Trigger warning: This piece is about sexual violence.
Rape culture isn’t just about offensive frat chants and the above-the-law pedestal on which we put sports stars (aka jock worship); rape culture is a deeply ingrained societal issue that combines these obvious problems with more subtle ones, like how women are taught to prevent rape more than men are taught not to rape.
This piece focuses on male-on-female rape because it is the most prevalent kind, though most acts of sexual violence aren't reported, so it’s hard to know how much rape by gender is actually occurring. Though this post only looks at one, very specific type of sexual assault, rape can obviously also be male-on-male, female-on-male, and female-on-female.
What’s important to emphasize here is that, no matter your gender or sexuality, rapists aren't always strangers lurking in the dark — a staggering 82 percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by a non-stranger. And they’re being fueled by our society’s perpetuation of rape culture — in the following ways:
When we make rape jokes.
Is it always consensual if she's your girlfriend? Asking for my gf...& shortly arriving police
— Dustin Penner (@Dustinpenner25) March 1, 2015
Yes, jokes are jokes. Often humor alleviates the pain of something traumatic. Amy Schumer, for example, makes fun of how pervasive rape culture is in our society but doesn’t make victims the butt of any jokes.
So, when we laugh off fraternity chants like “No means yes; yes means anal,” because, well, “boys will be boys,” we’re supporting rape culture and trivializing an important issue.
When we slut-shame.
Just because a woman chooses to have sex with more people than the average person doesn't give us the right to call her a slut — especially since we praise men who do the same. We might think we're a sex-positive, progressive person, but we've all contributed to rape culture by calling someone else's dress "a little slutty." We're validating the people who say that women "ask for it" when they wear revealing clothing or have many sexual partners.
When we tell women they're not dressed appropriately.
Christin Bowman, a PhD candidate for critical social-personality psychology at CUNY, says we contribute to rape culture “when we create school dress codes for teenagers because apparently the natural female form is ‘distracting’ for male students and teachers.”
This reinforces the idea that women must present themselves in a way that caters to the male gaze. Women must act as if men are looking for reasons to take advantage of them. We get angry that some Muslim women are expected to wear hijabs, but we still send girls home because their skirts don't hit their knees. It's a contradiction. We still want to control what women wear.
When we violate people's privacy.
Also, if a woman shares an intimate photo of herself with someone she trusts, it’s a form of rape if that person then shares it with other people. It’s a violation of the woman’s body. So when that TMZ article that reveals the nude (!!!) photos of Jennifer Lawrence without her permission, it's our job not to click. “She shouldn’t have sent it” is not an appropriate response. The issue lies with the person who took advantage of her and those of us who choose to look.
When we objectify women.
When we call a woman a “bitch,” we dehumanize her. She is seen as less than human and therefore worthy of being raped. The music industry does a lot of this — and no, it’s not just Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” We see it across all genres (country singer Luke Bryan says he enjoyed "Chasin’ every girl that wasn’t fast enough" in his song "Bad Brothers"), but it's particularly rampant in rap music.
It’s easy to think, “Oh, a song is just a song,” but when Snoop Dogg says, “Bitches ain’t sh*t but hoes and tricks / Lick on these nuts and suck the d*ck” (in a song that's considered the anthem of the '90s), we can't deny that it affected a generation of minds.
When people use this kind of language, it “teaches women that their bodies are there to be consumed,” explains Bowman. “And it teaches men that women are primarily objects of consumption. Women apparently exist to be used.”
And of course, this issue isn't confined to just the music industry. Bad behavior happens every day on the streets of New York City. No, calling a woman “sexy” on the street is not a compliment, weird cat-caller. You’re enforcing the idea that she's walking past you for the primary purpose of your enjoyment. Get outta here.
When we body-shame.
Again, our bodies are not here to be consumed. As Lena Dunham aptly put it, “[A body] is a vessel [we’ve] been given to move through this life. … [It’s] a tool to do the stuff [we] need to do, but not the be all and end all of [our] existence.”
Having strict standards of beauty is problematic. We so commonly judge people — particularly women — by their appearance. We may not be the ones trolling photos of celebrities, but among our friends we'll say things like “She’s too fat to be a model” or “She seriously has no butt whatsoever” or “How has she not had a boob reduction yet?" without thinking twice about it.
Even with Caitlin Jenner, everyone's knee-jerk reaction to her Vogue cover story was, "Wow — she looks stunning!" — a comment on her looks before anything more substantial about her character.
These kinds of proclamations promote the idea that, again, women’s bodies are there to be judged and consumed. And once a woman is seen as an object (particularly a sex object), it is much easier to commit violence against her.
