Rape Culture: What It Is and What It Isn’t

It was evening, around 7pm, so not too late. But it was winter, so it was dark. We stopped at a store, and my husband went in to purchase something with one of my boys. My other boy stayed in the car with me. 

A truck with several guys pulled into the parking lot near my car, and my mind began to race. 

What will I do if they come to the car? How will I protect myself? How will I protect my son? There’s an umbrella on the floor, maybe I could use that. I could offer myself to save my son. If I did that, would it still be considered rape, or would it be considered consent? It doesn’t matter, I’d do whatever I needed to in order to protect him. 

The men went into the store, made their purchases, and left. 

No, not all men are rapists. 

Yes, all women live in a culture where we have to be on guard. 

Perhaps, anxiety was getting the better of me that day, but I don’t think that is the case. I, along with every other woman I know, have been taught to be on guard—particularly in dark places—because of the culture we live in.

It’s a culture where a boy in my middle school can push a girl against a brick wall behind a movie theater and say, “I could rape you right now if I wanted to.”

It’s a culture where I can say, “It hurts” while having sex for the first time, and the guy feels totally justified saying, “We have to finish.” And I believe him.

It’s a culture where Brock Turner can get a six month sentence, of which he only served three, because we wouldn’t want to ruin his swimming career by actually giving him a fair sentence for raping an unconscious girl behind a dumpster. It’s a culture where the news articles about the case feel the need to highlight his swimming accomplishments.

It’s a culture where teen girls get sexually assaulted or raped by high school sports stars and the town turns against them. Where they feel like suicide is the only way out. Where boys are taught to view girls as sexual conquests. All of this is highlighted in Netflix’s documentary Audrie and Daisy:

It’s an extreme fundamentalist Christian culture where Bible verses are misused and taken out of context to convince women they are to be submissive to their husbands in ALL things, and never say to no to sex.

The term rape culture sometimes garners stronger negative reactions than rape itself. When I searched “What is rape culture” on YouTube, more videos came up arguing that it doesn’t exist than explaining what it is. It’s often dismissed as something the feminists made up in the 1970s. 

I’m not surprised by this. If we admit that we live in a rape culture, we might have to take a look at how our own actions perpetuate and contribute to that culture. It’s also easy to say that most people are against rape, so we can’t live in a rape culture. But it’s not quite that simple. 

Sure, most people would say that they are appalled by rape, but do our words, actions, beliefs, and societal norms actually reflect that?

The Oxford Dictionary defines rape culture as “A society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse.”

Do our prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse?

The statistical and anecdotal evidence says, “yes.” And we’ll explore both of those more throughout this series.

Rape culture is not:

  • a belief that all men are rapists.
  • parades in the street when someone gets raped.
  • necessarily an outward celebration of rape (though in some parts of the world it is).

Rape culture is:

  • the reality that all women are potential rape victims, with 1 in 5 being raped in their life times.
  • blaming the victim.
  • objectifying women.
  • teaching girls to dress modestly because boys cannot control themselves,
  • which then teaches boys they are not responsible for their actions.
  • teaching girls how to protect themselves without also teaching boys not to rape.
  • assuming women who’ve been raped are lying.
  • men viewing women as sexual conquests.
  • dismissing bragging about sexual assault as “locker room talk.”
  • electing a person who bragged about sexual assault to be the leader of the free world.
  • viewing women as primarily existing for sex (for pleasure or procreation).

Over the next couple of weeks we will look at what contributes to rape culture, how we may be unintentionally contributing to it, and what we can do about it.

One more thing. I know you know what consent is, but for the people you’re going to share this with who think it’s totally cool to force sex on someone who is unconscious or who said yes and then changed their minds, or who said yes last week, here is an amazing video comparing consent to tea: