Rape Culture Is When You Have To Create A Hashtag For It To Be Taken Seriously

Rape culture is not a bogeyman that causes rape, but a lens for looking at myths about rape.
Publish date:
March 27, 2014
rape, twitter, feminism, social media

The feminist movement to end rape culture has been dismissed as “hysteria” in "Time" magazine. But if the wildfire Twitter response begun by Zerlina Maxwell is any indication, this kind of high-profile trolling is a sure sign of the movement’s growing power.

“Hysteria,” a word that, let’s not forget, once meant “disturbances in the uterus,” was the chosen word of Caroline Kitchens of the American Enterprise Institute, who went on to write that, “America does not have a rape culture; what we have is an out-of-control lobby.” This nefarious lobby she means is mostly a spunky, innovative coalition trying to curb campus assault. According to Kitchens (I’ll avoid joking about her last name and where her movement wants women to be), these activists are poised to “poison the minds of young women and lead to hostile environments for innocent males.”

As ridiculous as she sounds, Kitchens’ argument doesn’t stand alone. She pivots off the RAINN (Rape Abuse and Incest National Network), which has critiqued the “unfortunate” idea of rape culture: “rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community...” a recent report notes. Well, sure. But this misses the goal of a term like rape culture.

Rape culture is not meant to be a big bad bogeyman that causes rape, but rather a lens for looking at the mindsets and myths that make rape harder to stop. An obvious example: the gross idea that a victim’s clothing contributes to an assault. This canard provides perfect cover for a predator, who knows that if a victim is wearing skimpy clothing he’s less likely to get in trouble. She might even blame herself.

The rape culture frame has helped me explain feminist ideas about sexual assault to lots of non-feminist types over the years. For instance, the entire social expectation that women are supposed to reluctantly “give” sex to men who aggressively demand it is a big facet of rape culture. I always note that norms like that one encourage all sorts of bad phenomena beyond assault, like the sexualization of younger women, the damaging myth that men can’t be rape victims, and even false rape accusations (which remain rare). 

Fortunately, there’s been an impressive backlash to the backlash. Journalist and pundit Maxwell, a tireless advocate for assault survivors, took action after reading the "Time" magazine piece. “I’m tired of these ‘well-meaning’ articles, written by people who have no idea what they are talking about,” Maxwell told me. “The concept of rape culture doesn't demonize men; it says that they are socialized in an unhealthy way.” She took to Twitter and began a hashtag, #rapecultureiswhen, tweeting examples of real-life rape culture manifestations, from the news and from her own life.

As Maxwell’s tweets started going viral, more voices joined in, mentioning everything from the Woody Allen molestation case to rape threats against women on the internet, to survivors’ experiences being blamed by friends and family, distrusted by authorities, or hung out to dry by schools.

And here’s where it gets really heartening. Over and over again, a single idea floated up in the hashtag: Why should we spend energy telling women to alter the way they drink and dress? Shouldn’t we actually be trying to change potential perpetrators’ behavior? Maxwell once got inundated with rape threats after she went on Fox News to voice that exact “teach men not to rape” message, and she told me she was pleased to see it gaining traction, cropping up repeatedly in the hashtag.

“Until we shift the focus on rape prevention to the people who are committing the rapes, we will continue to have a problem,” she says. And the idea isn’t just catching on online. Now, campuses are trying out rape prevention ideas like bystander intervention and ads targeting men, tactics that do shift the focus to stopping perpetrators. Clearly, the “rape culture” frame isn’t just jargon, but really helps dismantle crappy practices and replace them with good ones.

So much for Kitchens’ fretting about the coming doomsday for “innocent males.” The rape culture approach is just common sense, neither unbridled hysteria nor the evil doings of a powerful Lobby (don’t make me laugh). Nope, it’s a clear-eyed understanding of a failure in values, and a desire for new model: equality, communication, respect and consent, all of which sound pretty great. No wonder it’s going viral.