We know that sexual violence is a serious and rampant problem. But do we really understand why it happens? One of the most common misconceptions about sexual assault is that it stems from the individual psychological problems of the rapist. In reality, the cause isn’t just one individual—it’s also the greater cultural environment in which that individual operates.
Cultural norms will can make it easier or more difficult for someone to commit an act like rape. We are all collectively responsible for creating culture—and what we have created is, unfortunately, a “rape culture.”
What Is Rape Culture?
Although defined broadly, rape culture is basically “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.” Southern Connecticut State University
Examples Of Rape Culture
- Trivializing sexual harassment (“Boys will be boys!”)
- Telling jokes that make light of sexual violence
- Defining “manhood” as sexually aggressive and dominant
- Defining “womanhood” as sexually passive and submissive
- Categorizing women who resist male sexual advances as undesirably “frigid” or “cold”
- Assuming only promiscuous women are raped
- Thinking that unwanted sexual advances (like catcalling) are “compliments”
- Raising boys to believe that they are entitled to sex
- Tying a man’s social status to how easily he can “get laid”
- Glamorizing sexual violence in popular media
- Not taking rape accusations seriously
- Inflating false rape report statistics to minimize the issue
- Teaching women to avoid getting raped instead of teaching men not to rape
Another damaging element of rape culture is the “blame the victim” mentality. This mentality calls into doubt the validity of a victim’s experience of sexual assault with questions like:
- Why were you out alone?
- How much did you drink?
- You should’ve dressed more modestly.
- These types of things happen when you stay out past midnight.
- You should’ve said “No” more forcefully.
In these situations, the victim does not receive sympathy and understanding. Instead, she faces accusations that her poor behavioral choices led to the sexual assault. When this happens, blame is shifted onto the victim, instead of on the perpetrator who is actually responsible.
It’s Not As Simple as “No Means No”
Another way that rape culture shows up is when we pin responsibility on the victim if she didn’t make her non-consent clear to her rapist.
We often hear this idea in the news that whether or not it counts as sexual assault boils down to whether or not the victim refused. But this is only half the picture. What about situations where she wasn’t able to say no, because she was unconscious? Because drugs altered her state of mind? Because she was having an anxiety attack? Because she was scared that he might hurt her if she refused? Because she was exhausted from turning down his advances a hundred times already?
If we make consent only about negative consent, this leaves a gap where failing to say “no” actually means “yes.” It suggests that consent is assumed until it is verbally refused—and this is wrong.
The Negative Impact Of Rape Culture
Rape cultures create an environment in which sexual violence is normalized and prevalent, which makes people more vulnerable to rape. This is especially the case for women and girls. Individuals who are victimized by rape often suffer lasting negative consequences beyond their assault. For example, RAINN reports that 94% of women who are raped experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms during the two weeks following the sexual assault. Also note that people who have been sexually assaulted are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Many victims will also experience emotional distress that can cause problems at work or school and tensions with family members or friends.
What Can Be Done To Stop Rape Culture
Critically re-examine your own assumptions about gender. If you think of women as naturally submissive, ask yourself where that belief comes from. When you hear about another sexual assault in the news, are you looking for clues that maybe it was partly the victim’s fault because she put herself in that situation? If so, why was skepticism your instinctive response? Have you ever excused a child’s behavior by saying “boys will be boys”? How would that situation have played out differently if you held him accountable instead?
Be more conscious of the information and entertainment you consume through the media. Unfortunately, the songs, television shows, and movies that shape pop culture tend to promote the objectification of women. These misrepresentations of women contribute to the view that a woman is a thing, not a person. You can make a conscious choice to avoid this kind of media.
Do not feed rape culture with silence or approval when people around you make offensive statements. When you hear victims being belittled or blamed with statements like “She was asking for it,” be sure to explain that a survivor is never responsible for what happened. If someone tells you that they have been victimized, take the individual seriously and offer support. Do not brush what the victim tells you aside or assume that they are making it up.
Be aware of your own mental attitudes and behaviors with sex partners. Always communicate openly with partners and do not assume consent. Also be sure that you are defining your own sense of personhood. Don’t let cultural stereotypes regarding what it means to be a man or woman dictate how you will interact with your partners. Make sure that authenticity, shared humanity, and genuine respect are integral to the way that you relate to others.
Actively work against rape culture through volunteer service and advocacy. Raise awareness about these issues. Share articles and survivor stories on social media. Volunteer with organizations working to combat gender-based violence and empower women and girls. Support legislation that protects survivors and holds perpetrators accountable.
Love, Not Fear
While rape culture is a dangerous aspect of the contemporary world, it doesn’t have to be. By actively working against it, you can contribute to the creation of a community that is grounded in mutual respect and love, not objectification and fear!