What is "Rape Culture"?

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When I first encountered the term “rape culture” I was put off by it. I’ve lived in and directly studied, and indirectly studied through the literature, a wide range of cultures around the world, and there is a great range of variation in prevalence of and attitudes about rape. Now and then there emerge circumstances in which rape becomes extremely common. It has been said that for a period of time during the Second Congo War rape accounted for nearly 100% of the intercourse, babies, and of course, violent deaths of women, in certain regions. I was concerned that the term “rape culture” applied in the US watered down consideration of the more severe end of this distribution.

It did not take long, however, for me to realize this was a rather bone-headed way of looking at it. For one thing, the actual definitions of rape culture in use do not in any way limit its application to those extreme and horrific cases. Also, culture is complex. We tend to collect data, make generalizations, and see solutions at societal levels such as entire nations or even continents, not at the level of “cultures” which are, in any event, edge-less complex interconnected entities despite the common use of the shorthand term (“culture”). The elements of rape culture can be in place in a country or region where rape is more rare, or more common.

An excellent definition of rape culture is provided by Marshall University’s Women’s Center:

Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.

Rape Culture affects every woman. The rape of one woman is a degradation, terror, and limitation to all women. Most women and girls limit their behavior because of the existence of rape. Most women and girls live in fear of rape. Men, in general, do not. That’s how rape functions as a powerful means by which the whole female population is held in a subordinate position to the whole male population, even though many men don’t rape, and many women are never victims of rape. This cycle of fear is the legacy of Rape Culture.

The same web page goes on to provide examples (i.e., blaming the victim, tolerating sexual harassment, inflating false rape report statistics, and so on) and also provides a few tips to combat it (changes in language, social engagement, critical thinking, respect, etc.).

Rape culture is a thing, and it applies in the US. The fact that it probably actually applies everywhere (Do you know of any exceptions? If so please elaborate in the comments below!) does not actually water down the definition but rather, exposes the underpinnings of rape culture as a human-wide problem. This indicates it either stems from the basic evolutionary biology of humans or ubiquitous common cultural features of human societies (such as a self perpetuating patriarchy) or, more likely, a causal structure that exists independently of our post hoc notions of nature and nurture.

Politically, rape culture has another meaning; it is a touchstone to the inimical false debate between so-called “Mens Rights Advocates” and basic humanistic, including feminist, values. To get a feel for this check out the definition of “Rape Culture” in Wikipedia, and scroll down to the “Criticisms” section.

The Criticisms section sites Caroline Kitchen’s ironically titled opinion piece “Its Time to End ‘Rape Culture’ Hysteria.” Kitchensi is a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, a right wing “think” tank which is exactly where I would look to find a female willing to fill stinky shoes of a Men’s Rights Advocate for the purpose of toning down public discourse on rape. The section also brings in the critique by Christina Sommers, libertarian anti-feminist. And so on. I’m not claiming here that these criticisms are invalid or should not be heard (though I quickly add that I disagree with them). I’m just pointing out that the use of “rape culture” invokes the MRA counter-argument (to almost everything) as its main counter-point. This is what we see in many other areas of public discourse as well. If the main critique of a new study on anthropogenic global warming comes from other climate scientists that’s one thing. If the main critique comes from the usual cadre of science denialists many in the employee directly or indirectly of the petroleum and coal industries, that’s another thing. The litany of critiques of the “rape culture” idea in the seemingly well updated entry in Wikipedia comes from the usual suspects, not from within the sociological or anthropological, or even criminological, communities where spirited debate about almost everything is the norm. This does not prove anything but it is a clue.

One could argue that “rape culture” has become a dog whistle for feminism, or even a particular brand of feminism. That might actually be true. But any concept that tries to link cultural context to appropriately scrutinized individual behaviors is going to get dog whistled by the opposition.

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21 thoughts on “What is "Rape Culture"?

  1. I am male, which means there’s an argument to be made that I shouldn’t have much voice in this debate. I’m also a rape victim, which means I don’t much care about that argument. I understand the principle behind the “rape culture” arguments. I just don’t think that it’s a constructive way to frame the problem, for a couple of reasons.

    I lock the doors of my house and arm my security system even though the odds I would be burglarized in a gentrified suburban neighborhood are extremely low. I behave in dozens of ways, every day, that arise from the desire to avoid being the victim of crimes that I would probably never be the victim of even were I to behave differently. I am not alone in this; I think most people do. Women are more likely to be victims of rape, and — more importantly — they are vastly more likely to consider themselves potential victims of rape, so they shoulder the disproportionate burden of acting in ways perceived to prevent rape. But to some extent, I wonder if that’s not merely a facet of the wider cultural expectation that we all act to mitigate the chance of being the victim of crime, even when the actions we take are disproportionate to the odds of victimization. We surely have a “crime culture”, but is that bad, or are rape-avoidance (and, indeed, crime-avoidance) strategies simply prudential behavior? To put that another way, is the man who does not take precautions to avoid (probably male-on-male) rape the irrational societal actor?