When we put the responsibility on women to prevent rape.
At the end of August, an 18-year-old student accused of raping a 15-year-old student at the elite St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire was found not guilty of felony sexual assault charges. However, he was convicted of having sex with a girl who was below the age of consent.
Although this case sparked national attention, it was brutally unremarkable. It involved a tradition in which senior boys try to score with as many underclassmen as possible before graduating. The girl was too young to give consent, and she felt pressured into doing so. She didn't want to cause a fuss. Many women, I'm sure, can relate to this.
But much of the public response was along the lines of: “She didn’t make it clear she didn’t want it!” “She didn’t say no!” “How was he supposed to know?”
No, no, and no.
It is both parties’ responsibility to get a definite yes. Even if she told you in a text she wanted to perform oral sex on you and was super-flirty all night, that doesn’t mean she is obliged to have sex with you. She could say yes in the beginning, enjoy having sex with you, then want to stop in the middle — and you'd have to. And she’s not a “bitch” for “leading you on.” It’s her right.
Unfortunately, for the most part, high school sex ed classes across the country either don't educate their students about consent or take more of a "no means no" approach instead of what they should be teaching: “yes means yes” or affirmative consent — which means that a “yes” is necessary for consent, and any lack thereof should be interpreted as a no.
“We are teaching people that boys/men are natural aggressors who always want sex and that the onus is on girls/women to keep boys'/men's unrelenting urges in check,” says Bowman.
“Teaching lessons this way positions girls as ‘gatekeepers’ and ignores their autonomy and sexuality. Hiding female sexuality creates a culture in which men's sexuality appears natural and unstoppable, and women's appears pathological. (After all, in our society, women are generally only either prudes or sluts, and neither one of these is desirable).”
Let’s teach everyone not to rape instead of teaching girls how not to get raped.
When we victim-blame.
This issue falls directly in line with slut-shaming.
Most of us are aware of what victim-blaming is and would never say "She deserved it" on a public forum, but among friends, we might ask, “What was she doing there?” or “How drunk was she?”
Jaquelyn White, emerita professor of psychology and senior research scientist at the Center for Women’s Health and Wellness at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, explains why we do this: “It’s hard to accept that men we think we know, who seem like nice guys, could do something so horrific as rape, so society tries to come up with excuses.” It then becomes easy to blame the victim when “women are already devalued across the board.”
Instead of delving into deeply rooted societal issues, it’s easier to say, “She was fair game” rather than dethrone the captain of the football team. (“He couldn’t have!”)
When we don’t educate our kids about sex.
When older figures aren't educating us about sex, younger people are seeking answers through Google and finding porn. If we don’t have open, healthy discussions with our children about sex and consent, they’ll think that pornography — which often promotes violent behavior — is what sex is supposed to be like.
Not all porn is bad, explains Dr. Walter DeKeseredy, director of the Research Center on Violence and professor of sociology at West Virginia University. “[But most] pornography involves one-sided sexuality, in which the man dominates and degrades the woman."
When we pressure boys and men to “be men.”
Our culture's obsession with hyper-masculinity is an issue. From a young age, boys are taught to be dominant, and if their masculinity is threatened in any way (say, if someone says “no” to them), they’re supposed to get angry.
As Bowman explains, hyper-masculinity also expects that men want sex at all times and have the ability to go out and get it whenever they please.
Too often, male friends pressure one another to “close the deal,” and if they come back empty-handed, they're looked down upon, maybe even called a “pussy” or a “bitch.”
Furthermore, according to DeKeseredy, research has shown that these types of all-male groups “encourage, justify, and support the abuse of women.”
When we teach girls to always be polite and apologize.
In stark contrast to men, women are taught from a young age to apologize for who they are. If they want to present a counterpoint, they’re told to start with, “I’m sorry, but I think …” so as to be polite. Men, on the other hand, are told to put their foot down and take a firm stance. In fact, two studies by the University of Waterloo in Ontario and published in the journal Psychological Science back in 2010 found that while men are just as willing as women to apologize, they had a higher threshold for what they felt they needed to apologize for.
The 15-year-old girl who accused St. Paul’s Owen Labrie of rape said in her testimony that she didn’t put up a struggle because she wanted to be “as polite as possible.” And no, that’s not her fault. Society expects women just to take it — or else, we’re “teases,” “ballbusters,” or “bitches.”
Clearly, rape culture is a multifaceted issue, but if we become more aware of how we're all contributing to the problem, and change the way we've been trained to think, we're headed in the right direction.
If you're seeking more information about sexual assault and/or rape culture, here are some helpful links: