I remember the first time I had to explain what “Rape Culture” was to someone because they didn’t quite understand what I meant when I threw the phrase around in conversation. He said something like “Rape Culture? Yeah that’s awful. Is that like groups of people who get off on raping people? People who like watching snuff films and stuff?”
It was well-intentioned, but missed the mark.
How on earth was I going to explain this to someone who didn’t see what I saw all the time? He may understand that rape exists, and that rape is bad, but what I have trouble explaining is just how all these things in day to day life set people up for sexual violence. When I talk about rape culture, we’re not talking about “those disturbed people over there who like to rape”, we are talking about the things we do every day that makes rape, and sexual violence in general, seem so normal.
Rape Culture is the idea that sexual violence is the norm. It’s the idea that being feminine is less valuable than being masculine. It’s also the idea that men are supposed to be violent, supposed to be dominating, and supposed to be sexually aggressive in order to be considered valuable and “manly”.
To put it broadly, Rape Culture is something that exists across cultures, and across demographics. It’s the idea that violent masculinity is normal, and actually a desirable characteristic. It’s not just those sick people over there, but it’s what we reinforce and contribute to daily in our actions, words, and support.
When we think of things that contribute to rape culture, there are three main things to think about:
The first is how we define sexual consent. Consent is one of those topics that some people find confusing, because it’s evolved out of more recent discussions about what makes a healthy sexual relationship. It’s based on the idea that if people should feel free and safe to communicate their desires and wishes to their sexual partner without feeling like they can’t say no, or feeling like they were coerced.
When you hear songs about getting a girl drunk to have sex with her – this is considered a part of rape culture. The rapist may not be a serial rapist or a sex offender, and he most likely isn’t going to go to jail because the system makes this type of assault difficult to “prove,” but it is still a violation without someone’s consent. It is rape because of how much it can have psychological repercussions on the victim. What’s ironic is that this is a super common form of rape, but people often don’t view it as that – the victims themselves may not even view it as that. This is because this sort of violation is considered normal. It is considered so normal and excusable that society puts the responsibility to stop things from happening on the victim.
This brings us to the next facet, which is victim blaming, aka “they asked for it”. We see victim blaming all. the. time. When we talk about a girl*** being the victim of rape, the conversation often turns to what she was wearing, how promiscuous she was, or asking if she was negligent in trying to prevent herself from being raped. Ultimately, we ask questions that imply that her rape is normal, and that it’s her job to make herself less “rapeable” for others. This is messed up, and it often leaves people who are victims of rape feeling incredibly guilty that there was nothing they could do to stop it, or to prevent it. Rape should never be the victim’s fault. No one asks to be raped.
These questions and attitudes become so engrained in our minds; rape and sexual violence are considered normal and inevitable, so ultimately, the potential victims need to get used to it and learn how to either “take it” or “avoid it”. This applies to rape as well as other forms of sexual harassment. It’s a spectrum of sexual violence that ultimately rests on another idea, which is sexual objectification.
An example of sexual objectification would be not caring about someone’s personality, or anything more than their physical appearance and how they can provide pleasure to the other person. This is more difficult to explain because it requires us to break people down into two groups: subjects and objects. Subjects are the people who are doing the acting, the deciding, and who are being taking seriously. Objects are treated like they are inferior or only for their physical appearance or how they can serve the subjects. Their feelings are disregarded, as well as their ability to make decisions. Basically, they are not treated like complete humans, but mostly as an object for the subject’s pleasure, viewing, and use.
This hits hard at the most sneaky and sometimes undetectable parts of rape culture. It comes down to one group feeling like they have more power over the other based on these roles of subject and object. Take a majority of films and TV shows for example: Men see themselves represented as being the heros, the main characters in the media. They’re the pimps, the players, the action heros etc. Women often fill the roles that are on the side. They’re the romantic interest with little personality; they are just there to be pretty, or to add some sex appeal to the equation. At its core, this is sexual objectification: Women are only important here for sex, to look pretty, for a male audience’s viewing pleasure. Ultimately, this is a big problem because it reinforces the idea, over and over, that femininity is hardly considered to be powerful or worth respecting. Women are seen as objects for the fulfillment of men’s desire.
There is no one answer for why individual people rape, and it ultimately leads back to the question of rape being a tool for power and control. However, when we talk about large scale cultural forces, we call that rape culture. If you want to understand more about rape culture, the best way is to listen to the stories of others who have experienced it. Project Unbreakable is a project that encourages victim/survivors of rape and sexual assault to share the words and stories associated with their attack. FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture is a great and well-rounded website that explains the topic more in depth and provides a lot of great resources for understanding the problem. Ultimately, it’s the stories of those who are victims or survivors of traumatic experiences that can help shed light on how sexual violence happens.
***I want to point out that people of all genders are the victims and perpetrators of rape and sexual assault. It is also very hard for male victims of rape to find resources and support, as well as women who have been raped by other women. This is because these things go against what we expect of different genders, and it can be hard to convince someone you’re the victim, especially when your case goes against what seems normal. This still a symptom of how we expect “empowered” people to be strong and violent, and not show vulnerability or weakness as it is associated with femininity. Also, the vast majority of the perpetrators are men, which points to an engrained problem in how we expect men to behave in society. Women who rape are rarer statistically. Ultimately, perpetrators’ motivations lead back to needing power and control and using violence to do so.