Bringing Rape Culture to Light

How the Cultural Treatment of Women Impacts the Acceptability of Sexual Violence

Warning: Due to the nature of this topic, some of the links in this post may contain inappropriate language or disturbing descriptions. Reader discretion is advised.

rape cultureHave you heard the one about the comedian who joked about his audience getting gang-raped?

In July 2012, two young women attended an event at a comedy club where Daniel Tosh, known for his “envelope-pushing” humor, was performing. When Tosh started joking about how rape and rape jokes are always funny, one of the young women spoke up, saying, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”

Later, she described Tosh’s response to a friend:

After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing I needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there. It was humiliating, of course, especially as the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there. I didn’t hear the rest of what he said about me.

To be fair to Tosh, he later stated that he was misquoted and offered an apology via Twitter. Questions of his exact wording aside, the incident highlights a growing concern: sexual violence is being normalized, and our culture is being transformed into a so-called “rape culture.”

Women’s Bodies as Objects

The lives and actions of women have always been defined by a unique understanding that their bodies are often viewed as sexual objects apart from their personhood. Until the last century, this was partially due to the fact that the livelihood of many women literally depended on their sexual purity. If a woman was not a virgin (whether she chose to have sex, or whether she was raped), the value she brought to a marriage was lessened, and she ran the risk of not being able to marry at all—a terrible risk for a woman in societies where her options were limited in the first place.

Because a woman’s value was in her purity, the onus was usually placed on the woman to protect herself, sometimes to the point of absolving men of all responsibility. Think Muslim women in burqas: one of the ideas inherent to such excessive modesty is that men can’t be held responsible for their actions if they catch sight of a woman’s bare ankle or hair.

Even in less extreme situations, the emphasis is put on what the woman should do to protect herself. Women are taught to avoid unsafe areas, like dark city alleys, and to park their cars under lights in parking lots, because you never know where a stranger may be lurking (never mind that in two-thirds of rape cases, the victim knows the rapist). Women are told to never lose sight of their drinks at parties, lest someone slip a drug into it. They are warned against showing the least bit of cleavage or leg, lest they attract the wrong kind of attention. They are even warned that the cop pulling them over on the deserted expressway late at night may, in fact, be a rapist in disguise.

These tips may be wise, but when rapes do occur, they often serve to enable victim-blaming, rather than addressing the crime: “She shouldn’t have dressed like that,” or “It’s her own fault for going to that party,” or “She should have brought someone with her.” Few seem to ask why that dark alley didn’t have proper lighting, or how those kids got ahold of date rape drugs, or what led the attacker to think that sexual violence was an appropriate course of action in the first place.

Real Cases of Victim-Blaming and Rape Culture

Take the Steubenville rape case of August 2012. A teenage girl lied to her parents and attended a party where she got drunk to the point of passing out. Allegedly, two local high school football players then took advantage of her inebriated state, taking her to other parties and sexually assaulting her repeatedly. Certainly the girl should not have lied to her parents or started drinking, but in reality, who is the more to blame: the unconscious girl, or the boys who saw it as an opportunity to act out sexually?

And yet, despite photographic evidence taken by other party-goers, there are some in the Steubenville community (where the high school football team is a main source of community pride) who claimed that the girl was lying—that she was attempting to damage the school and team’s reputation in order to protect herself. According to the New York Times, one of the team’s volunteer coaches claimed, “What else are you going to tell your parents when you come home drunk like that and after a night like that? She had to make up something. Now people are trying to blow up our football program because of it.”

This sort of victim-blaming is not uncommon when the accused is part of a “hero cult.” In fact, sometimes those in charge of “protected” groups (like highly popular football teams) knowingly withhold facts in order to protect their organization’s reputation or quality. After all, nobody wants to have their group known for sexual assaults committed by its members. Penn State’s legendary football coach Joe Paterno, for example, was criticized and eventually fired for not following up on a case of alleged sexual abuse of a child by assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. The university itself was heavily criticized for “protecting Penn State’s brand instead of a child.”

The military is another example of this gross abuse of justice, where victims are blamed and the perpetrator goes free. A recent article in Rolling Stone estimates that a third of all women in the military are sexually assaulted—twice the current estimates of one in six women for the US population as a whole. The article also reported:

An anonymous DOD survey found that in 2010, an astonishing 19,000 service members were ­sexually assaulted; a mere 13.5% of those attacks were reported to authorities. Victims have little incentive to report, since the military’s insular justice system rarely holds perpetrators accountable. Of the sliver of sexual assaults reported last year, 92% never saw the inside of a courtroom but rather were dismissed or administered wrist-slap penalties like fines, reduced PX privileges or counseling—a prosecution record even outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has called “an outrage.”

