Rape culture is a fairly loaded term. It upsets a lot of people, and many don’t want to accept that it exists. It’s a scary topic of others. But I think it’s important for everyone to have some concept of what rape culture is and how it exists in our culture, especially for men to have those understandings so that when a woman talks about her experiences he can put it in the context of rape culture. Rape culture, according to wikipedia, is “a concept used to describe a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone rape.” There’s a lot to unpack in that statement.
So let’s start with what rape culture ISN’T: rape culture is not the assertion that every man is a rapist. It is not an attempt to scare people. It is not an expression of what anyone should or shouldn’t do, it is simply a description of the way things ARE right now. Rape culture is not blaming anyone for how things are. It simply asks us to look at the culture that we live in and understand that there are certain norms which promote rape.
The statistics support the idea that we live in a culture where rape is accepted. Almost 1 in 6 (the statistics on this are somewhat controversial, but this is a slightly more conservative estimate than the 1 in 4 that many organizations put out) women will be raped or sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Rapes are woefully underreported and by most accounts less than 3% of all rapists ever spend any time in jail. At this point, the estimates for male rape are that 1 in 10 men are raped, although men are even less likely to report their rape. These crimes are SO prevalent in our society and very often are not reported, prosecuted, or punished.
In addition, there are many myths about rape that are common in our society. One of the biggest one of these is the “stranger danger” myth, which suggests that rape is something that happens out in the street, and a random stranger grabs you. It suggests you can protect yourself from this kind of danger by traveling with others or by having mace. In reality, the vast majority of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, often a significant other. Another rape that contributes hugely to rape culture is the idea that a woman can be “asking” for rape, or that women can protect themselves from rape if they dress or behave in certain ways. Rape is any sex without consent. If a person is unconscious or drunk or high, they cannot consent. That is part of the law. So women are not “asking for it” if they are drunk, if they are wearing skimpy clothing, if they have slept with someone before, if they are married to you, or if they have slept with you before. None of these things are equivalent to consent. However when someone is accused of rape, the first questions are often about the victim: where was she, what was she doing, how was she dressed?
The problem with this myth is that it assumes that women are responsible for men’s behavior and that men cannot control themselves around women. However rape is not a crime of sex, it is a crime of power. There are women who are raped in burqas or in sweatpants. Rape is not caused by clothing. The person who should be on trial is the perpetrator, not the victim.
Another myth is the idea that there is a superabundance of false rape claims. In reality, false reporting for rape is approximately the same as it is for any other crime.
In addition to these myths about women, there is the overpowering myth that men can’t get raped, that if a man has an erection it is automatically consent. That’s bullshit. When you’re getting tickled you might laugh but that doesn’t mean you like it or want it. Our bodies have natural reactions to certain stimuli, but we don’t necessarily consent to whatever is happening to us.
There are all kinds of attitudes that suggest that men should keep pushing past a woman’s comfort zone, that hurting a woman is sexy, that forcing yourself on someone is powerful and manly. We see in many recent cases that young men feel that there’s no way they will be caught, as in the Steuvenville case or the more recent Rehtaeh Parsons case, in which the perpetrators texted about, emailed, took photographs of and publicly posted their crimes on the internet. There is the attitude that cat-calling someone is a compliment, when in reality it makes many women incredibly uncomfortable and used. There is the tendency of advertising to include graphically violent sexual images in their campaigns. All of these things are rape culture.
Rape culture is the fact that women are taught from the time that they are young that they are likely to be raped, that there’s nothing they can do to stop it, but they should be afraid and try to anyway. It’s the fact that of the close female friends I can think of off the top of my head, every single one of them has been a victim of sexual assault and not a single one has felt comfortable going to the police because the police rarely help. It’s the fact that when my friend confronted her rapist he laughed and told her she was making it up. It’s the casual dismissal of rape in relationships, date rape, or rape of people under the influence. Rape culture is men who answer “yes” on okcupid to the question “Do you think there are circumstances in which a woman owes you sex?”. All of these things contribute to the idea that sometimes people can take sex without consent and there will not be consequences. THAT is rape culture, and its consequences are the huge numbers of people who are raped and traumatized every year.