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.

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.

♦◊♦

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.

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?

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.

—Photo gogoloopie/Flickr

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About Anne Theriault

Anne Theriault lives in Toronto with her husband and young son. She spends her days teaching yoga, reading in cafés, and trying to figure out how to negotiate in toddler-ese.

Comments

  1. I really hate it when people say “No means no” im not a rapist i am not a rape apologist, but it is quite one thing to say “stop” or “NO” and yet still have your hand in my pants and your tongue down my throat. Why ? BECAUSE ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS, example. i could put on a hoodie and put a gun in my hand point it at you and say “im not going to shoot you” but i seriously doubt a person would belive it, why? because im still holding a gun, pointing it at you and that overrides my statement, for all you know i am planning to shoot you. I would not under any circumstances have sex with a drunk person because it is morally wrong(but that is another issue) Its quite one thing to say stop, but another to continue on the act as if you were planning to act on it. I apologize if offended anyone , but that is what i believe, my two cents.

  2. There is one you left out:

    Rape culture is dismissing “unattractive” people’s sexual assaults as something the victims should be thankful for…because if it weren’t for their assailants, they’d never get laid.

  3. John Anderson says:

    I wondered about the lifetime numbers as opposed to the last 12 months. If men were 50% of current victims, then why are they just 20% of lifetime victims? Are men abused over longer periods of time so the same guy would appear in multiple years, but would only count as one for lifetime stats. Are women raping men more? Are men more likely to block out childhood sexual abuse? Could it be because the CDC didn’t include a sample of the prison population? Maybe there is a higher incidence of childhood sexual abuse among prisoners. Based on their methodology, I don’t think it would have included the homeless either.

    I liked the post. I expected to work up some serious indignation that never materialized. I do wish that you used the 1 in 6 number to illustrate lifetime victimization of men, but you did say 1 in 33 was probably low do to under reporting. I don’t know if it’s the cynic in me, but sometimes I feel that the best men could hope for is an acknowledgement that our struggles might be remotely close to what women have to deal with.

    One of the other things I think that was missed in the article and something that you may wish to consider in future is that most perpetrators of sexual violence against men are women. Even in the case of prison rape that you bring up, about 50% of rapes in prison are staff on prisoner rapes and 80% of those are female staff raping male prisoners. This is hardly ever brought up. 80% of rapes in Juvie are staff on prisoner with 95% of those being female staff and male prisoners. Although I seen some feminists acknowledge that women can and do sexually abuse men, they seem to downplay the vast numbers of abuse cases. I think to some extent that interferes with the narrative and that is totally ironic, clinging to rape culture during conversations decrying rape culture.

    I’m not suggesting that you did that, but it might be something worth highlighting.

    • Why do you assume that the CDC questions were without gender or sex bias? It took only minutes to spot that issue when the full report was published. I even ripped it to pieces here.

    • Could be a difference in memory, I’ve heard men forget more than women even for previous trauma. Hell I’ve forgotten most of my trauma’s but all I know is that I have mistrust for humans and bad shit happened as a kid. I can’t even remember 2004-2011 at all.

  4. @Mediahound:I just watched the Melissa Harris Perry show on MSNBC( a feminist newstation masquerading as fair and biased…er unbiased), where deception runs rampant through the purposeful manipulation of language.They were discussing rape and they laid out the role of men in the debate,which is to stop men from raping women.Sound familiar?The evil alliance between Arrianna Huffington and the “liberal-progressive” newsmedia,which has sold its soul to the feminism, should concern fairminded progressive men everywhere.

    • @ogwriter – Thank you for that. I have not had the pleasure of hearing Melissa Harris Perry’s performance before. She has a fascinating way of changing vocal intonation … and in fact It;s so dramatic, the last time I heard anything lie it was Maria Callas singing Tosca! Melissa Harris Perry has a superb Vibrato without any hint of a voice or talent to get in it’s way.

  5. @Annie: You are preaching to the pope.The people who need to hear your message are people like Hillary Clinton,Arrianna Huffington,Rachel Maddow,Melissa Harris Perry and President Obama,not the men and some of the women of GMP.

