This piece first appeared on HG March 19, 2013
This Is Rape Culture
In the wake of the Steubenville rape case and the appalling reaction to the guilty verdict, both on the part of the media, who sympathized with the perpetrators, and several of the victim’s school mates who have harassed and threatened her, this seems like a good time to stop for a moment and talk about what rape culture is. The endless tweets, blog comments, and divided public reaction to Steubenville is reflective of a serious problem with how rape, and both men and women’s role in it, are perceived in this country right now.
The term “rape culture” refers to a culture in which attitudes about rape are tolerant enough to be an enabling factor in anything ranging from sexual harassment to actual rape. When a girl complains about being catcalled on the street because it made her uncomfortable, and you tell her to just take a compliment, you’re perpetuating rape culture. When a girl has one too many drinks at a party and is taken advantage of, and your reaction is that it’s her fault for not being more careful, you’re perpetuating rape culture. When you say that someone was “asking for it” because their skirt was too short, you’re perpetuating rape culture. When you assume that men are never victims of sexual harassment or assault, yes, you’re still perpetuating rape culture (not only because desexualizing one gender sexualizes the other by proxy, but because classifying one form of harassment or assault as valid over another is contributing to the problem).
Until the 1970s, rape wasn’t really talked about, let alone publicly. The general assumption was that it didn’t happen very often, while marital rape was legal in all 50 states, the reasoning being that by entering into a marriage, a woman was consenting to sex anytime her husband felt like it, even if she herself didn’t. In other words, a woman’s job was to be sexed by a man, and marriage was just her way of giving a specific man her timecard. The process to outlaw spousal rape began in the 1970s, but did not extend to all 50 states until 1993 — even today, politicians like Todd Akin (of “ways to shut that whole thing down” fame) are still pushing to reverse legislation and make spousal rape legal again.
If you’re not sure whether rape culture exists, just look at last summer’s political campaigns. One after another, old white men tried to argue their stance on abortion by bringing rape into the conversation. They politicized violating a woman’s body for the sake of their campaign’s agenda. Recently NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, nervous about the effect the Newton shooting may have on his position, advocated for guns as the most effective defense against rape. Why does this have rape culture written all over it? I’m so glad you asked.
The burden of rape prevention is thought to fall on women: keep your eyes on your drink, don’t have too much, don’t dress provocatively, have a defense strategy for your walk home every night. The idea that the burden of rape prevention should fall on the perpetrator and not the victim is rarely the standard reaction to sexual assault. Recently, when Zerlina Maxwell appeared on Fox News’ Hannity and suggested that men be taught not to rape instead of giving women guns to defend themselves, she was met with confused outrage. Her ideas were called “bizarre” and she began receiving a large amount of hate mail, including rape threats. Because, apparently, it’s a woman’s responsibility to maim or murder her attacker and have to deal with that experience the rest of her life, and not his responsibility to just leave her the f*ck alone.
Where can we spot rape culture today? The Violence Against Women Act, which was recently passed again, is the only thing keeping judges from being able to rule in rape cases that the victim was “asking for it,” though 97% of rapists still never spend a day in jail. Rape culture is needing a law to prevent legal victim blaming. Rape culture is this guy, who thinks that “female privilege is getting to claim a headache to avoid sex” (and resisting rape culture is the brilliant response of, “female oppression is having to claim physical illness to avoid sex because men won’t take a simple fucking “no” for an answer. Female oppression is men being so entitled that they think being denied sex is oppressive.”)
Rape culture is CNN, ABC, and NBC news using the Steubenville verdict to spike ratings with a sympathy story, even if it’s in favor of the perpetrators, who never apologized for raping a girl but only for getting caught. It’s a party filled with people who watch a girl being taken advantage of and, instead of helping her, send each other photos of her assault. It is Candy Crowley focusing on how a 16 year old rapist’s actions will haunt him forever, instead of acknowledging that he made the choices leading to his verdict, while his victim did not get to choose. It is every person who has threatened the Steubenville rape victim because she pursued her legal and civil rights. While even a person who has compromised their future by being a rapist deserves a bit of sympathy for losing his potential, to give weight to that sympathy in a public forum, such as network or cable news, and to do so over emphasizing the seriousness of rape itself, is irresponsibly perpetuating the rape culture that fueled the Steubenville incident to begin with.
Rape culture is victim blaming, slut shaming, trivializing sexual assault, and putting the burden of prevention on potential victims, all of which have been culturally linked with increased incidences of homophobia, racism, classism, religious intolerance and even ageism. It is television and film exploiting murder-rapes to get more ratings. Rape culture is every overweight girl whose sexual assault was met with reactions of, “just be glad someone wanted to f*ck you,” because of the misguided notion that being f*ckable is what makes a woman. Rape culture is trying to classify digital rape and penile rape separately, as if one form of violence was less serious than the other. All of these things contribute to a culture in which a boy in Steubenville doesn’t realize that watching his friend shove his fingers into an unconscious girl’s vagina is violent, or rape at all, because he has been given a world in which a girl who expresses her sexuality in any way is fair game and he is entitled to her vagina.
This is what Tina Fey was talking about in Mean Girls when she said, “you have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores – it just makes it ok for guys to call you sluts and whores.” Everyone who perpetuates the idea of a slut is feeding into rape culture, and when women do it, it signals to men that their objectification of them is valid. There is no such thing as a slut – it’s a word for a woman who is as in touch with her sexuality as a man. And that’s where the key to gender inequality lies.
Ask yourself in a given situation: is the reaction the same if a man does this as when a woman does? If the answer is no, then there is inequality afoot. Why does a woman have to worry about being too drunk at a party? Guys do it all the time, but they don’t have to worry about getting raped. A drunk guy is just a drunk guy, he’s never “asking for it.” Both men and women may be worried about getting mugged on their walk home, and a man may worry about getting physically assaulted, but generally only women have reason to worry about also being sexually assaulted.
Rape culture is every time we look the other way when sex is used as a weapon, or to shame someone, keep someone submissive, or marginalize someone. It can be as simple as a co-worker sexually harassing you, and then telling you to “learn to take a joke” when you tell them to shut the f*ck up already. At a time when rape can be documented and spread across Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and basically anywhere online, it is crucial that we have these conversation and condemn every perpetrator. 40 years ago rape was simply swept under the carpet, an upsetting thing no one wanted to deal with. If now, in the digital age, we accept it as gossip, as entertainment, as something that just happens to that girl everyone makes fun of, what we’re really saying is that we‘re fine with it. And we are absolutely, 100%, without a doubt, NOT fine with it.