Rape Culture: what it is and why it matters

TRIGGER WARNING: This article includes descriptions, pictures and discussion of topics which may serve as a trigger for victims of sexual violence.
I’m putting pen to paper (figuratively speaking anyway) today to talk about rape culture. Rape culture is an important subject – particularly for young people (for reasons I’ll come to later) – and yet very few people will have heard of it.

In this article I intend to explain what rape culture is and why it matters – and I hope you’ll have the patience to bear with me and read the entire article.

Editor’s Note: The article is 3,000 words, but worth it. Please click ‘read more’ to see the whole piece.

What is rape culture?

(Good basic guides to rape culture can be found here and here).

Unfortunately, there is no single definition for rape culture. However, it can be described – and examples of it can be found all around us in our society and all around the world.

At its heart, rape culture is a system of beliefs and customs which encourages and supports sexual violence and rape. Women are usually the most common victims of rape culture but men are the victims of it too.

Since that sound rather clinical, let me give some examples of what it really means, starting with the most recent, prominent example; the Steubenville rape case.

Rape culture is where two young men kidnap, rape and urinate on a 16 year old girl who is to drunk to even know what is going on – let alone consent to sexual activity. Rape culture is where dozens of witnesses watch this occur and no one says “stop”. Rape culture is where those same witnesses film and photograph what’s going on and share the pictures and photos on social media. Rape culture is where those dozens of witnesses refuse to come forwards to give evidence when the rape is reported. Rape culture is where the rape is reported to adults and they choose not to do anything because the young men say “nothing happened”. Rape culture is where the coaches of the young men involved joke about it, sweep it under the rug and still get to keep their jobs. Rape culture is where the two young men are finally convicted, with evidence they themselves recorded, and the mainstream media coverage focuses on what a tragedy it is that the young men’s athletic careers have been dashed by their crimes – as though they were the victims. Oh, and when the mainstream media also avoid mentioning the rapists’ names but mention the 16 year old victim’s name on television.

Rape culture is when the response to the convictions is for hundreds of people to take to social media to call the victim a “whore” and a “slut”. Rape culture is when, despite video evidence of what happened, those same people blame the victim for what happened and say that she was “asking for it” and where the victim receives death threats. Rape culture is this:

Hat tip to this article which you should definitely go and read in full right now.

I’ll come back to it later but that’s just a recent example.

Rape culture is where 69,000 women and 9,000 men a year in the UK are raped and only 1,070 rapists are convicted. Rape culture is where a man being raped by a woman is automatically considered amusing. Rape culture is where rape victims are automatically asked “are you sure it was rape?”, in a way that no one would ask victims of other crimes like muggings or burglaries.

Rape culture is where 1 in 4 women experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes and hundreds of thousands of women have been sexually touched or molested in some way in their lives so many times (you should seriously follow that link and read the article and the comments) that it scarcely gets mentioned. Rape culture is where the fear and threat of being raped or sexually assaulted governs the daily movements of most women. You should read this as well.

Rape culture is where it was legal in England and Wales for a man to rape his wife right up until 1991 (1982 in Scotland).

Rape culture is where a British judge says that a ten year old girl is to blame for her rape by a 24 year old man. Rape culture is when a court rules that even if she is being hurt or has changed her mind a woman is not allowed to withdraw consent after being penetrated.

Rape culture is where women are told that if they are raped while dressed a certain way then it’s their fault. Rape culture is where it is assumed that men cannot stop themselves from raping someone if they are wearing a short skirt. Rape culture is where almost all rape prevention campaigns focus on telling women to modify their behaviour as though it’s their behaviour which is to blame if they get raped.

Rape culture is where the stereotype of rape is where a victim is violently overpowered and raped in an alley by a stranger before reporting it immediately – despite the fact that women are three times more likely to be raped by someone they know than by a stranger and despite the fact that women are nine times more likely to be raped in their own home or the home of someone they know than in the street.

