the latest Bond movie, Skyfall, Sévérine’s assault is portrayed as normal and even sexy. Sévérine, the latest Bond Girl, was forced into prostitution as a child. Because of this, she has come to view sex as her only currency. Bond agrees to help her by taking out her boss, which makes her feel indebted to her. When Bond arrives in her room unannounced and joins her in the shower uninvited, it’s hard to feel that what’s happening is consensual. Although Sévérine doesn’t tell him to stop, it’s hard to imagine that, given her history, she doesn’t feel as though sex is a payment she owes Bond.

Rape culture is the fact that a good friend of mine was sexually assaulted, publicly at a party, by someone she considered to be a friend. It’s also the fact that she was threatened into silence by people she thought she could trust, and was encouraged by her family not to report her assault, to just “put it behind her” and move on. It’s the fact that while most of her friends supported her in calling out the man who assaulted her, some thought that she was making a big deal over nothing and abandoned her when she was at her most frightened and vulnerable.

Rape culture is the fact that I know so many people who have been sexually assaulted or raped that it would take much more than one article to describe every incident.

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Rape culture is the fact that every concrete example that I’ve given so far has involved a woman as the victim and a man as the rapist. Let’s be really clear on this: this isn’t because men are never raped or sexually assaulted—they are, and we know this. It’s because rape culture prevents men from reporting their assaults; it ridicules male rape victims, and makes a joke out of what they’ve been through.

Rape culture is just as toxic and harmful to men as it is to women.

This harm is what I really want to talk about today. This is the conversation that I’m hoping to start. So often when we talk about rape culture, it turns into an us-versus-them mentality, pitting women against men.

And that’s not fair, and it’s not right—because rape culture hurts all of us.

See, one of the main messages that our culture sends us is that men are naturally sexually aggressive and women are not; our culture also teaches us that men are sex-obsessed and will sleep with just about any willing woman. This idea is pretty well-established as a way to explain and excuse many rapes and assaults on women, but right now I want to look at the hurt this concept does to men. What it means is that at best we ridicule a man who claims to have been raped by a woman, and at worst we totally disbelieve him. There’s this bizarre idea that having an erection means consent, which is just so mind-blowingly wrong and ridiculous that I barely know where to start.

I mean, how does it make sense to say that because you have a physical reaction, you are consenting? Don’t we understand enough about biology to know that that’s just not true?

This idea that men always want sex is the reason why we are dismissive of female teachers who rape male students. We make jokes like, “You can’t rape the willing!”, and talk about how the victim was living out every schoolboy’s wet dream. We don’t say those types of things when young girls are raped by their teachers, do we? So why the double standard?

Because of rape culture. That’s why.

Rape culture means that men raping men is viewed as a funny hazing ritual for certain fraternities.

Rape culture means that we make jokes about prison rape, saying things like, “I’ll make you my bitch,” and “Don’t drop the soap.”

Rape culture is the fact that we think that male rape victims are hilarious, instead of acknowledging that the idea of raping a man deserves the same gravity as raping a woman.

Rape culture means that although I cited above that 1 in 33 men have been sexually assaulted, I know that the number is actually much higher than that. I know that male rape and sexual assault are vastly underreported because of stigma, the shame and fear of disbelief or ridicule. I know that we have no way of learning what the true numbers of male rape and sexual assault survivors are because of the way rape culture teaches us to view men.

I don’t hate men.

I have a husband and a young son, and it scares the shit out of me to think that if either of them were sexually assaulted or raped, they would struggle to get the help they needed. It frightens me to think that I would have an easier time not only reporting a rape or sexual assault, pressing charges, and winning a court case, but also getting access to the services and support that I would need in order to heal. I want to keep my son safe, I want to protect him, but how do I do that in a society that, in many ways, denies that he could ever be the victim of rape?

At the end of the day, what I really want to say is this: rape culture is not a women’s issue. Rape culture is not a feminist issue. Rape culture is everyone’s issue, and we all need to work together to solve this.

Reprinted with permission from The Good Men Project. Want more?

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