Rape culture isn’t just about offensive frat chants and the above-the-law pedestal on which we put celebrities, movie makers, and sports stars. Here's how to define rape culture and clear examples of rape culture all around us.
What is rape culture?
Rape culture is a culture where social attitudes and institutional systems treat sexual assault as normal, trivial, or even expected, thereby enabling sexual assault to be committed with more frequency and without consequence. For example, when a college fraternity's members erupt into a jaunty chants of “no means yes; yes means anal,” it not only trivializes rape but encourages it.
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. Here, we again see rape being treated as something that's normal and expected.
Importantly, just because you're not a rapist doesn't mean you don't contribute to rape culture.
Examples of rape culture.
Note: This list focuses on rape committed by men against women because it is the most prevalent kind. Though we only look at one, very specific type of sexual assault in this story, rape is also often committed against men, women rape, and trans people experience disproportionately high rates of sexual assault.
1. Rape jokes.
Making light of sexual assault is a clear example of rape culture. When we laugh off fraternity chants like "no means yes, yes means anal" by making the excuse that “boys will be boys,” we’re supporting rape culture and trivializing an important issue.
Sure, jokes are jokes. But when the butt of our jokes are victims of unspeakable trauma, we're unnecessarily reopening people's wounds—and subtly sending the message that what they experienced is not that big a deal. Moreover, when we make rape into a punchline to be laughed at, it makes it harder to take real rape accusations seriously. And when we don't take rape accusations seriously, it makes rape more permissible.
When we criticize or shame people for having sex, we're validating people who say that women "ask for it" (aka deserve to be raped) by wearing revealing clothing or having a lot of sexual partners. 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."
3. Blaming victims.
Victim-blaming means blaming the victim for what was done to them. For example, some people claim that if a person gets raped while drunk or while wearing revealing clothing, it's their own fault. The underlying belief here is that rape is a normal part of life, and if you don't protect yourself from it, then you deserve it. This issue falls directly in line with slut-shaming.
When people ask questions like “What was she doing there?” or “How drunk was she?”, they imply that rape is expected in certain situations. Again, these questions normalize rape and blame the victims for the actions of their perpetrators. When we don't hold perpetrators accountable for their actions, we allow rape to continue unrestricted.
Jacquelyn White, Ph.D., 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!”)
4. Controlling the way women dress.
Critical social psychologist Christin Bowman, Ph.D., 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, and we assume that men "can't help themselves" around a woman showing skin.
5. Violating people's privacy.
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.
6. Objectifying women.
When we objectify women--that is, treat them like objects instead of people--we send a message that women are less than human. And if they're just objects rather than humans, it makes sexually assault against women seem more acceptable.
The music industry does a lot of this. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines" is a classic example, but 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." 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.
7. Putting 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. 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?”
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).”
8. Not educating 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 shows a lot of exaggerated, aggressive, and sometimes 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."
9. Pressuring 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.”
Raising boys without toxic masculinity is necessary to end rape culture.
10. Teaching 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 studies1 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.
Emi Boscamp is the former News Editor at mindbodygreen. She received a BA in English and minors in Spanish and Art History from Cornell University. She's a writer living in Manhattan and enjoys cooking, eating, traveling, and writing about all three of those things. She loves anything pickled. And anything punny. (She's kind of a big dill.)