The first reaction most people have, upon being told about the concept of rape culture, is to dismiss it. It’s intuitively obvious to them that our society doesn’t condone rape or consider it a trivial matter. Very much the opposite: rape is seen as the worst crime in the world, rapists are considered inhuman monsters, rape is often talked about as worse than murder.
What nobody wants to admit is that those assumptions and attitudes are rape culture.
The key to understanding rape culture is that, in our society, nobody (outside a few MRA bloggers, who are beneath consideration) says “Hey, rape is just fine and dandy!” They say “Rape is awful, it’s vile, it’s the worst crime a human can commit, I am totally opposed to rape.” Yet somehow, when any actual case of rape is put before them, they work to find reasons why it wasn’t really rape, it was something else instead. Those last two sentences depend on and support each other.
One of the most common occurrences when a woman has been raped is that her entire sexual history is brought up and used against her. The point of this attack is not that rape is okay, it’s that she’s a slut so she must have consented, right? Therefore it’s not rape.
When guys are told “When a woman says no, she means try harder,” it doesn’t mean that rape is okay. It means that a woman is still consenting even if she says no. Therefore it’s not rape.
When a man is raped, he’s often outright laughed at. Everyone knows guys are always horny, there’s no way a man wouldn’t consent to sex. Therefore it’s not rape.
Perhaps most often, we see the character or friends of an accused rapist being held up as proof that they can’t possibly be guilty. “I’ve known that guy for years, and he’s no rapist!” “How could someone think he’s a rapist? He volunteers at the food bank!” and so on and so forth. Rapists are inhuman monsters, everyone knows that, and this person’s not an inhuman monster. Therefore he’s not a rapist. Therefore it’s not rape.
It’s weird to have to say this to adults, but let’s be clear: there’s no such thing as monsters. Every person who’s ever been raped has been raped by a human being. No exceptions. Dehumanizing rapists actually helps perpetuate the very culture it tries to oppose.
There’s a certain platonic ideal of rape, a model of what it’s supposed to look like. It was most clearly described, in disturbingly specific detail, by a state senator named Bill Napoli, who thought he was discussing abortion policy:
A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated.
That, our cultural subconscious is vaguely aware, is what “legitimate rape” looks like. The further from that image that any given rape gets, the more likely that we’ll pull out our excuses for how it’s not really rape.
What’s more, even anti-rape campaigns very often buy into that image. All those lines about how women should carry their keys sticking out between their fingers like Wolverine, all those slogans about women being afraid to walk down the street; they’re all based on defending against Bill Napoli’s legitimate rape.
This can’t be repeated enough: most real-life rapes don’t look anything like that. If you’re raped, it will probably be by someone you know, in a place that you usually feel safe. It will definitely not be by a monster, so stop keeping an eye out for monsters. Most likely it will be someone fairly likable in most respects, as most people are. You might have been laughing at their jokes right up until they assaulted you.
It is very, very common for people who’ve just been raped to have a hard time admitting that that’s what happened. They’ve heard all the reasons why something doesn’t really count as rape. They’ve probably said or thought some of those rationalizations themselves. So if all those other cases weren’t really rape, theirs must not be either, right?
Then, too, rape is the worst crime in the world, the most horrible, traumatic, life-destroying thing that can happen, right? So if they don’t feel completely traumatized and destroyed, it couldn’t really have been rape, right?
And the person that raped them isn’t a monster. Maybe they still like their rapist, even love them. Maybe they don’t want to permanently label that person as an inhuman monster. Maybe they just don’t want to accuse someone who’s well-liked and will have an army of defenders arguing that they’re not a monster. Maybe they don’t want to be accused of lying because after all, it obviously wasn’t really rape.
So another man or woman just keeps their mouth shut about what happened, tries to file it away and forget about it. And another rape ends up being condoned by a society that vociferously does not condone rape. And nobody wants to talk about how this happens, because saying that rapists are human beings, and human beings commit rape, sounds like being insufficiently anti-rape. We would rather condone actual rape than appear to not oppose imaginary rape strongly enough.
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