4 Things I’m Not Saying When I Say “Rape Culture”
This article was originally published by Everyday Feminism. It has been edited for YES! Magazine.
What would you say if someone offered you a chance to reduce the number of sexual assaults in your community?
I’m not talking about joining a crime-fighting squad or making a big donation to an anti-rape organization—but about taking actions in your everyday life that would make a difference in stopping sexual violence.
Would you do it?
Now what if I said this involves addressing rape culture?
I’ve encountered a number of people who agree about how awful rape is and why it needs to stop—but they hesitate at the words “rape culture.”
Rape culture refers to a set of cultural practices that allow sexual violence to happen and excuse it when it does.
In my experience, the people who hesitate at this concept are often—but not always—men. They feel as if the idea of rape culture puts unfair blame on their shoulders.
The way they see it, they’ve never raped anyone, and they consider rape to be a terrible thing, so why should they be responsible for doing anything about it?
I get that it’s uncomfortable to be associated with such a horribly violent act. If I say that you can make changes in your everyday behavior to help put a stop to rape, that implies that something about your everyday behavior might be contributing to rape.
And I don’t blame you for feeling defensive at that idea. But the problem is that defensiveness never actually helps us learn anything.
Personally, I tend to put my guard up as soon as I hear “there’s no such thing as rape culture.”
This comes from a place of self-protection, too—because all too often, that statement comes just before some hurtful victim-blaming and denying that rape is even an important issue.
Maybe you’ve been dismissing rape culture because you’ve misunderstood what it means.
But not everyone who denies the existence of rape culture is totally dismissive about rape. There are also people who are disturbed by sexual violence, but think “rape culture” refers to something they can’t get on board with.
So it’s worth it to at least try to get on the same page with what we’re talking about.
If you don’t believe in rape culture, I’ll drop my guard here and give you the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure you’d never actually condone sexual violence.
And as you read this article, I invite you to set aside any defensive feelings that might arise in you. Consider the possibility that maybe you’ve been dismissing rape culture because you’ve misunderstood what it means.
And hopefully, we’ll be able to meet in a place where you have options for making a positive difference, without the fears and hesitations that usually come up when someone says “rape culture.”
Let’s talk about what other anti-violence advocates, activists, and I really mean when we discuss rape culture.
Here are some of the most common things people assume we’re saying—and why these objections are misguided.
1. We’re not saying every interaction counts as rape
I’ve had people complain that the concept of rape culture offends “actual victims” by comparing seemingly harmless interactions to sexual violence.
And if we were actually making that comparison, I might understand this point.
For instance, men are participating in rape culture when they leer at me in public—but I’m not talking about “crying rape” just because someone looks at me wrong.
I am talking about recognizing connections between different things.
For the record, I’m one of those “actual victims” who has experienced rape—but I’ve never been remotely offended by the concept of rape culture.
Nothing happens in a vacuum.
Because, while rape culture conversations include everyday things like street harassment, gender norms, and the media, we’re not saying that these everyday things actually are rape.
Here’s what we’re really saying: Nothing happens in a vacuum.
Whether we’d like to admit it or not, the society around us influences our everyday thoughts, habits, and behavior.
Everything from how we take our coffee to how we parent children can be shaped in part by the culture around us—so why wouldn’t our approach to sexual violence be influenced, too?
For example, when someone frequently watches media that portrays women’s bodies as existing only for their pleasure, then it’s not much of a stretch to think that might influence their view of women in their everyday lives.
Maybe you wouldn’t feel entitled to a woman’s body without her consent—but that’s no reason to deny the broader connection between the everyday objectification of women that you come across and the violence that dehumanizes women as objects.
It’s not just women who experience rape—sexual violence affects people of all genders. But this is one example of how patriarchal gender norms can set up harmful expectations for women and other people who are treated like society treats women.
2. We’re not saying all men are rapists
I’m sure some people think they’ve just caught me blaming men.
“Aha! You mentioned patriarchal gender roles hurting women—are you saying all men are rapists?”
That’s not what I’m saying. Let’s unpack what this means.
You know gender norms—they’re our social expectations that everyone is a man or a woman, and that certain appearances, behaviors, and roles define what it means to be a man or a woman.
Think, for instance, about the difference between how boys and girls learn about sexual desire.
Many boys learn from the media, their families, and their peers that men naturally have strong sexual desires for women. And that men who “bang” lots of women are “studs.”
Women are socialized to believe they’re supposed to put men’s pleasure before their own.
Girls often learn from the same sources that their bodies arouse temptation, and that sexual pleasure is mostly for men. So women who “give their bodies up” to many sexual partners are judged as “sluts.”
You can probably understand how these norms can hurt everyone involved.
For instance, men who aren’t attracted to women, or who don’t desire lots of sex, get shamed and pressured into proving their “manhood” by objectifying women.
Women are socialized to believe they’re supposed to put men’s pleasure before their own.
And people who are queer, transgender, non-binary, intersex, and asexual are completely erased from the narrative of how sex is supposed to happen between cisgender men and cisgender women.
This narrative contributes to rape culture with the idea that a guy is only a “real man” if he has sex with women.
No, all men are not rapists. But all people can perpetuate rape culture.
You sure don’t have to be a rapist to participate in these social norms. They can come up as casually as joking with your friends about who is and isn’t living up to the sexual standard of manhood.
But these same ideas come up when men and people perceived as masculine are ignored as victims of rape because of the assumption that they’re “always up for” sex.
