A Primer On Rape Culture
A young woman enjoying a night out with her friends has too much to drink. She is dressed to impress but is too drunk to drive and her car was towed anyway. She wanders off and is found raped and killed sometime later.
There are two reactions to this tragedy. The first is outrage that someone would do this. The second, and far from uncommon, is that she brought it on herself. Welcome to the United States of Rape.
This is not an in-depth psychological analysis of the root causes of our rape culture. I will leave that to far more qualified people. This is more of a call for people to take stock of their own thoughts on a subject they’ve never had to consider before and to open their eyes to the more obvious symptoms of it.
So what is Rape Culture? It’s a set of conditions that both encourages and excuses rape. Some of these conditions are so overt you don’t even recognize it when it’s right in front of you. Some of it is so subtle that even after it’s pointed out it’s difficult to recognize it. Much of it is not deliberate (at least I HOPE not) but it’s still there and by “there” I mean everywhere.
Part of rape culture is the enforced gender stereotypes that tell girls that they should focus on being pretty and soft while it tells boys they should be rough and tough. I’m having a running argument with my own mother-in-law about this very topic. She insists that my one year old daughter be covered in lace and frills and pink like a Barbie doll. I and my wife, who is apparently a great disappointment because she is not lacy and frilly, find the idea appalling. Debbie is one of the strongest women I know. She works full time to support her family while I stay home to raise the kids AND finished her Bachelor’s at the same time. All in the face of constant disapproval from her family for not being a “traditional” woman. We have no intention of letting our daughter grow up to be the “helpless maiden” in need of a strong man to take charge. She’ll be perfectly capable of living her life on her own terms and no one, not even her parents, will be making her choices for her.
On the other hand, I won’t let my son grow up to be Mr. Macho, either. The fact that he’s, in all likelihood, going to be taller than me and just as strong means he’ll never have to worry about being bullied. Instead he will have to learn to use his mind, not his muscle, to resolve confrontations; something I had to learn the hard way as a child. Being a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal is nothing to aspire to, no matter what you see on The Jersey Shore.
That’s not going to be easy in a world where all the toys for girls are fluffy and soft and makeup and dress-up and all the toys for boys are guns and cars and dinosaurs and bugs and more guns. And it’s not even like the bugs and dinosaurs are “for boys” because they’re scientifically interested (which they totally are). Boys are told to like bugs because they are “icky” and dinosaurs are like real life monsters while girls are discouraged from being interested in them for exactly the same reasons.
So the stereotyping of women starts at a very young age. It’s all about how they look, even as little girls. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the kiddie pageant circuit. When you wax the eyebrows of a five year old, you’re sending a very clear message that the female body is simply there for show. You strip away the person and leave just the meat.
I recently read an article that described the practice of showing only parts of the female body in an advertisement or using it AS the advertisement (like this, this or this) as the ultimate in commodification. And the author is right; it dehumanizes women to the extent that they are indistinguishable from the product they are selling. Despite my understanding of this I STILL find myself looking at such advertisements and not making the connection until much later, if at all. Remember how I said it was so subtle that knowing it’s there doesn’t help?
Hollywood does not help either as it often depicts sex as violent. It’s not rape per se but the glamourized link between violence and sexuality is hard to miss if you’re paying attention. A prime example of this is the ubiquitous “lovers slamming against the wall” shot right before passionate sex. Another is the “violently clearing the table” shot. I don’t even have to name a movie, TV show or commercial and you know exactly what I’m talking about. But just in case, here’s a commercial that has both. The award for least subtle goes to “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” where Jolie and Pitt shoot up their home, beat the crap out of each other and then have awesome sex (and adopt 40 kids)
I started this article with a story about a young woman being raped and murdered. The specific incident is the death of Jennifer Moore, only eighteen years old, but it happens so often, the specifics almost do not matter. Why I chose this particular case was the well documented reaction to it. You see, it’s HER fault for dressing sexy on a night out. Get it? If only she wasn’t drunk after hitting a bar, if only she hadn’t wandered off drunk and looking hot! None of this would have happened! So, really, it’s her fault. To quote O’Reilly, she was a “moron.” What O’Reilly, and all those like him, fails to understand is that walking around with a knife strapped to your neck doesn’t give anyone the right to walk up to you and slit your throat even if you are jumping up and down screaming “Kill me! Kill me!” By that twisted logic, the people who die in earthquakes are to blame for living near an active fault line. See how ridiculous that is?
Then you have the reaction to the 11 year old girl that was gang raped in Texas. She was allegedly dressed as a “21 year old prostitute” in the words of one law maker and had allegedly solicited drugs and alcohol from the group of men in exchange for sex. The outrage that these men, ranging from middle school age to 27, could be enticed in such a fashion by this girl is palpable in the community.
Reread that last paragraph. Do you see the problem with it? It wasn’t the men at fault, it was the girl! This attitude leaves out one very important detail. It doesn’t matter what an eleven year old says, it doesn’t matter how she dresses, it doesn’t matter what she does; an eleven year old cannot consent to having sex. Period. And we’re not talking about a matter of confusion about her age. A sixteen year old who lies and says she’s 18 could easily be mistaken as such. An eleven year old? I find it unlikely in the extreme and you know what? It still doesn’t matter what her age is because as soon as you threaten to beat her if she doesn’t have sex it’s still rape.
To continue the litany of yuck, last year, a Yale fraternity was videotaped chanting “No means yes! Yes means anal!” and people actually defended it as harmless college humor. These are supposed to be our best and brightest. Can there be a clearer sign that our understanding of sexuality is deeply flawed?
But that’s life in the United States of Rape.
So there’s your introduction to the world of rape culture. It’s a pervasive sickness within our society. It’s not a partisan sickness. It’s not even exclusively a male oriented sickness. There are plenty of women who simply accept it as the cost of being a woman. Part of that is biological. Let’s be honest, women and men are not equals in all things. Men will always be the more physical dominating of the genders. We’re bigger, faster and stronger and that’s just the reality of it. Does that mean we have the right to force a woman to have sex? Of course not, but it does means we’ll always be able to no matter how much we might wish it were different.
But while this significant part of rape culture is based on biology, the rest of it is definitively sociological. Sex is a shameful act in America. We’re so uptight about it that it’s a miracle that we even bother to procreate. It’s dark and dirty and animalistic. Men are slavering beasts while women are pure virgins that give in to men’s uncontrollable lust against their will. If the woman publicly enjoys it too much, then she’s a dirty whore. Or maybe she’s just a siren, seducing unwary men who cannot resist her charms. No matter how it’s described, there is all too often a lack of control imbedded in the narrative that need not be there.
When you attach so many stigmas to an act, you distort it and make it something darker than it actually is. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, after all.
Will this article magically cure our problems? PFFT! No. Will it even make a little tiny dent in the number of rapes in America? Probably not. What it will do is make a handful of people sit up and notice that something is wrong on a deep level in our society. Those people will pay a little closer attention to what they see and hear and, hopefully, change how they respond to it. If I’m really lucky, they’ll tell someone else what they’ve learned and that’s how true change happens, one person at a time.