When feminists and scholars use the term “rape culture,” the immediate pushback they receive is generally, “That’s crazy, no one thinks rape is okay!” That seems reasonable, right? It’s unlikely the anyone you stopped while walking down the street – whether a man or woman – would advocate rape. And yet, let’s take a look at some visual texts from recent popular media:
This “Position of the Week” cartoon ran in the Purdue Exponent a few years ago and stirred up controversy on campus. The column was eventually cancelled.
A drink menu from a bar advertises their special “Date Grape” alcoholic beverage.
A recent spread from designers Dolce & Gabbana that ran in major fashion magazines like Vogue.
It’s clear that at the same time we can say outright that rape is bad, we are also inundated with images of rape and assault in nearly all of our media, from jokes to fashion ads to pornography, where 90% of mainstream porn features acts of abuse against women (see Gail Dines’s TED Talk, “Growing Up in a Pornified Culture”).
How in the world do these two things coexist? If, in fact, we believe that rape is wrong, then we clearly don’t recognize it.
IDENTIFYING RAPE CULTURE
In Transforming Rape Culture (1993), author Emilie Buchwald defines rape culture as follows:
…a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm . . . In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable . . . However . . . much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.
This doesn’t mean that we live in a culture that condones rape or believes it’s okay. It does mean that we tend to think of rape as inevitable, something that we can’t help and that is bound to happen. Meaning the idea of rape or sexual assault – especially when we consider the continuum of what counts as sexual assault e.g., any unwanted sexual touching, grabbing, even unwanted voyeurism) – seems normal. Comic Ever Mainard satirizes this attitude in her stand-up at the Chicago Underground club in 2012:
From examining the images above, date rape is often a commonplace and acceptable joke in American popular culture. Consider how casually we use the word as a slang term to mean “dominated,” as in “Man, he really raped you in that last game.”
So what does this normalization of the violation of another human being say about our actual attitudes about sexual assault?
REDEFINING RAPE: WAS IT “LEGITIMATE” RAPE OR “FORCIBLE” RAPE?
In 2012, former senator Todd Aikin (R-MO) made the following comments about “legitimate rape” that outraged women and feminists nationwide. (Not insignificantly, Senator Aikin sat on the Science Committee in the House of Representatives at the time he made these comments…the science committee.)
Shortly following the senator’s debacle, then-Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan insinuated that rape was simply another form of conception in an interview in which he was asked to comment on Aikin’s comments. So here’s the important context to their public comments: both Ryan and Aikin have been proponents of trying to change the language that legally defines rape in an effort to make it illegal for women to have access to abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. Read more about their efforts to narrow the definition of rape to proven ‘forcible rape.’
What’s the current legal definition of rape? As of 2012, according to the Department of Justice, the definition is:
“The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”
The definition is used by the FBI.
MOVING BEYOND VICTIM-BLAMING: PREVENTING SEXUAL ASSAULT
These attitude are often so ingrained that even some well-meaning campaigns that attempt to target sexual assault, like the following images from the “Control Tonight” campaign, seem only to reinforce the victim-blaming that many feminists and activists work to disrupt.
One of the ads from Control Tonight. From a feminist perspective, what’s problematic about the message this ad sends?
Remember the definition of “radical”? To go to the root. What’s at the root of our sexual assault problem? Well, rapists for starters. But more insidiously, the attitudes that connect masculinity with sexual aggression. This attitude is something that we need to correct much earlier than the “don’t rape” lecture at college orientations.
So let’s take a look at this campaign to stop sexual assault on campuses: “Men Can Stop Rape” gives men a primary role in combating rape culture. These posters appeared at Purdue’s Student Health Center.
Here’s another in the series:
Such messages are a far cry from the usual method of teaching young women to avoid being raped, a rhetoric that magically makes the perpetrator of such crimes – that is, the rapist – invisible. This campaign actively recruits men as important allies on the frontlines of changing other men’s mistreatment of women.
Want to know more about becoming a male ally? Check out The Good Men Project.
RAPE, VIOLENCE, AND SPORTS CULTURE
In March of 2013, two young men from the small town of Steubenville, OH were officially convicted of raping a 16-year-old classmate and were sentenced to one year in a juvenile detention center. An article from Yahoo news featured a photograph of one of the players hugging his mother after the verdict (cue the pathos, but not for the victim):
“The judge sentenced them both to at least one year in juvenile jail and said both can be held until they’re 21. Mays, who’s 17, was sentenced to an additional year in jail on a charge of illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material, to be served after his rape sentence is completed.”
Read more about what happened in The New York Times.
According to a post on the Feminist Majority Foundation website, the presiding Judge Lipps described the evidence as “profane and ugly” and a cautionary tale of teenagers with alcohol and “how you record things on social media that are so prevalent today,” effectively reducing the violation and dehumanization of a young woman’s body (the video shows the young men urinating on her as well as dragging her around and penetrating her unconscious body) becomes little more than a cautionary tale for teens not to drink while underage and be smarter about how they use social media.
This is similar to the message FOX & Friends news commentators gave when responding to the video of football player Ray Rice punching his wife unconscious in an elevator. The lesson they took from this incident? “Take the stairs next time” – meaning, make sure it isn’t caught on camera.
What sort of message does this send to young men about violence? What does it say to them about athletes?
In the meantime, the young woman from Steubenville who charged her two attackers has received enough anonymous death threats to warrant posting two police officers at her house for her protection. Both the incident and the verdict resulted in nationwide activism on behalf of the victim, though the media tended to side with the rapists in the case. Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry was a prominent exception in her television address to the young woman from Steubenville, “Dear Steubenville Survivor, I Believe You” (the survivor’s name has been kept private).
What’s notable about this case is that Steubenville is a town that prides itself on its high school football team, and both of the men convicted in this case were “star” football players on the team. Perhaps the most damaging message we get from this is that sports and male bonding among athletes are more important than the bodily integrity of a young woman, their peer.
This is mostly about privilege: such comments are a way to continually place at the center of the dialogue the men and their feelings and reputations, while silencing the voice of the victim.
The victim was publicly accused of trying to ruin the reputation of the team and thereby destroy the morale of the town – out of jealousy, perhaps? It’s not made clear what her motivations might be for doing so. But the implication is – and this is another “rape myth” that supports victim-blaming – that this was revenge for a “regretted sexual experience.”
Rape myths like these are deeply influenced by the idea that “good girls” are not sexually active and would never find themselves in such situations to begin with, whereas “bad girls” are sexually irresponsible and deserve what they get. Notice that there is never any discussion about young men’s sexual repsonsibility.