How to Talk to a Skeptic About Rape Culture

TRIGGER WARNING:

The following includes discussions that may serve as a trigger for victims of sexual violence.
Please be advised. 

I’ve gotten a lot of questions recently about how to talk to someone about rape culture. They fear rejection or attack or any other number of outcomes, but mostly the questioners fear not being understood. I get that. More than most, probably.

But the conversations are important ones to have, so I wanted to come up with a better answer than, “Try.” For a while, I just sent people over to the comment thread on the initial rape culture post. After all, there were some pretty awesome conversations taking place there. Now, however, that the comment thread is over 1,000 posts long, that can be a daunting challenge. I still encourage it, but thought it might be helpful for something a little shorter… even if not by much.

So I sifted through all the comments again, and tried to imagine what it would look like if they wound up smashed into one conversation. This is what I came up with. Hope it’s helpful…

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Look, I get it, rape is bad. Everyone knows that. What are you trying to accomplish?

You’re missing the point. It’s not just about rape.

Fine – sexual violence is bad. Better?

Yes. You’re still missing the point.

What’s the point then?

When we talk about rape, we’re talking about crimes. We’re talking about individual instances of sexual violence with a specific set of circumstances and consequences. We can talk about rape in the abstract as well – looking at data for pointers – but rape culture is something very different. When we discuss rape culture, we look at experiences, interactions and perceptions. It’s probably best defined as a set of socially accepted beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes which contribute to the trivialization of a survivor’s experience, make light of sexually violent behavior, and perpetuate the negative effects suffered by both individuals and communities as a result.

That still sounds pretty abstract.

It is. That’s why lots of people spend lots of time highlighting the ways that rape culture shows up in society. It’s about giving voice to thoughts like, “Why do we ask a female rape victim what she was wearing? Why do we assume male victims ‘wanted’ it? Why do we think it’s a good idea to respond to victim narratives with comments on what they woulda shoulda done to prevent it, instead of allowing them to grieve and process?”

But that sounds like you’re saying we shouldn’t investigate rape cases – just take ’em on faith. We have a legal system predicated on being innocent until proven guilty for a reason.

You’re absolutely right. That’s the way it should be. The problem is that, uniquely in cases of sexual violence, the investigation can take on a very accusatory tone. The problem is that only 9% of cases ever see charges brought up. Only 3% of the accused will ever serve a day in jail. There are reasons for this, of course; it’s not as though 97% of the 33% of victims that actually report are ALL lying. And the reasons can vary. Lack of physical evidence because the victim took a shower. A victim too traumatized too proceed with the case. Concerns about victim likability in front of a jury. No one is saying we should not investigate rape allegations. We’re just saying that there are problems with the way we handle those investigations, and even bigger problems with how we, as a society, respond to the issue.

Speaking of lying, what about false alleg….

I’m going to stop you right there. I wrote a post on this last week, but there are some issues with the false allegation line of thinking being inserted into conversations about rape culture. For starters, it’s almost always a distraction from the topic. Someone will talk about an element of rape culture, and the response is, “But what about….”

What about it? Yes, false allegations happen. No, they do not happen with the frequency that poorly executed studies on corrupted data pools would have you believe. And it’s deplorable when it does happen; false accusations can ruin lives, and ultimately trivializes the experiences of individuals who have been victimized. But to argue that it happens a substantial amount of the time is factually inaccurate, and contributes to shaming victims into silence for fear of disbelief. And that’s not ok.

I mean, I just feel like, whenever people bring up rape culture, you’re saying all men are rapists. What about the male victims?

Not all men are rapists. Men can be raped. Women can be rapists. It’s never ok, no matter who’s doing it or who the victim is. Again, we have to remember that discussions about rape culture are not necessarily specific to the frequency of occurrence in sexually violent crimes. They are inextricably related, yes, but rape culture is a little different.

It’s not just about the men thing, though. For starters, not all athletes are rapists, ya know?

You’re right. Not all athletes are rapists. Not all athletic communities encourage, condone or tolerate sexually violent behavior. That’s not the point. There is data which suggests that athletic communities, in the aggregate, display more acceptance of sexually violent behavior. Studies have consistently found that while athletes make up a small percentage of the collegiate population  they are frequently responsible for a statistically disproportionate amount of sexual violence on campuses. Again, not all athletes are rapists. Not all athletic communities encourage, condone or tolerate sexually violent behavior. That does not, however, preclude having a measured conversation about why we see these statistics… which brings us back to the subject of rape culture in general.

