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…
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 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.
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.