Rape culture is the widely believed myth that there is a typical way to behave after being raped – rather than the understanding that responses to rape are as varied as its victims and that, immediately following a rape, some victims go into shock; some are lucid; some are angry; some are ashamed; some are stoic; some are erratic; some want to report it; some don’t; some will act out; some will crawl inside themselves; some will have healthy sex lives; some never will again.

Rape culture is where it is impossible to have a discussion on the topic of rape without the issue of false accusations being raised and presented as though it were a major problem – rather than false accusations making up a smaller percentage of cases, 1.6%, than they do with almost any other kind of crime and despite the fact that 61% of rapes go unreported.

Rape culture is where a footballer and his friend rape a woman obviously too drunk to consent while two other friends film it and then, following their conviction, the victim is verbally abused and has her identity revealed by dozens of people on twitter and a team mate of the rapist calls the victim a “money grabbing tramp”.

Rape culture is where rape is used and encouraged as a weapon of war and a tool of genocide and oppression – as it was in Europe in the Yugoslav wars and Kosovo in the 90s and as it is being used in countries around the world right now like Darfur or the Congo where tens of thousands of women have been raped by foreign militias and their own government’s army. Rape culture is where gang rape is used as to “cure” queer women or where men with HIV are told that raping a virgin will cure them.Why does rape culture matter?The last section was pretty long so I’ll keep this section as brief as possible (which isn’t easy when discussing a topic as multifaceted as this). Rape culture matters for many reasons but the most important one is that it feeds and causes an environment where people are not safe and where rapists are able to get away with their crimes and act with the tacit approval of society.Remember the Steubenville case I mentioned earlier? Well, one of those witnesses I mentioned became involved after tricking the car keys away from a drunk friend of his in order to prevent him from drink driving – so far so responsible. But then he walked into one of the multiple locations where the rape took place and witnesses the victim lying on the floor, unconscious and half naked while one of the rapists slapped her thigh with his penis. The witness laughed awkwardly and left.

That’s why rape culture matters. It matters because a teenager knew enough to say “no, I’m not going to let someone drink drive because drink driving is bad and can harm people” but didn’t do anything to stop sexual assault and rape happening right in front of his eyes. And not just this teenager but all the other witnesses there. We live in a culture and a society where we have effectively communicated the message that drink driving is bad but haven’t effectively communicated that you should try to stop rape if you see it happening right in front of you.

It matters because, upon the conviction of the rapists in the Steubenville case, one of the rapists apologised for taking pictures of the rape – but not for the rape itself. And the father of the rapist then went on record as saying that he didn’t consider his son a rapist – despite the incontrovertible video and photographic evidence that he himself had seen shown in court and that his son had helped produce.

It matters because the Steubenville case isn’t unique – 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18 and often the abusers are other young people. It matters because cases of sexual assault and rape happen all the time, often in ways similar to the Steubenville case, yet most of the time they go unreported and the rapists go free without even being charged – not least because such conclusive photographic evidence as in Steubenville is very rarely available.

Rape culture matters because rapes take place and, on many occasions, someone could have intervened and stopped it but failed to do so. Rape culture matters because over 1 in 20 male university students have raped or attempted to rape someone (63% of the 1 in 20 had committed an average of six each) and 1 in 5 female undergraduates have experienced an actual or attempted rape or sexual assault.

Rape culture matters because someone is raped every six minutes, because 1 in 3 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, because only 16% of rapes are reported to police and because 50% of rapes are pre-planned.

Rape culture matters because it is the reason that these things happen. Whilst almost everyone knows, or should know, that no means no, it doesn’t take much detailed questioning to find out that that understanding breaks down and that a lot of people don’t understand or refuse to accept the legal definition of rape/sexual assault – any sexual activity where one of the people involved does not actively consent. Yet many people will argue, for example, including George Galloway MP, that having sex with someone who is asleep (and therefore unable to consent) isn’t rape. And there are plenty more other examples. These widespread misconceptions are part of the reason that rapes happen – a lot of rapists genuinely do not consider their actions to be rape.