I’m assuming you’ll say something similar about prisons and the military…

Yep. Both are arenas where we see sexual violence at disproportionately high rates, and responsible leadership’s handling of the frequency is deplorable.

Fine. But I don’t like rape. I don’t joke about it. I would never rape anyone. Why am I somehow part of this “rape culture”?

I have no doubt that you are a wonderful human being. I also have no doubt that you are culpable in terms of perpetuating rape culture. Was it done with intention? Probably not. Does that mean we don’t need to have this conversation? Also untrue.

It’s difficult to talk about rape culture sometimes because people get offended. They take it as a personal attack on them for laughing at an uncouth joke (or at least, not openly condemning it). And when we look at the effects generated by rape culture… it’s a lot. No one wants to feel personally responsible for that.

It’s important to remember that this is not about you, the person. It’s not an attack. It’s a call for critical self-reflection on our choices and language.

But some of these examples you’ve cited… the pizza box? Really? It’s just an ad. Don’t you think that by pointing out these trivial examples you’re undermining your own argument?

The pizza box from the original post is actually a perfect example. For those unfamiliar, here it is again:

dominos

Dominos embraced an advertising campaign around the phrase, “No is the new yes.” It was part of the push around their artisan pizzas – they’d say no to you switching toppings in and out, because they believed their combinations were that good. I don’t have a problem with pizza. I don’t think Dominos intended to offend anyone. The problem is that their catchphrase played off of the single most repeated phrase in education on sexual violence: no means no.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to arguments about why that wasn’t the intention, but rape culture really isn’t about intention. It’s about perceptions and consequences. It’s a part of what makes this conversation difficult. Do I think some marketing exec stood up in a meeting and said, “Let’s make sexual violence survivors feel uncomfortable because rape is funny”? No. Do I think they’re horrible, terrible people without souls? Of course not. That being said, if given the chance, would I inform them of why the marketing decision was insensitive (and ultimately poor strategy)? You bet.

And THAT is why rape culture is tough. It’s not about bad people; it’s about bad choices. And those bad choices sometimes seem so insignificant, but that’s where it begins.

I still don’t know if I get it. Like, Daniel Tosh, for instance. He made a joke. He’s a comedian. You’re going to take away his freedom of speech?

Oh, hell no.  I don’t want freedom of speech taken away from ANYONE because that means one day I might not have it… and I like talking too much. Daniel Tosh, Dominos, You, Me… we all have freedom of speech. What we DON’T have is freedom FROM CRITICISM of said speech. And criticism of speech that contributes to rape culture is the only way we get somewhere with all this.

But why does it even matter? So we crack a few jokes – that doesn’t mean someone gets attacked because I laugh. 

You are correct: it is not a perfectly direct correlation. But it’s a correlation nonetheless.

It’s about things that seem innocuous if you don’t put any thought into it, but those little things add up. It starts with comments about sex and worth. Maybe it’s a snide comment about the way a classmate dresses, or gossiping about that one girl who puts out for “everyone.” Maybe it’s laughing when someone cracks a joke about how many STDs so-and-so must have.

When we start to evaluate human worth on the basis of sex like that, it gets easier and easier to judge… in different ways. And when you hear a story about a teenage girl in Ohio who was violated by her classmates after getting drunk, you say things like, “Well, she shouldn’t have been drinking…”

And then suddenly we’re talking about false rape allegation rates like they’re actually at 50%. And then suddenly we’re talking about not letting rape victims have access to emergency contraceptives because our experience – not at all related to theirs – somehow matters so much more. And then suddenly you’re not so sure if spousal rape is even possible, or if statutory rape should even be called rape at all…

Maybe it gets that far. Maybe it doesn’t. But by participating at some point in the process, you enable someone else who will get that far. It’s a numbers game, and no one wins.

