Rape culture justifies sexual violence by denying or minimizing its existence, and holding victims responsible. We must all play a role in ending it.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. All across the country, events are being held to commemorate it. Women everywhere have been taking to the streets to speak out against sexual violence. These events began in the 1970s as “Take Back the Night” to directly challenge the ways sexual harassment and the threat of rape restricted women’s access to public spaces. This brought attention to the larger culture of sexual objectification, devaluation of women’s lives, and the overall dehumanization of women. Since then, activists have coined April, Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. However, despite the powerful work of this movement, there is far more work we must ALL do in order to eradicate sexual violence.
Sexual violence is a pandemic.
In the United States alone, someone is sexually assaulted approximately every 2 minutes. A conservative estimate by the Department of Justice found that each year, 293,066 individuals are sexually assaulted over the age of twelve. Too often, even when I share these statistics with audiences, we easily forget that these numbers represent people, lives, stories, families, and communities that are impacted by sexual violence. They are a testament to survival, resilience, strength, violence, pain and collective trauma.
For me, this issue hit home when I was sixteen years old. At that point, a dear friend of mine confided in me that she had been raped. It was traumatizing to hear her break down, cry, and tremble as she described how her friend raped her while his brother served as a look out. She was strong, resilient, and had spent months in isolation while finding ways to attain medical care and process the violent assault. It was her experience and strength that galvanized me to become an anti-rape crisis advocate and spend the past seven years to actively advocating and organizing to end sexual violence.
However, in engaging in this work, I have been constantly reminded that far too many survivors are silenced and are expected to internalize shame and blame. Our rape culture is enforced and upheld by friends, family members, parents, our institutions, criminal justice agencies, and in some cases the very direct services providers that are tasked to advocate for survivors. For example, a few years ago I was sitting in an ER room with a survivor.
The only moment she broke down is when her father refused to meet her in the hospital because he didn’t want to be seen as the father of slut. She was fourteen years old and at a moment when family support would have helped her, especially her father’s support, she didn’t want to move forward with reporting to law enforcement and didn’t want any counseling services. She shut down and walked out. Such cases were common and our society cannot be excused from the level of victim blaming we perpetrate against survivors. We all create, contribute, and uphold rape culture.
A rape culture is defined as a society where societal attitudes and norms justify sexual violence by either denying or minimizing its existence, treating the issue as a joke, and/or holding victims responsible. A rape culture gives perpetrators the safe spaces to commit violence against others without any fear of accountability.
- It is a culture where women and girls are presented as nothing more than sexual objects rather than individuals with sexual agency. It is a culture where women and girls are devalued, exploited, and discarded.
- It is a culture where we socialize boys into believing they are entitled to women’s bodies, time, and space.
- It is the very culture that turns a blind eye to sexual violence and puts forth the idea that “real men” cannot be raped and silences millions of young boys and men.
These attitudes are held by many of us, either consciously or subconsciously. Hence, we have to take the active effort to unlearn these attitudes. Even friends mean well will make statements such as “she shouldn’t have been there” or “what was she doing or not doing, wearing, drinking. . .” and other victim-blaming statements. These statements are said without an understanding of how triggering they are for survivors.
We must acknowledge our role in perpetuating rape culture.
We can do so by creating a counter-culture to a rape culture in our own social circles, in our relationships, our homes, our workplaces, and our spheres of influence. This counter-culture should value a culture of active consent, respect boundaries, and constantly counter any attempts at dehumanizing individuals across gender, race, class, sexuality, and ableism.
- It is a counter-culture built upon respecting women and girls because sexism and patriarchy are at the core of rape culture.
- It is a counter-culture that builds our communities by recognizing that the building blocks of healthy, powerful, and resilient communities are relationships that are free of violence in every sphere.
- It is a counter-culture that holds individuals who commit sexual violence accountable without further reproducing rape culture.
For example, joking about rapists being raped in prison produces the same problems as sexual violence in prisons and jails disproportionately impacts girls and youth.