But a far more pervasive, and urgent, aspect of rape culture for young people is what is commonly referred to as “lad culture”.

This isn’t the same thing as being someone who happens to like sport and drinking, by the way. This is a culture which is seen at its worst in ‘lads mags’ and in websites like unilad.com. These are publications which are littered with casual sexism and a truly shocking approach to consent. For example, a study at my own university recently found that it was impossible for people to tell the difference between quotes from lads mags and quotes from interviews with rapists.

As two examples:

You do not want to be caught red-handed . . . go and smash her on a park bench. That used to be my trick. – Rapist

I think girls are like plasticine, if you warm them up you can do anything you want with them. – Rapist

Pretty disturbing right? Now let’s see what the lads mags said… oh, wait, sorry, I got that wrong. Both of those quotes above are actually from lads mags.

And that’s the problem – people read these things which tell them that women are gagging for a bit of rough sex and that they might resist at first but if they’re forceful then the women will end up loving it. Which then leads to some people, not all, but some, going around thinking that that’s true. Which in turn is a recipe for sexual assault – particularly when, for example, someone might be in a vulnerable state such as having had a bit too much to drink.

Now let’s look at unilad – the website voted “number 1 lads mag for students” and with half a million likes for its facebook page. A website which doesn’t talk about women, a website which almost exclusively talks about “wenches”, “hoes”, “clunge”, “skank”, “sloppy seconds”, “pussy”, “tramp”, “chick”, “bird”, “milf”, “slut” and “gash”. This is completely dehumanising language which turns women into nothing more than targets for sex – ‘prey’ for want of a better description.

That alone is bad enough. But it also runs articles like this saying that “85% of rapes go unreported. That seems to be pretty good odds” and which come up with point scoring systems for things like inserting a finger into a woman’s vagina on the dancefloor. Pretty unpleasant, right? But it gets worse, it also has had articles about things like competitions to grab a woman, say “I’m going to rape you” and then seeing how long they can hold onto them for.

That, quite simply, is assault. It’s terrifying for the victims concerned and yet you have entire websites which just see this as a bit of a laugh and talk about it as such.

The fact is that sexual assault is now scarily common place – a lot of female students will have stories to tell about either themselves or one of their friends being the victim of groping or an attempted sexual assault. Yet at the same time you get massively popular websites and a widespread culture saying that all of this is just “banter” which they should laugh off.

And the fact is that people are constantly subconsciously influenced by things around them. Reading websites like unilad doesn’t automatically turn people into rapists – but it subconsciously reinforces the kind of attitudes which do lead to rape and helps provide self-justifications to rapists, as well as creating a culture where people who complain about rape and sexual assault are dismissed and told to “laugh it off”. And a culture where women are told that they should “laugh off” attempted sexual assault is fundamentally wrong.

Which brings me to rape jokes. There are so, so, so many rape jokes about. Lots of students tell them. I told them myself during my first couple of years at uni. As someone who’s never been in a position of feeling vulnerable to sexual assault myself, it never occurred to me just how creepy and scary those jokes must have been to women in our social groups – particularly when there were more men than women in said groups. It never occurred to me that some of them might well have been rape survivors who would have been reminded of their experiences every time somebody told such a joke – or how isolated it would have made them feel when people were laughing about the kind of things that had happened to them.

But the real problem is that jokes like “It’s not rape if she doesn’t have the chance to say no” help feed a culture where myths about rape are commons – such as that it really isn’t rape if someone doesn’t say no, rather than it being rape if they fail to give active consent to what’s happening. Those kind of jokes are one of the reasons why we get MPs like George Galloway thinking that it’s not rape to have sex with someone who’s unconscious. Additionally, when you laugh about something, it helps you think of it as being less serious – how can we take rape seriously as something which is despicable and yet at the same time laugh about it?