Because as much as we like to think that NO ONE believes rape is good, there are still those who “excuse” it under certain circumstances. They think it’s ok if she’s too wasted to really consent because it’s their girlfriend. Or they figure she won’t remember tomorrow anyway, so why not? Or they develop some Madonna-Whore complex that makes them think it’s ok to forcibly feel up a stripper because – hey, she’s a stripper. Or they think they only really need permission if it’s their penis in question, but everything else is fair game. Or maybe – just maybe – their crimes wind up more clear cut and startling than that.

And in the meantime, there are victims watching and listening. And those slut comments make them wonder if THEY were asking for it because they’re a human being with a pulse and sexual impulses. And those jokes make them feel shame and fear. And those comments about victims you don’t know make them think no one will believe them, either. And when they don’t come forward, they don’t get help, and they struggle under the weight of their trauma alone. And when they don’t come forward, and their attacker goes free, statistics show they’re likely to rape again. And NONE of this is good for ANYONE.

When one in five women and 1.4% of men are raped in their lifetime (and the male stats are probably a little low), it’s a problem. Most people don’t think about it that way. That’s why this conversation matters.

Alright, that sucks. I get that. But why is the conversation so important with rape? Couldn’t we say we have a culture that promotes violence? Or bigotry? Do we live in a “murder culture”?

You’re right. There are a lot of problems in the world. Many of these issues are interrelated (see: intersectionality for some awesome reading and perspective). It could be argued that they all stem from the same thing: our insistence on constructing and defending artificial hierarchies of human worth.

That’s a lot of bad things happening, right? But that doesn’t mean we have to talk about all of them at once. In fact, there’s something to be said for breaking down issues into “bite-size” pieces. That doesn’t mean rape culture is a small problem (by any means), but it’s certainly smaller and more focused than trying to talk about all inequality and evil in one breath. That’s an important part of developing specific solutions, as well.

Are there really solutions here? Rape and violence have been happening forever. The way you describe it, rape culture has been around forever. What are we supposed to do about it?

Well, you can start by rejecting the premise that there’s nothing we can do about it. That assumes that sexual violence is natural, and if you think about it, there’s nothing more insulting. It insinuates that people are incapable of ethical determination, and it further trivializes the experience of a victim as “inevitable.”

What can we do about it? THIS. Talking, discourse, conversation, advocacy. Cultural problems must be addressed on an individual basis with attempts at changing hearts and minds through education and reflection. Is it hard? Yes. Is it important? Hell yes.

What would have happened if Susan B. Anthony had decided she couldn’t take the hatred being slung her way in the quest for women’s suffrage? Where would we be in Martin Luther King Jr. had given up in that Birmingham cell? Perhaps more appropriately – would we have seen progress beyond policy placements (if we had gotten there) without the measured, strong, clear voices of people standing up to say something was wrong? Once upon a time, it was socially acceptable to joke about beating a man because of the color of his skin. Today, jokes like that land you in social Siberia (for the most part – racism isn’t dead).

Why? Because people took a stand for what was right. When we talk about rape culture, that’s what we’re asking – do the right thing. Don’t stand for the rape jokes. Don’t support companies who think rape depiction is a solid marketing idea. Don’t make excuses for the perpetrators. Educate yourself, and educate others.

And be brave. Because these conversations suck.

Photo Source: The Nation

Photo Source: The Nation

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P.S. Several of you have asked if I’m ever going to write about anything other than rape culture ever again. The answer is yes. And soon. And a lot. And perhaps not at one in the morning. But sometimes, the moment is too important to take your eye off the ball. Much love. 

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21 comments

    1. I struggle with this too, which is why I am blocked any time I write romance or romantic elements in my stories. I’m still unpacking this issue. A lot. I think we would contribute less if the romance genre and subgenres were not so imbued with problematic tropes such as women as possessions for men and women achieving value through a sexual relationships with men. I’m trying to find a way to subvert these trends while still being able to call myself a romance writer. It’s hard.

  1. Hey there — Just FYI — I’m including all of your rape culture posts in my online ethics module… the broad topic is something like gender, body image, culture and sex… If you end up with some stray views way, way down the line, they’re probably from my students — good work!

  2. Thank you so much. Hmm, reading your blog made me realize how much of the rape culture is internalized by women as well. That included me. I like how you write about something so complex in layman’s term. Very easy to understand.Again, thank you so much.

  3. Thank you so much for your continued commentary on this issue. More of us need to take up this conversation, but for now I’m just so relieved and heartened that the conversation is taking place at all. And in such an engaging and respective manner. Thank you again.

  4. Thank you for including statistics and considerations for male victims. So often rape culture is only ever discussed in relation to women. It’s nice to see a more balanced approach.

  5. A brilliant post Lauren. Appreciate what you have written and the way you have written it.
    My views on these questions :
    1.All men are not rapists.
    True. And that exactly is what we are telling. But those who promote rape culture are telling woman should dress decently, woman should not drink, woman should not be out late night, because all men are rapists and their rape mode would be switched on when they see you bare legs. They would feel you are asking for it when you have drunk and passed out because men are not human but rapists. Rape culture purely exists on the idea ” men are born rapists” and if you promote rape culture you are promoting this idea.
    2. False Allegation
    There are people who have been falsely accused of murder, cheating, trespass, conspiracy etc.. but I don’t hear anyone demanding ” No more laws against murder”. Then why are you opposing rape laws, when few-very few false allegations happen. It is up to the law enforcement bodies to ensure that person falsely accused of rape is not punished, as in case of falsely accused of murder.

  6. Okay, so.. I’m a skeptic of this idea of rape culture. Here’s a summary of what I got from this with my thoughts on why i’m skeptic. (it’s a mess but i’m a messy writer, I apologize in advance)

    I don’t believe there is a rape culture in such a state as it’s made out to be, in fact i would even go as far as to say it was dying long before it even had a name. Why? Well first of all, public opinion is clearly not in favor of rape, the fact laws with fairly strict punishment exist is an indicator of that (though albeit sometimes a poor one as laws seem to take far to long to change) but not just that, the fact that where I live, the mere mention of rape is enough to get a mob going and get someone hurt or killed. People accepting of rape don’t do that. Yes there are some archaic mindsets still around and that shows in some silly ways and hurtful ways. Also muddying the water is eroticism, not because it makes rape any more acceptable, of course not, but it doesn’t make it as poisonous a subject as it in action. This opens the way for stupid jokes and those small things that seem to make up this seemingly nasty whole. But is the eroticism a bad thing? of course not no, no way. (And I want to reiterate eroticism does not condone rape.)

    Another reason I don’t think rape culture exists as some all encompassing zeitgeist is because look at the places where the apparent rape culture exists, and compare that to other parts of the world, ones that don’t have enough free speech to even recognize the concept of a rape culture. Central Africa, a place where walking down the street doesn’t mean the off chance of sexual assault or harassment, it is the guarantee of sexual assault or death. Where trial for rape is considered either quaint or non-existant. Where rape is considered amongst every day life and is even used by some as a way to treat perceived social ills. Those places have a rape culture, those places self identify with rape, and if my history is correct, at one point, so did we. But compared to now? We certainly do not now, and with that basis of comparison are only moving further away from a “rape culture”

    As for these other parts you mention, You seem to understand due process is important, yet by courting public opinion with this inference of a “rape culture”, you seek to undermine it. How can that achieve anything other then witch hunts? Already there are campaigns diminishing all men as rapists for the actions of a distinct few. Don’t be that guy? Don’t rape? I’m sorry but i find the suggestion i could even think about perpetrating rape offensive. I’m damn sure i’m not alone.

    Otherwise you say false allegations.. using unsubstantiated figures to state it’s not as prevalent is in no way going to get a reasoning skeptic to believe you. Certainly not when social castigation and criminal punishment of an innocent person is the outcome. The fact is false allegation exists, and while it does, due process will continue to give the benefit of the doubt to the accused. To not do so would cause far reaching damage that will go badly for everyone.

    I am aware of the flaws in due process, namely things of no bearing on rape being brought up as evidence, what was she wearing, what is his profession, why was she in that neighborhood, why did he get into the car with them. These things have no bearing on whether you will or will not be raped. But I think that saying this is the norm is extremely unfair, it exists and is a problem, but these are individuals here. A few amongst many exaggerated by our era of sensationalism, not a “Culture”

    Anyway i’ve bent your ear for long enough so i’ll conclude with this; rape is horrible and is in no way forgivable. Those guilty of it should be removed from society permanently. I do think that the apparent “rape culture” or rape acceptance or rape diminishing or rape apology, is well on it’s way to death. It is unreasonable, and if we act as a reasonable people we will ensure it. But acting as if it is pervasive and circumventing due process with popular opinion will not solve the remaining issues.

