Rape Culture is Real—And Yes, We’ve Had Enough
In 2012 a group calling itself Vancouver MRA (Men’s Rights Activists) plastered our fair city with hundreds of posters.
Oh, the bottomless, slimy layers of messed up. Where to begin?
Well, there’s the (deliberately?) misleading lumping-together of three very different ideas about rape. The first and most provoking of the slogans on the poster (“All men are rapists”) hasn’t, to my knowledge, been featured in any recent campaigns against rape, nor is it accepted as true by the vast majority of feminists. But it’s equated with two other ideas that are central to feminist anti-violence efforts: rape culture (an important concept which I’ll unpack in just a moment) and “Men can stop rape” (a catchphrase which recognizes that, because the vast majority of sexual assault perpetrators are men, rape isn’t just a ‘women’s issue’ and men have a lot of power to do create positive change. Actually, “Men can stop rape” clearly conveys that men are valuable partners in struggle rather than congenitally rape-prone write-offs, but MRA types seem determined not to see things from that angle.)
Not only are the slogans on the poster confusingly thrown together, but they are completely stripped of any context. The poster’s design actually makes these words look like they’ve been aggressively ripped out of the feminist flyers, posters, zines, or books from whence they came.
Then, there’s the cap-locked, foul-mouthed call to arms at the bottom of the poster: “Had enough of this shit yet?” Yeesh. I’m terrified to imagine what exactly these angry dudes are planning to do about the “shit” they decry.
I’m also appalled that these guys think that if they throw the term “rape culture” on a poster, it’ll serve as no-brainer proof that feminists are full of it. The thing is, rape culture is real and huge and everywhere. It is both a root cause of violence and a devastating form of violence in its own right. And yes, we’ve had more than enough of that shit.
Rape culture does not mean that every guy is a rapist. Nor does it mean that if you were to design a survey asking folks straight out whether they think rape is a-okay, you’d end up with a lot of yes boxes checked. However, you might be shocked and sickened to learn that 30% of American college men surveyed by Dr. Margo Maine (2000) admitted they would commit rape if they were sure they could get away with it. This figure jumped to 58% percent when the wording of the question was changed from “commit rape” to “force a woman to have sex.” Apparently, the word “rape” has a bit of a nasty ring to it, but people don’t seem to find the actual crime of rape quite as objectionable. If these statistics don’t prove the normalization of sexual violence in our society—the existence of a rape culture—what on earth would?
While the 58% stat is appalling, it isn’t impossible to believe in the context of the rape culture we’re all immersed in. That’s because rape culture includes the belief that men are entitled to women’s bodies—to immediate gratification of their every passing sexual urge. As the theory goes, these urges are a force of nature leading unstoppably to slobbering-ape-on-the-loose mayhem. Claiming that guys can’t be expected to exercise self-control is ridiculous to the max: if men were to act on their every inclination and bodily itch, they’d fail epically at everything, from school to work to dinner at Denny’s (think it’s a good idea to run around gobbling food from other people’s plates rather than waiting to be seated?). Handing guys a get-out-of-jail-free card on account of their supposedly uncontrollable animal instincts isn’t just absurd; it’s offensive to men (or should be). I’ll sum it up with some wise words from Nirmukta, an Indian organization that promotes “secular humanism, equality, social justice, communal harmony and human rights”:
Right on, Nirmukta. And when patriarchy says that men “can only have particular kinds of responses,” rape culture says that sexual aggression is the inevitable male response when women “ask for it.” How do women ask for it? By wearing a skirt, or by failing to dress feminine enough; by responding to a guy’s small talk at the bus stop, or by ignoring it; by sitting around at home with the door unlocked, or by venturing out at the wrong hour (and watch out: any of the 24 hours might be wrong); by existing while brazenly female. So, it shouldn’t be a shocker that more than 83% of the college men surveyed by Dr. Maine agreed that “some women just look like they are asking to be raped.”
Which brings us to victim blaming, one of rape culture’s favourite tactics. Rather than insisting that rapists… um… stop raping and accept some responsibility for their violent acts, rape culture tells us that women should protect themselves by avoiding everything from loud bars to ponytails to vans to elastic waistbands to… well, pretty much everything but the kitchen sink (although I’m sure even a kitchen sink could become a dangerous weapon if, say, a woman were foolishly walking around alone in a Home Depot late at night). These unlikely-seeming safety tips are premised on the assumption that most rapists are strangers who leap out of bushes and parking lots. This is a very false assumption: in reality, an estimated 80% of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. Yet, it’s also a very convenient assumption for perpetuating the myth that rape is never committed by just-regular-seeming guys. By making rapists out to be random wacko deviants, rape culture deflects attention from itself—that is, from our society’s insidious normalization of sexualized violence (through the cultural equation of masculinity and aggression… the objectification of women… the assumption that active consent is unnecessary, awkward and unsexy… and the gazillion other guises of rape culture). And if society isn’t responsible for endemic rates of sexualized violence (about a quarter of Canadian women will experience sexual assault at some point), then who is? Oh, right. Women. You know, the ones who are asking for it with their ponytails and elastic waistbands and stuff. And maybe also a few bad-apple crazy men hiding in the bushes.