What’s more, sexual predators hear such jokes from their friends and take it as validation for their actions. There’s hard evidence that, for example, sexist/racist jokes increase people’s tolerance for and likelihood to commit sexist/racist acts themselves. So, similarly, rape jokes can help rapists justify their violence and their disrespect for their victims. It helps them dehumanise their victims and find their actions amusing. It sends a message that society doesn’t abhor what they do – it sends a message that society thinks it’s just a bit of a laugh. What’s more – rapists genuinely believe that all other men rape which is how they justify their actions to themselves. They’re not predators that everyone abhors, they’re just the same as all other men. This is absolute rubbish, of course, but they can believe that because of things like other people joking about rape helps to support their delusion that they’re doing nothing different from what all other men do.

That’s the fundamental problem with rape culture. It exists and, while it doesn’t turn people into rapists, it does make it much easier for rapists to get away with it, makes it easier for rapists to justify their actions to themselves, makes it harder for victims to speak out about what happened to them, and it fosters a sexist culture where victim blaming and the view of rape as something normal or funny is far more common than it should be. Instead of a culture that discourages rape, rape culture at best turns a blind eye to it and at worst, encourages it.

What do we do about it?

I’m a feminist. I abhor rape culture. But, at the same time, you can’t ban rape culture. You can’t pass a law against it. You can’t censor the way people think and what they say. You can’t even demand that websites like unilad be taken down as much as you might like them to be.

But you can speak up about it. Just as unilad has a right to freedom of speech to say horrible, sexist, offensive, misogynist things, we have a right to freedom of speech to call them out on it. We have a right to challenge people reinforcing rape culture. We have the right to say that, actually, rape jokes aren’t funny or socially acceptable. We have the right to insist on better education about sex and consent and relationships in  schools. We have the right to ask for rape prevention campaigns which focus on the rapists, rather than telling  victims what they should do to avoid being raped. We have the right to say that we don’t agree with rape culture and to explain to people what it is and why and how it hurts people.

We have the right to say that we believe rape victims and that we will support them and stand up for them when other people try to blame them for what happened to them.

We also have the right to boycott publications which encourage rape culture and the advertisers which support them and to call on others to do the same.

Above all, we have the right, and the duty, to make sure that when we something like the Steubenville case happening right in front of us, that we have the courage to step in and stop it rather than cowardly standing by. We have the duty to make sure that we encourage our friends and family and, when the time comes, our children, to make sure that they do the same.

Thanks for bearing with me throughout this lengthy piece. And thanks for reading it.

George Potter is a member and the Secretary of Guildford Liberal Democrats and the Policy Officer for the Lib Dem Disability Association. He’s studying Electronics with Satellite Engineering at the University of Surrey and blogs at  The Potter Blogger. He can be found on twitter at @georgewpotter.

This article is solely the views of the author, and should not be taken to represent the views of the Liberal Democrat party, Liberal Youth, nor the editorship of the Libertine.

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8 thoughts on “Rape Culture: what it is and why it matters

  1. freefromhim says:

    I agree with a lot of what you have said here. Rape culture is everywhere, sex is promoted through every avenue. I’m no prude but I hate exploitation in every way. Lads mags are evil, nasty rubbish. The way women are talked about is abhorrent, and more disturbing is the fact that it is looked over. R

  2. [...] Rape Culture: what it is and why it matters (lylibertine.wordpress.com) [...]

  3. [...] Rape Culture: what it is and why it matters (lylibertine.wordpress.com) [...]

  4. Probably shouldn’t of read this :'( something happened to me recently!

  5. [...] Rape Culture: what it is and why it matters (lylibertine.wordpress.com) [...]

  6. wadsworth says:

    A very very well written article. Thank you so much. Please keep spreading this, so many people need this education.

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