    1. Thanks for commenting. I’ll try to address each of your points individually.

      To begin, you argue that people do not frequently tacitly approve of rape. That’s true – and I’m glad, because that would be a pretty miserable society in which to live. That being said, it’s not about tacit approval. It’s about behaviors and language that make it seem like it’s not a big deal, or that discourages victims from coming forward, or makes them feel revictimized. It’s just a different conversation and problem. Tied together? Sure, but a different problem with different solutions.

      You state, “where I live, the mere mention of rape is enough to get a mob going and get someone hurt or killed.” I’m genuinely sorry to hear that. Rape is a terrible crime, but the solution is not reciprocal violence. Violence begetting violence is a larger social problem, and it’s no more acceptable than rape culture’s manifestation.

      In terms of eroticism, I’ll agree that it is not necessarily bad or wrong. Sexual expression by consenting parties is healthy. The problem is when eroticism depicts lack of consent as desirable. To be clear, not all eroticism does that; it’s a broad field.

      You are correct that there are other cultures where rape culture is more pronounced. Does that make it any better that it’s still here? I don’t think so. Is racism gone because it’s not manifested as blatantly as it used to be? Also no. Cultural problems can exist in varying levels of severity; it does not make those problems less important to address. And again, it’s not just about the frequency of sexual violence, but the way it’s framed and interacted with on a cultural level.

      You are also correct that the solution isn’t a witch hunt. The solution is interactions like this; it’s about having the conversation. I don’t think all men are rapists, and I don’t think all people who participate in rape culture are bad people. In fact, most people who do participate in rape culture most likely don’t even realize it. That’s why awareness campaigns are important. It’s also why they’ve been effective in the past. The “Don’t Be That Guy” campaign was incredibly successful in Canada, because it forced conversation on the subject. Such matters have been reflected in the frequency of sexual violence in that nation. Does Canada still struggle with rape culture? Of course (see “For Rehtaeh” on this blog), but this isn’t something you can eliminate with a single solution; it’s something we chip away at, one step at a time.

      You are right that it’s not fair to characterize men as the only people capable of sexual violence. While women offend at a much lower rate, the fact is that rape culture is bad regardless of the gender of the victim or assailant. This, again, is why having these conversations is so critical.

      Regarding comments about false accusations, I want to be really, really clear. False accusations are bad. They undermine everything that advocates against rape culture stand for. The harm they cause to the falsely accused is unreal. The problem is that conversations about false rape accusations don’t typically happen as a standalone criticism or indictment. They are too frequently used in response to conversations about why sexual violence is a problem. On THIS blog, I saw it being used as a response to individual survivor stories. When the argument is addressed in that context – when a harm that occurs at a fraction of the frequency of sexual violence is used as a counterargument to rape culture, and in particular when it’s used as a backdrop for survivor stories – the rhetoric becomes problematic. In those instances, it ends up serving as discouragement for survivors. Why come forward if no one is going to believe them? In reality, it should be an “and” type of conversation, not a “but” addition – i.e. “rape culture is bad AND false accusations, and the problematic ways we discuss them, make things worse,” instead of, “rape culture is bad, BUT false accusations are bad/worse.”

      I appreciate your recognition of the damage we sometimes see due to incredibly insensitive legal approaches to sexual violence. I do have to disagree with you on its prevalence. Part of the reason I disagree is because it’s not just about what’s said by the players in the legal system; it’s the press, it’s people on social media, and it’s community response. Does that necessarily impact the outcome of a trial? It can. It may make a survivor feel uncomfortable about pressing charges, or it may taint a jury pool. But also important is how this behavior impacts survivors watching the story unfold. Maybe they haven’t come forward with their story yet, and seeing the shameful circus surrounding a trial discourages them from saying anything. Maybe it retraumatizes survivors who’ve already been through the gauntlet, and are triggered by seeing people endure the same judgment.

      I sincerely hope you’re right that rape culture is on its way to death. But from what I’ve seen, the only way we can ensure that is if we keep talking about it.

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