  6. Rob Thomas says:

    What about men who drug and rape women they are in a relationship with as a form of punishment or for the feeling of revenge when they believe they have been wronged? Are these men psychopaths? How do you teach a man who does this that it is wrong when they believe it’s deserved? How do you convict men such as these?

    • What about men who drug and rape women they are in a relationship with as a form of punishment or for the feeling of revenge when they believe they have been wronged? Are these men psychopaths? How do you teach a man who does this that it is wrong when they believe it’s deserved? How do you convict men such as these?

      Why do you assume it would only be a man doing this against a woman. I have had to deal with such scenarios in progress, and on each occasion it was a woman using drugs against others – not a man. Since antiquity it’s been said that drugs and poison are the weapons women. When did that change?

  7. John Schtoll says:

    In my constant search for information about rape, rape culture and also false accusations of rape I was directed to this document.

    h ttp://www.ndaa.org/pdf/the_voice_vol_3_no_1_2009.pdf

    It ia a ‘nice’ read, and I won’t got into the many ways in which is it simply ‘building a case’ thus ignoring imperical evidence and manipulating its own definitions but this paragraph really stuck with me

    “Having demonstrated that the percentage of
    false sexual assault reports is not as high as
    many people think, this does not deny their
    terrible reality. We all know that false reports
    do really exist, and they are incredibly damaging
    both to criminal justice personnel and to
    the countless victims of sexual assault whose
    credibility they undermine.”

    WOW , JUST WOW. Apparantly the authors don’t believe that having a false report against you actually harms the accused as they aren’t even mentioned. If I were a person who believed this document was a valid and sincere attempt to get to the bottom of false accusations, this paragraph would have ruined it for me.

    • This is certainly a problem. When it comes to talking about rape, false accusations are limited to lip service and misdirection.


      “Having demonstrated that the percentage of
      false sexual assault reports is not as high as
      many people think, this does not deny their
      terrible reality. We all know that false reports
      do really exist, and they are incredibly damaging
      both to criminal justice personnel and to
      the countless victims of sexual assault whose
      credibility they undermine.”

      Absolutely no mention of the innocent people that are falsely accused. I wonder how the two men (two different stories, that I know of) in the last two weeks that were beaten because a woman falsely accused them of rape and sicced a gang of guys on them. Well one of them can read this when he gets out of the hospital and other, well I guess someone can read it to him at his funeral.

      Having your reputation destroyed.
      Having you family and friends turn your back on you.
      Being assaulted.
      Being sent to prison (where you’re very likely to suffer the very crime you were falsely convicted of).
      Being murdered.

      These are not worth mention when it comes to the damage that false accusations can do to someone?

      This paragraph is basically saying that important things to bear in mind when it comes to false accusations is that 1) They don’t happen that often and 2)In the event that they do the only concern is to those who were assaulted and to law enforcement personnel.

      Thank goodness for MRAs and organizations like the Innocence Project….

  8. John Schtoll says:

    Another part that disturbed me. If this is being taught to investigators and I beleive it is, then just how many false reports will be missed because the investigator is being taught to ignore their instincts and just carry one

    “Investigators and prosecutors should only act
    upon their suspicion that a sexual assault
    report is false if these concerns are very serious
    and they are based on the evidence
    uncovered during the investigation”

    • So, does that mean that investigators and prosecutor should also only act upon their suspicion that a sexual assault report is true if these concerns are very serious and they are based on the evidence uncovered during the investigation?

      I can understand the need to make for sure that an accusation truly is false and the need to make sure that “false” comes from the evidence. But at the same time should all determinations be held to that same standard? I would like to believe that investigators and prosectors would only act on their suspicions that a claim is true if the evidence points to true. But I get the feeling certain advoctes wouldn’t take to kindly to that.

  9. wellokaythen says:

    I think there are forms of rape culture out there, but I’d like to disentangle a bunch of things that the article lumps together, because they may or may not be connected to rape culture. A more critical, perhaps less polemical approach might strengthen the argument.