    I also wonder if the “rape culture” argument is self-perpetuating. We teach women (mostly) to be terrified of rape, especially stranger rape — and don’t get me wrong, I know firsthand that it is a horrible and traumatizing crime. But stranger rape is the rarest variant of the crime. And because rape is a crime of power, not passion, to a certain extent, rapists can benefit from a fearful populace. Is the precaution worsening the problem, or at least creating another problem to compound the issue? I see parallels to the “stranger danger” child safety campaigns; I don’t know whether a generation of such mottos has made an impact on child abductions (although I doubt it), but I’m pretty sure it’s contributed to an environment where I’ve never known the names of any of my neighbors in my adult life.

    Regardless, I do want to make it clear. I’m a male rape victim, but I’m not any more fan of the MRA movement people than anyone else sane. I do think that male-victim rape (which is, admittedly, mostly male-on-male) is vastly, critically under-reported. Every awful story about how rape victims are treated is aggressively worse for a man (or at least was that way for me) — from the cops assigned to the investigation making gay jokes at my expense to being thrown out of two rape support groups (indeed, the sponsoring organization of the second rape support group I tried to attend had neglected to inform the participants that they would have a male attendee, and one woman called the police on me when I walked in…). It happens to men less, but it does happen to men, and we’re even less likely to do something about it (but then we’re also very unlikely to engage in behavioral changes to prevent it).

    For the record, there was absolutely no question who the rapist was in my case. He was arrested less than six hours later. However, the case never went to trial, and the only punishment he received was the couple of nights he spend locked up before he bailed out. The prosecutor informed me that the case would be very difficult, because, in his words, it was “dubious” than a jury would believe that he would have been capable of physically overpowering me (hint: surprise counts for a lot), and the trial experience would likely be extremely traumatic since the defense was going to attempt to argue that it was consensual sex and make a “theory” of my purported homosexuality a matter of legal record in my very conservative red-state environment. So, yeah, good times.

    Rape is a problem. I don’t know how to “end rape” any more than I could end any other category of crime. I just don’t think the “rape culture” sociology approach is the right way to address that problem.

  2. You state:
    “Rape culture is a thing, and it applies in the US. The fact that it probably actually applies everywhere (Do you know of any exceptions? If so please elaborate in the comments below!) ”

    If something is universal it can hardly be classified as cultural…

    1. JD:
      A common misconception … continue reading to my perhaps too vague reference to nature/nurture. There are no typical human behaviors that exist in the absence of the culture in which the human was embedded since birth. There are no behaviors, universal or otherwise, that are not derived from enculturation. That’s a given and is not in dispute. The question often brought up is if any genetic variation explains the surface behavioral variation, and so far little evidence for such a thing has emerged.

  3. Isn’t claiming that RAINN is wrong about rape culture and the causes of rape, pretty much the same as saying NASA is wrong about global warming?

    Maybe, must maybe, the full-time-dedicated 24/7 experts have better criminological data at hand than the keyboard warriors.

    Also, while I am not an MRA, the constant invocation of them as being behind any possible rejoinders / critiques of some versions and definitions of rape culture smacks of epistemic closure.

  4. TTT: I don’t think anyone is saying RAINN is all wrong about rape. The concern here is only over the “rape culture” phraseology. I personally suspect they are avoiding using the term or diffusing the term because it has been forced into dog whistle status.

  5. Greg: possibly. There’s also the issue that, when it comes to actually working with and trying to heal victims of such crimes, a focus on “macro” issues doesn’t speak to them individually or ease their fears. Survivors benefit through therapeutic techniques that anchor the crime at a specific circumstance – an incident, an age range, a house, a relationship. Something finite. They see that they were helpless and powerless during that circumstance, but that the circumstance is over and it is highly unlikely they would be so powerless again. That is a core message allowing people to move forward. But if you tell them an overwhelming causal feature was culture, then they’re just as much immersed in that culture as ever and where can they expect to go from there?

    You don’t tell a mugging victim that it happened because of poverty, even if from a birds-eye view it DID, because there’s so much poverty in the world they’d never feel safe again. Moreso.