Why the low reporting in the military? Those who claim rape are often labeled sluts or “walking mattresses,” and are sometimes even charged with crimes like fraternization or adultery (punishable offenses), while the perpetrators go free. If the woman had passed out (even as a result of date rape drugs), she may be asked if she simply imagined the attack. In theory, this is to protect servicemen with otherwise good records from false accusations; in practice, it ignores that only 2 to 8% of rape cases are invented.

Army investigator Myla Hadler of the Army Criminal Investigative Division explained to Rolling Stone:

“Understand, they think they’re doing the right thing […] They don’t see it as mishandling the case, or traumatizing this victim. They see it as, they’re making sure some innocent service member’s career doesn’t go down the drain because some lying whore filed a report.” That’s why when Haider herself was raped by a fellow CID agent, she chose not to report it—a decision supported by the agents she confided in. “Nothing good could come from it,” she says.

Porn and Rape Acceptance

Meanwhile, pornography (particularly rape-porn) has normalized sexual violence.

First, an important acknowledgement: some studies have found a correlation between the rise of porn and a decrease in rape. However, they do not seem to consider whether the historically-low rates of rape reportage to the police increased or decreased over the same time period. It is also possible that because many women are more open to casual sexual encounters, interactions that would have once resulted in the rape of the woman instead result in consensual (or, at least, non-violent) sex.

It’s also important to note two things about the pornography cited in these studies. First, the porn in question is non-violent, depicting intercourse between two consenting adults. Second, even in this “normal” porn, attitudes regarding rape were shown to shift, and in one study just a few hours of porn viewing led the viewers to believe that a rapist in a particular case deserved a lighter sentence. (For a full review of this study, download the free e-book, Your Brain on Porn.)

The acceptance of rape myths by porn users has been backed up by other studies as well. A meta-analysis of 46 studies found that porn use was correlated to a 31% increase in risk of accepting rape myths.

While non-violent “softcore” pornography does not correlate to the likelihood of rape, it has been found that violent porn, depicting acts of sexual aggression and non-consensual sex, does correlate to an increased likelihood to rape.

Studies (all listed in our 2013 Pornography Statistics) have found that early exposure to porn also correlates to rape and rape acceptance. Among perpetrators of sex crimes, adolescent exposure to pornography is a significant predictor of elevated violence and victim humiliation. Another study of 804 Italian adolescents, ages 14 to 19 years old, found that viewing pornography was correlated to both active and passive sexual violence and unwanted sex.

Perhaps most chillingly, in a study of 187 female university students, researchers concluded early exposure to pornography was related to subsequent “rape fantasies” and attitudes supportive of sexual violence against women. If the rise in porn has been correlated with a decrease in rape, then it’s possible that this is simply due to women themselves believing forceful coercion to be okay or normal.

For a moment, take these statements at face value:

  • Normal porn decreases rape rates, but increases cultural tolerance of rape.
  • Violent porn increases the likelihood of using violence or coercive measures.
  • Early exposure to porn increases the likelihood of using violence or other coercive measures.

Now consider the known neurological impact of habitual porn viewing. The viewer is never satisfied with one image. Rather, as the brain becomes inured to a certain type of image (“soft-core,” consensual porn, for example), it increasingly requires more variety, which usually plays out in more sexually deviant materials, such as BDSM or rape porn.

Will everyone who views porn eventually get to child pornography, the lowest of the low? Certainly not. But if the seeds of addiction are planted in youth exposure to porn, and if 90% of boys are exposed to pornography before age 18, then it is likely that sexual violence will begin to rise…and at the same time, the victims will be blamed and the perpetrators protected. In fact, this attitude is already being adopted by high schoolers (see also “slut shaming,” or using someone’s private photos to brand them as promiscuous.)

Victim-Blaming and Pop Culture

Victim-blaming and rape-positive attitudes have also seeped into pop culture. Victims often bear the brunt of rape jokes, for example. Take Tosh’s rape joke. The message was that it would have been acceptable for the dissenting audience member to be assaulted, and that it was her own fault for going to a place that made her uncomfortable. Similarly, at colleges, students will often joke about being “raped” by an exam, with the implied fault being placed on the student (the “victim”) for not protecting himself by studying hard beforehand.

Part of victim-blaming is the concept that the victim has the power to change the actions of the perpetrator. Consider Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades trilogy (an unfortunate pop-culture phenomenon, which helped bring BDSM into mainstream consciousness). Their relationship may be consensually violent, and by the end of the trilogy the violence may have disappeared. Still, their fictional relationship sends the message that, hey, even if the woman does not like the sexual acts being forced upon her, if she endures them long enough, eventually her patience will change the man, no professional counseling necessary.

