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Rape Culture Explained

Graphic from Ms. Magazine.

As someone who holds a degree in Women’s Studies, I’m often asked questions by people who want to learn more about feminism/feminists. With the recent media circus over the rape convictions of two high school students in the United States, I’ve decided that handing out some definitions of rape culture – the inquiry I most frequently receive – is pertinent.

Graphic from Ms. Magazine.

Graphic from Ms. Magazine.

So what is rape culture? Rape culture is…

  • National media outlets lamenting the end of two teens’ football careers instead of lamenting their decision to rape an incapacitated individual (i.e. the Steubenville case, in which a high school girl was brutally raped and some notable institutions expressed sympathy for her offenders)
  • Believing that a person’s incapacitation due to alcohol or drugs means that they are equally to blame for their victimization
  • Forgetting that consent is the presence of YES, not the absence of NO, and failing to distinguish between a consensual hookup and an assault
  • Treating another person’s body as a commodity
  • Codifying a definition of rape that only includes penis-vagina contact (way to go, FBI of the past 90 years)
  • Casually flinging the word “rape” around as an all-purpose expression for anything dis-pleasurable (i.e. “Man, that exam raped me.”)
  • Claiming that sex workers can’t be rape and/or women are the only people who can be raped
  • Believing, stating, implying, or suggesting that someone’s choice of clothes is to blame for their victimization
  • Making rape jokes or portraying rape as funny (the movie Wedding Crashers) and not calling someone else out for doing the same
  • Perpetuating the myth that rape is committed by strangers in dark alleys (73% of offenders are someone the victim knows; 66% of rapes occur in the home.)
  • Supporting cultural structures that demean, devalue, or dehumanize a portion of the population
  • Believing that prison rape is acceptable or not considering it rape at all
  • Claiming that rape can’t occur in intimate partnerships or marriage
  • Letting someone get away with the line, “But you’re so beautiful; I just can’t help myself”  in any context

Rape culture is a big deal, and it’s a global phenomenon. In some countries it’s codified in law; in others, it’s the pernicious remnants of more patriarchal times. Several religions perpetuate it. Loads of magazines, books, movies, and news outlets are so steeped in it you can’t imagine them without it.

What are some ways to change it? “Slowly” is one of the obvious answers, along with “patiently” and “diligently.” Beyond that, however, there are some concrete options for how to encourage a broader movement towards a culture of accountability and respect:

  • Recognize rape for what it is: a violent crime of power and control, not an uncontrollable expression of lust or love.
  • Know and affirm that anyone can be a victim of rape or sexual assault, regardless of sex, gender identity, body, profession, or age.
  • Hold an offender accountable for their choice to victimize another person.
  • Call people out on statements that depersonalize or demean or treat someone else like a commodity.
  • Acknowledge that rape jokes aren’t funny but horrifying, and stop telling them. Stop your peers from telling them too.
  • Broaden the vocabulary for unpleasant things (i.e. “That exam was abhorrent/abominable/horrendous!”).
  • Teach friends, students, clients, etc. to seek affirmative consent.
  • Intervene if you see someone trying to hook up with a person who is clearly incapable of giving consent.
  • Remind yourself and others that rape, like any other crime, is still a crime – a choice made by the offender – even if the victim was drunk or high.
  • Be nonjudgmental and supportive if a survivor confides in you, and advocate for them with police, lawmakers, and religious officials.
  • Respond when others – like media outlets, lately – perpetuate elements of rape culture. Hold them accountable.

I hope this is clarifying for those of you who were unfamiliar with the term “rape culture” and that it inspires everyone to keep advocating for change. No matter where you live or go, rape (and all forms of sexual violence) are unacceptable. Let’s work to put a stop to it.

Erica Laue
Erica first set foot on a plane when she was ten months old. 28 years, 18 countries, and four continents later, the travel bug’s still strong in her veins, and she's become increasingly engaged with issues of power, gender, sex, equality, and access around the world.

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