    First of all, it would be really useful to get a handle on rape culture as a concept if there were some clear boundaries to it. For example, what would a society without rape culture look like? Or, if it’s a relative phenomenon, what would an extreme form of rape culture look like compared to a less powerful form of rape culture? Otherwise, the impression is that every act of rape in every society is a product of a larger rape culture, but that seems overstated. You would be hard-pressed to find any society at any point in which there was absolutely no rape, and presumably rape culture is not a universal thing but a specific cultural construction, so where is the cut-off? I’m not saying we have to designate an arbitrary percentage threshold, like if it’s only 2% of people raped then it’s not a rape culture, but using quantitative stats does sort of imply that there’s some sort of comparison with some sort of “non-rape-culture” standard.

    Secondly, on a related note, it would be useful as a measure of objective reality if there were some sort of falsifiability built into the analysis of rape culture, for example if there were a good test for the existence of rape culture that could *at least theoretically* come up negative. The search for rape culture tends to find it everywhere it looks, but that’s not really a rational approach. What would you accept as proof that rape culture was NOT a factor in a particular case? I mean, just as a hypothetical – “If I found that _____ was the case, I would conclude that rape culture was not a factor.” Is there that kind of hypothetical out there when people look at rape culture? Imagine a pregnancy test that always comes back positive, no matter who pees on it. That would be a seriously defective product.

    At the very least, this would be useful at some point if we wanted to dismantle rape culture – how would we know if we’re making any progress at all if we had no way of detecting an absence of rape culture?

    Finally, in some places there seems to be a lack of something, and then the lack is then used as positive evidence for the existence of something else. For example, apathy about rape or a lack of outrage at the existence of rape or a skepticism about the existence of rape culture, which are then used as evidence of the prevalence of rape culture. Those absences may be a product of some sort of rape culture denial, or they could just be absences. It could go either way. It’s comparable to the faulty argument one sees all over the internet, that if someone fails to mention a major issue, then that person is clearly ignoring that major issue, or that person must therefore be in denial or an apologist. There is a difference between deciding not to do something (like report a rape) and being prevented from doing something (like not reporting a rape because the culture prevents you from doing so). Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.

  10. This piece isn’t knowledge, it is a pure opinion piece filled with anecdotes disguised as fact, just saying “the fact is” doesn’t make it a fact.

    IMHO, this piece is a groundwork piece, one of those blog posts that can be referred to down the line from clearinghouse websites to ‘prove’ their case, which will in turn be referred to by others creating a circle for people to help prove their point. It is done SO many times within feminist circles on sites like the Liz Library which refers to sites with info that refer to site with info that refer back to the Liz Library.

  11. …just saying “the fact is” doesn’t make it a fact. Are you sure? It does it 8 – 9 times. Failing to make a fact once is understandable, but 8 or 9 times would be – at best – careless, and at worst ….?

  12. I am positive that saying “the fact is” doesn’t MAKE IT A FACT.

  13. The facts have been getting misreported since at least 1975, so what doe 4 decades matter – 2 generations – whole races and cultures ignored… why would the facts matter! Of course dealing facts takes time and care – it takes seconds to create factoids and they can like any excuse last a lifetime!

Trackbacks

  1. […] The GMP also has a piece just up on Rape Culture 101, and it does an excellent job of outlining what rape culture is and why we need to talk about it. I’m glad to see it up, and I’m glad they are going to be posting more pieces on consent and what it actually is. I’m glad they are asking for support and are willing to expand their knowledge base. […]

  2. […] of my lack of posting has been because I took some time to write a piece for the Good Men Project about rape culture, and how it effects men. The editors really liked my article (squee!), but shit […]

  3. […] on “rape culture” Posted on December 20, 2012 by Rick An article titled “Rape Culture: What It Is and How It Works” posted on the Good Men Project website earlier this week prompted me to leave the following […]

  4. […] to Anne Theriault at GMP Rape culture is a system that everyone, men and women, unconsciously participate in. Let’s have a look at that […]

  5. […] ring true with that name of yours. Which brings me to the ‘but’ – this is from an article on their site, that talks about rape culture: Let’s start out with a […]

  6. […] article titled “Rape Culture: What It Is and How It Works” posted on the Good Men Project website earlier this week prompted me to leave the following […]

  7. […] The GMP also has a piece just up on Rape Culture 101, and it does an excellent job of outlining what rape culture is and why we need to talk about it. I’m glad to see it up, and I’m glad they are going to be posting more pieces on consent and what it actually is. I’m glad they are asking for support and are willing to expand their knowledge base. […]

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