One blogger points out that this sort of relationship exists even in benign kids’ movies like Disney’s Beauty and the Beast:

The movie Beauty and the Beast is a fairly cut-and-dried abuse-apologist narrative. It is quite literally a movie about a woman who takes a wild beast and tames him with her love. It is a movie that says, “Here is a man who is literally a beast, and here is a woman who shows him love despite that! And lo, her love changes him. Her love makes him better. Her love saves him. Her love—quite literally—transforms him from the dangerous and abusive personality he is at the beginning of the film into someone else entirely.” In short, it is a movie that says, “If you love your abuser enough, they’ll stop being abusive. You just need to love them more. It’s your job to love them, to fix them, to change them.” Which is, of course, a terrible and dangerous and very pervasive lie.

Later, the same blogger addresses the movie Love Actually, in which one female character is transferred to a different department because a person in power hit on her (because, after all, it’s her fault for being attractive). The movie requires her to apologize twice for being a temptation to another man before she and her love interest can finally be together.

The message in both movies may be subtle, but it’s there: a woman’s love can change a man, and if he doesn’t change, it’s her own fault. (As the blogger points out, it’s okay to like these movies, but it’s important to remember that they do not portray healthy relationships.)

This, then, is rape culture: it’s a world where sexual violence against women is normalized and even defended; where the victim is blamed and the perpetrator is merely a victim of insurmountable temptation. It’s a culture wherein it is okay to commodify a woman’s body; where cat-calling is supposed to be considered a compliment; where students joke about an exam anally raping them; where comedians play the threat of rape for laughs. It’s a world where a woman can get fired for being distractingly attractive and where posting “trigger warnings” before descriptive articles to brace victims for the possibility of flashbacks is an unfortunate reality.

The Bechdel Test

In the words of G.I. Joe, “Knowing is half the battle” when it comes to changing rape culture. The other half comes from training yourself to be a conscious consumer (or dissenter) of culture, and training your children to think critically as well. Sometimes this is as simple as not laughing at sexist or rape jokes, or gently reminding those who make lewd comments about women that they have value beyond their physical appearance.

Another lens to use is the Bechdel Test. Named after a comic artist who recorded it, the test brings to light the way media (especially movies) treat their female characters. A movie is said to pass the Bechdel test if it:

  1. has at least two female characters with names
  2. who talk to each other
  3. about something other than a man.

This is, of course, an imperfect measure. A number of movies with strong female characters (such as Star Wars or Lord of the Rings) never make it past the second point. Even Les Miserables, which contains a strong critique of the limited options available to women, only passes because Madame Thernadier tells young Cosette to go to the woods for water. However, the test is handy as a basis for conversation.

For example, let’s say you have a young son and daughter who are watching Beauty and the Beast for the first time. Ask them how many female characters have names (answer: Belle and Mrs. Potts), and whether Belle is given any female friendships (no) or interests (yes) outside of her relationship with the Beast. Is Belle’s self-sacrifice noble? (Yes.) However, in the real world, do good girls change the hearts of their bad-boy boyfriends? (Rarely, at best.) Is her relationship and lack of female friendships healthy? (No.) For that matter, is Beast’s lack of male friendships beyond his servants healthy? (No.) Should your daughter start a relationship with a man like the Beast? Should your son seek a relationship with a girl with no female friends?

Again, a movie can be very enjoyable and even valuable to watch while still failing the Bechdel test. However, if the movie fails the test, or even if it passes but otherwise serves to limit the value of women, it should serve as a conversation point regarding how the women are treated in the movie and how they should be treated in real life.

Ringing the Bell

Beyond becoming smart consumers of media, there are also practical steps to take to help reduce victim-blaming attitudes and the threat of rape. One is, of course, to limit kids’ access to pornography through Accountability and Filtering, and to spread the word to other parents about the very real impact porn has on young, still-forming minds.

India, known for a culture where rape and domestic violence is common, has offered another practical suggestion: ring the bell. Do you live in an apartment complex with thin walls? Can you hear your neighbors fighting? Disrupt the argument by knocking on their door and asking for a cup of sugar. This will both disrupt the act and subtly remind the offender that they are being watched.

In suburbia, this will translate to different behaviors. If your neighborhood is not well-lit, you may want to keep your porch light on all night. Get to know the neighborhood kids as well, and let them know that if they are ever walking alone at night and feel unsafe, your home is a place of safety. And if slut-shaming or cyberbullying takes place at your children’s school, train them to be the heroes and defend the victim. If you’re discussing a nearby rape around the water cooler at work and someone blames the victim for putting herself in that situation in the first place, remind the person that nothing a victim does should ever excuse a violent attack.

While there is sin in the world, rape will never fully disappear. But with small steps, we can at least bring the cultural understanding of the crime back down to the horrific act that it is.

Photo credit:

Pure Minds Online | Issue 30 | March 2013 | More in this issue: Slut Shaming: Teens’ Sex Lives on Display | Snapped: An Innocent App Goes Wild | The Bible and the Brain | 10 Steps to Finding a Great Accountability Partner