In the wake of the Steubenville rape case and the appalling reaction to the guilty verdict, both on the part of the media, who sympathized with the perpetrators, and several of the victim’s school mates who have harassed and threatened her, this seems like a good time to stop for a moment and talk about what rape culture is. The endless tweets, blog comments, and divided public reaction to Steubenville is reflective of a serious problem with how rape, and both men and women’s role in it, are perceived in this country right now.
The term “rape culture” refers to a culture in which attitudes about rape are tolerant enough to be an enabling factor in anything ranging from sexual harassment to actual rape. When a girl complains about being catcalled on the street because it made her uncomfortable, and you tell her to just take a compliment, you’re perpetuating rape culture. When a girl has one too many drinks at a party and is taken advantage of, and your reaction is that it’s her fault for not being more careful, you’re perpetuating rape culture. When you say that someone was “asking for it” because their skirt was too short, you’re perpetuating rape culture. When you assume that men are never victims of sexual harassment or assault, yes, you’re still perpetuating rape culture (not only because desexualizing one gender sexualizes the other by proxy, but because classifying one form of harassment or assault as valid over another is contributing to the problem).
Until the 1970s, rape wasn’t really talked about, let alone publicly. The general assumption was that it didn’t happen very often, while marital rape was legal in all 50 states, the reasoning being that by entering into a marriage, a woman was consenting to sex anytime her husband felt like it, even if she herself didn’t. In other words, a woman’s job was to be sexed by a man, and marriage was just her way of giving a specific man her timecard. The process to outlaw spousal rape began in the 1970s, but did not extend to all 50 states until 1993 — even today, politicians like Todd Akin (of “ways to shut that whole thing down” fame) are still pushing to reverse legislation and make spousal rape legal again.
If you’re not sure whether rape culture exists, just look at last summer’s political campaigns. One after another, old white men tried to argue their stance on abortion by bringing rape into the conversation. They politicized violating a woman’s body for the sake of their campaign’s agenda. Recently NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, nervous about the effect the Newton shooting may have on his position, advocated for guns as the most effective defense against rape. Why does this have rape culture written all over it? I’m so glad you asked.
The burden of rape prevention is thought to fall on women: keep your eyes on your drink, don’t have too much, don’t dress provocatively, have a defense strategy for your walk home every night. The idea that the burden of rape prevention should fall on the perpetrator and not the victim is rarely the standard reaction to sexual assault. Recently, when Zerlina Maxwell appeared on Fox News’ Hannity and suggested that men be taught not to rape instead of giving women guns to defend themselves, she was met with confused outrage. Her ideas were called “bizarre” and she began receiving a large amount of hate mail, including rape threats. Because, apparently, it’s a woman’s responsibility to maim or murder her attacker and have to deal with that experience the rest of her life, and not his responsibility to just leave her the f*ck alone.
Where can we spot rape culture today? The Violence Against Women Act, which was recently passed again, is the only thing keeping judges from being able to rule in rape cases that the victim was “asking for it,” though 97% of rapists still never spend a day in jail. Rape culture is needing a law to prevent legal victim blaming. Rape culture is this guy, who thinks that “female privilege is getting to claim a headache to avoid sex” (and resisting rape culture is the brilliant response of, “female oppression is having to claim physical illness to avoid sex because men won’t take a simple fucking “no” for an answer. Female oppression is men being so entitled that they think being denied sex is oppressive.”)