And when women and people perceived as feminine have their sex lives scrutinized and judged as “proof” that they might be lying about being raped.
No, all men are not rapists. But all people can perpetuate rape culture just by following society’s harmful status quo.
3. We’re not saying society explicitly promotes rape
We’ve got to talk about the idea that Western countries don’t have rape culture.
“But you live in the United States! Try going to the Middle East, that’s where the real rape culture is.”
I guess I understand what leads to this misconception. You encounter the words “rape” and “culture” side by side, and think that must mean a culture that explicitly supports sexual violence.
You point to horrendous examples of what women go through in other countries—and say that, in comparison, feminists in the US are just whining about “first world problems.”
In our society, gender roles are reinforced on a structural level—and the “first world problem” label gets applied to the subtle ways we uphold them.
It can all add up to teach her that her consent doesn’t matter.
Is our response to boys harassing girls just a “first world problem”? Parents often excuse this behavior by saying “boys will be boys,” and telling girls, “He’s doing it because he likes you.”
They’re not literally telling boys to grow up to be rapists, so you might think we shouldn’t worry about it.
Saying that rape culture is part of U.S. society is not the same as saying that everyone in our society is intentionally encouraging rape.
Many parents who say “boys will be boys” are just passing down what they were taught to believe about gender. They don’t realize that they could be unintentionally teaching toxic ideas about consent.
A girl growing up in the U.S. can encounter school dress codes that make her responsible for covering up her body so she doesn’t “distract” boys and men, media portraying stalking as “romance,” and her own parents telling her that harassment means a boy likes her.
None of these things specifically include the words “you deserve to be raped.” But it can all add up to teach her that her consent doesn’t matter.
And that message is part of why so many sexual assault survivors get blamed for violence against them—both by others and by themselves.
Rape should never happen—not even in Western countries. Saying that others have it worse is nothing more than a distraction from what’s happening here at home.
4. We’re not saying that you can never talk to women
Some men have reached pretty pessimistic conclusions after learning about the concept of rape culture.
They say, “I guess I’ll just never talk to any woman ever because feminists say that makes me a rapist!”
If you have this mindset, pause to make sure you understand what we’re really saying before you muzzle yourself in the presence of women.
Yes, we’re pointing out the potential harm of seemingly innocent interactions.
For instance, say you see a pretty woman reading a book in a park. She’s alone, and you find her attractive, so you say “hi” and ask for her name.
It’s a simple greeting. You don’t mean any harm, and it’s possible that you won’t cause any. Some women don’t mind being approached in public.
But regardless of how this particular moment goes, here’s the unfortunate truth that relates to it: Lots of women and non-binary people know what it’s like to have strangers (usually men) invade our space in public.
The woman you’re approaching might just want to read alone in a park.
We get comments on our appearance—including lewd catcalls from people claiming to give us “compliments,” and unsolicited “advice” about what we “shouldn’t wear.” We get stares, explicit gestures, groping, and flashing.
Sometimes we say “no”—and they don’t stop. Sometimes we try to be nice , hoping that will keep us safe—and they don’t stop.
Sometimes we ignore them, yell at them, say “I have a boyfriend,” change our walking routes, carry pepper spray, wear baggy clothing—try whatever it takes to simply exist in public without being objectified.
And oftentimes, none of it works. People violate our boundaries, threaten us, and even assault and kill us for saying “no.”
So sure, some of us don’t mind being approached. But the woman you’re approaching might just want to read alone in a park, and even a conversation with a stranger can remind her that she’s constantly being objectified.
A helpful change can be as simple as making sure you’re reading someone’s body language.
Because—while you know that your intentions are innocent—she doesn’t know who you are or how this greeting might escalate to annoy or harm her. After all of the objectification, if all she can think is that she can’t even read a book without yet another person bothering her, then can you really blame her?
To be clear, I’m not accusing you of rape or of intentionally contributing to rape culture just by saying “hi.” And addressing rape culture doesn’t mean that you can’t ever be friendly.
But it does mean being aware of the conditions that women and non-binary people are dealing with, and understanding why our boundaries are necessary to protect ourselves.
Because you know what else is part of rape culture? Saying that we must be “exaggerating” about our experiences, and believing we just have to put up with it because that’s what gender roles dictate.
A helpful change can be as simple as making sure you’re reading someone’s body language and respecting their boundaries, instead of feeling entitled to their time just because they appear to be a woman in public.
That’s not too much to ask, right?
Is any of this different from what you thought the rape culture conversation was about?
Recognizing the invisible strings behind toxic social norms can be difficult. But if you’re really open to finding proof of rape culture, keep in mind what this term really means, and you’ll understand how it shows up around you.
We all have the power to contribute something to changing these conditions.
While these issues are complicated, the message of fighting rape culture is really quite simple: We’re all learning some damaging lessons about consent, and we need to unlearn them and stop passing them on to others.
Boys and men are being dehumanized by the pressure to be raging sex machines.
Girls and women are learning that their bodies don’t belong to them.
Everyone else is being forced into these narrow gender boxes and punished for not conforming.
And too many of us are survivors dealing with the awful impact of sexual violence, and the shame and judgment that follows.
Can we agree that this is detrimental all around?
We all have the power to contribute something to changing these conditions. We can check ourselves, talk with our friends, and listen to survivors.
Collectively, we could all use some healing from the expectations that society puts on our backs.
Denying the existence of rape culture is just getting in the way. If you can get through the discomfort of facing these hard truths, then you can definitely do something to help stop sexual violence.