It’s actually our entire society that’s crazy for drumming in the idea that guys who persist with sexual advances even after being told no are just being romantic. Romantic!?!?! It’s beyond me how blatant disregard for a woman’s express wishes can be cast as romantic, but as feminist commentators keep noticing, this twisted vision of ‘romance’ shows up time and time again as the primary story arc in boy-meets-girl hit movies: Sixteen Candles; Love, Actually; Superbad; (500) Days of Summer. Excuse me while I barf into my popcorn. And if I tell you I don’t want to go to the movies with you, don’t take that as an invitation to follow me everywhere and invade my space and violate my boundaries; even if you serenade me with a ukulele while wearing a baby dolphin suit, it’s not charming, funny, or remotely romantic. I promise.
Obviously, though, rape culture doesn’t begin and end with dolphin suits and cheesy movies. Rape culture shows up in women’s lived experiences of violence—and in the way our society’s most powerful institutions (like the police, the courts, and the medical system) respond to that violence. For a whole variety of reasons, it’s extremely difficult for survivors of sexual assault to pursue justice through the criminal justice system: Holly Johnson has estimated that in Canada, under ten percent of sexual assaults are reported to police; of those reported sexual assaults that are prosecuted, only 0.3% lead to convictions. It makes sense that women would be reluctant to report violence against them when they are likely to be met with disbelief, blame, or degrading interrogations. Rape culture permeates our justice system, as does denial of that reality. Here’s a choice soundbyte from a member of Crown counsel interviewed by University of Alberta JD Candidate Rhyannon O’Heron: “Low reporting and conviction rates are not a reflection of myths in the justice system and more are a reflection of personal decisions and personalities of the victims and other issues that are more individual in nature.” The dazzling irony! In the same breath, this crown attorney both denies the influence of rape culture in the justice system and blames victims for their problematic “decisions and personalities”—uh, could you give a more textbook example of rape culture?
Rape culture in the criminal justice system—just like rape culture in society at large—doesn’t affect all women equally or in the same way. Women who are indigenous, poor, disabled, racialized, or otherwise marginalized are likely to face more sexualized violence in their lives and more unfair treatment by the police and courts. Just last month, for example, a First Nations woman in Edmonton who reported a rape to the police and was herself arrested and jailed on an old outstanding breach as a minor. Jailing the survivor really takes victim blaming to a new level of violence, degradation, and inhumanity. The woman was not allowed to have a rape kit performed for three days. During that time, she was forced to sleep on the floor of a holding cell with two other women and to go without bathing or showering. As court worker Mark Cherrington remarked, “There are two levels of justice in this city. There’s Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal justice.” While rape culture treats women as “rapeable” and rape itself as natural and inevitable, this goes double for Aboriginal women and other women who experience multiple oppressions.
Sadly, I could go on and on about rape culture—there’s just so much appalling, heartbreaking stuff to rail against. But I’m quickly losing my stamina and energy for critique, so I’ll briefly list just a few other examples of rape culture, just in case anyone remains unconvinced that rape culture is real and huge and everywhere.
Rape culture is…
…the existence of “Keep Calm and Rape A Lot” t-shirts. They really, seriously exist.
…the media’s constant glossing-over of sexual assault with euphemistic language: “inappropriate behaviour,” “sexual misconduct,” and even plain old “having sex.”
…Facebook’s refusal to pull sadistically graphic images of violence against women (while deeming photos of breastfeeding moms to be objectionable)!
…a beauty website that calls toddlers “effing hot” – even the preschool set can’t escape objectification!
…a magazine editor’s blasé admission that “the women we feature in the magazine are ornamental” and “objectified.”
…major news outlets waxing sympathetic about how two teen rapists’ “promising” lives will be destroyed by a youthful mistake, without once mentioning how the rape might affect the survivor.
…kids who call losing a sports game “getting totally raped.”
…a subculture of self-proclaimed “ratters” who hack into women’s computers and steal their photos.
…college women being instructed to vomit or urinate on demand to protect themselves against rape.
…10,000 untested rape kits collecting dust on a shelf somewhere.
…and sadly, a lot of other soul-destroying nonsense you’ll be forced to wade through every single day of your life.
But here’s the thing. If, as Emilie Buchwald suggests, the normalization of sexualized violence has “saturated every corner of our culture so thoroughly that people can’t easily wrap their heads around what rape culture actually is,” then we need to take care not to let ourselves or the people around us become desensitized. We need to notice this stuff, get outraged, and share our outrage with others. Staying aware of rape culture is painful work, but we can’t interrupt the culture of violence unless we are willing to see it for what it is.