“Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.” Marshall University’s Women’s Center’s definition of Rape Culture offers a thorough yet succinct description of our society’s operations of excusing rape and sexual assault, though a single definition cannot begin to explore all the intricacies and subtle operations of this phrase and culture. Herein lies the reason that Rape Culture is so hard to define in the first place: Rape Culture is sneaky, tricky, and meant to be covert – which makes it all the more difficult to identify and uproot.
After Caroline Kitchens’ piece last year in TIME magazine spouted that Rape Culture is a hysteria made up by feminists to have something to gripe about, it really hit me how much of a struggle it is to even make people see that this is a real thing. After I read the article, I couldn’t help but just shake my head and think, “We can’t even get other women to acknowledge this and join the fight.” Thankfully, a trending hashtag started by Zerlina Maxwell gained some traction on Twitter. #RapeCultureIsWhen had hundreds of responses within a few hours, with victims and allies coming together to share their real-life experiences and proof that Rape Culture is indeed something pervasive in our culture. Hashtags included examples such as, “#RapeCultureIsWhen women who come forward are questioned about what they were wearing,” and “#RapeCultureIsWhen we teach women how not to get raped instead of teaching men not to rape.”
Personally, I was glad to see pushback and reaction to Kitchens’ appalling article, which also asserted that “there is no evidence that [rape] is a cultural norm.” At the same time, I was equally discouraged in thinking that this piece would crop up again and again in aiding rape apologists and the dreaded “mansplainer” (look up the definition – it’s something I’m sure everyone has experienced when trying to assert to a male individual that, yes, in fact, street harassment is unwanted and threatening). Kitchens also stated that the statistic that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 6 men survive rape or an attempted rape before the age of 18 is not real or accurate. She claims in another article that this often-drummed-up statistic was formulated out of a Justice Department Grant, but then she goes on to quote another DOJ survey in the next sentence. Why is the second one to be trusted and not the first? Perhaps because it backs up her claim more than the former. Who knows? (I think we all actually know.) I’m splitting hairs now. The point I’m trying to make is: why all the Rape Culture denial?
Of course, this question is easily answered by the fact that when some unequal power structure is recognized as such, it becomes easier to eradicate. Historically, the simple mass acknowledgement of inequality is enough to start change in the cultural structure. We’ve seen it time and time again here in this nation with actions related to the Jim Crowe era, Women’s Suffrage, and the current Black Lives Matter campaign. Change doesn’t happen unless the problem is first addressed and taken seriously as a fact and lived-experience of actual people – something difficult for the people not experiencing the inequality themselves to do. It’s no coincidence that these people also happen to be the ones who benefit from this unequal power structure.
Common sense – and history – tells us that people in power usually do not give it up easily and without a fight. Here is where the denial of Rape Culture begins; those who do not experience the horrible atrocity that is rape and the constant threat of rape (think: changing or canceling plans because the walk home at night alone is a reminder that the threat is there/consistent street harassment on your daily commute to work) do not see it as a problem. When said people can walk through life without being uneasy and scared to walk through a city alone at night, or get on the subway or bus and experience someone looking you up and down, licking their lips and following you out at your stop, that is what is called privilege.
The privilege to brush off the term Rape Culture as something feminists want to whine about is a luxury afforded to, let’s be honest, many males in this country. This privilege is of course not afforded to most women, people of the LGBTQA community, and a number of men. Again, the privileged people who refuse to acknowledge Rape Culture and the actual act of rape as a real concern are the ones who stay in that upswing of the power structure. This can be played out in subtle instances such as this real-life story from a colleague: when her and another co-worker were up for a promotion at her previous job that included traveling to India, her male co-worker was chosen over her because the board thought it would be “too dangerous for her” to be alone abroad.
Now, I’m not saying that every privileged person in this sense is consciously holding anyone down, but it goes without saying that it’s human nature to want to keep the power and privilege that you were afforded simply by being you. The lack of power experienced by victims of rape and sexual assault manifests in many different ways, such as being so traumatized by the assault that you can’t hold onto a job, lose your housing, and become a victim to PTSD – something I have seen more times working at a Rape Crisis Center and Domestic Violence Shelter than I’d like to say.
It is my understanding that the uncomfortable nature of even addressing rape in a larger sense, much less on a personal and individual level, leads people to not consider these after-effects of sexual assault. It’s not just the actual assault and rape that holds a power and control structure over the victim, it is everything in between and after the rape that has the most effect on the victim’s life as a whole. The way in which we as a culture discuss rape, rapists, and victims sheds light on the fact that Rape Culture is not just all those things stated in Marshall University’s definition, but it is also a culture of denial in favor of power. When so many people are telling, nay, screaming that rape is something that nearly twenty percent of people in this country experience, it’s time to shut up and listen.
I realize the picture I paint is not very uplifting, so I’d like to end on a positive note. There are people out there who understand what this is all about. Please know, there are people who care about you, whether you identify as male, female, transgender, intersex, queer, whichever race, able-bodied, what have you – there are people who care. They will listen to you if you’ve been assaulted – recently or years ago. There are people who take you seriously, and legitimize your feelings when you feel like you’re crazy or are to blame for what happened. There are people who want to help you get through this and won’t ask you victim-blaming questions when you do come forward about your assault. There are people who will help you in any way they can to afford you the right to live life again the way you want to. I know this because I work with many of them. You can find them. They’re out there. Please, ignore the police officers that asked you why you got so drunk, and the boyfriend who is mad at you for “putting yourself in that situation” (actual things I’ve heard from victims), and keep reaching out. You’ll find that one person who makes you feel so much better, I promise. Talk to someone you trust, or research your local Rape Crisis Center or a support group if you can’t find that support within your social circle or family. Rape and sexual assault is something many people have experienced, you are not alone and there is support for you if you can find the courage to reach out for it.