  6. That is a valid point and should be, and I think is, part of the discussion and the approach.

    But there are benefits to identifying and acknowledging the rape culture concept. This is a society-wide syndrome with characteristics that make victimization more likely and that can be addressed at the society level. In other words, not addressing the macro level tells the victim “sorry that happened but we’re not really addressing the larger problem” at least as much as it may incorrectly imply “shit happens/boys will be boys.”

    Believe it or not there is an argument in Minnesota (among commenters on news sites only AFAIK) about whether or not guard rails should be installed along parts of the highway where fatal accidents occurred that would likely have been avoided had there been one in place. Not sure why that comes to mind right now…

    1. There are all kinds of problems with all of the data. Consider this, though. The BJS document says that “Completed rape or sexual assault accounted for more than 50% of the total rape or sexual violent victimizations in 2010” Also, “In 2005-10, about 80% of female rape or sexual assault victims treated for injuries received care in a hospital, doctor’s office, or emergency room, compared to 65% in
      1994-98” Those are very high numbers, strongly suggesting a much larger number of events that are not in that category. In other words, a huge amount of this is clearly not being reported at all. The problem with the numbers is getting at that non-reported number. Non-reported does not mean it didn’t happen. You can regard that report as a very minimal baseline.

      Also, the changes over time in those numbers is dramatic. I strongly suspect that those changes are artifacts of the data collection, definitions (across jurisdictions), and reporting levels.

  7. A few years ago I served as a juror on a capital rape-murder trail. It was a horrendous crime. We the jury voted to send a man to prison for life. However, “Defining ‘manhood’ as dominant and aggressive” is not the same as rape (or endorsing rape). In my trial, the defendant was not some macho-Hemingway-spouting-drunk-frat-boy-sports-star. The man raped and murdered a pretty college student because he was a meek, powerless loser.

  8. I am sorry, but the notion of a ‘rape culture’ is absurd in relation to the US. The oft cited studies that report 1 in 5 or 1 in 4 numbers are all beset by huge methodological inconsistencies. On the other hand, FBI crime statistics show a drop in the prevalence of rape over the past 40 years. Finally, the notion that ‘rape’ is culturally acceptable goes against the experience of almost all people in most countries . . . only at the point of social breakdown (the Congo, for example) does anything resembling a ‘rape culture’ emerge. In this post you are pandering to feminists who will harass you otherwise because they are committed to advancing this talking point. The fact that you caved to them shows the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of sociology and the other social sciences.

    1. Actually, I’ve never had any of my fellow feminists harass me. When I have written about rape, negatively, I’ve been extensively harassed by Men’s Rights Movement activists. Even when I moved on to focus on other topics they continued to harass me. Speaking out against rape is apparently unforgivable. That is something one might expect in a “rape culture”.

      The validity of the term “rape culture” needs to be understood in relation to what is meant by it. As discussed in the post. Your argument that I am only say what I say in the post out of fear of feminists is incorrect, and not a very convincing point. The methodological problems are potentially important but citing that rape is poorly measured is actually supportive of the rape culture idea because those measurement difficulties stem largely from rape culture. Also, I’m not sure how you can dismiss the statistics and then cite uncritically statistics indicating a change in rates.

      So, no, not really.

  9. “The methodological problems are potentially important but citing that rape is poorly measured is actually supportive of the rape culture idea because those measurement difficulties stem largely from rape culture.”

    In other words, the problem is so big that it has succeeded at suppressing evidence of its own existence, thus proving it exists and is big? Haven’t you faced down that exact same line of reasoning from a hundred different branches of conspiracy theorists (especially the 9/11Truthers)? Monocausalism is equally dangerous even when invoked by the goodguys, I do hope you can see that.

    Serious question: what is there about the term and concept of “rape culture” that would not apply to a term and concept of “crime culture”? Because it looks to me like all of the factors cited as evidence for rape culture (victim blaming, minimizing the damage, normalizing that people should live in fear, lax investigations, and morally inappropriate defenses of the accused perpetrators) really apply to nearly every other category of violence you can think of. Violence is a constant in human society and it takes conscious effort to stop normalizing it when done by one’s own “side.”

    Society glorifies criminals and hates victims. We love strong winners and hate weak losers; we make celebrity entertainment out of criminals and leave their victims unnamed asterisks. “The Godfather,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Grand Theft Auto.” Victims of mugging, of identity theft, of home invasion, assault and battery, are just as humiliated and can just as likely be grilled with “Why didn’t you know better, fight back harder?”

    And need I even mention the dozens of mass shootings, including school shootings, which our entire government and many in our media have treated as nothing worth special intervention? Encouraging schools to prepare for armed assault with armed guards, bulletproof backpacks, and shaming the students at Virginia Tech who hid under desks instead of rushing the gunman (the perspective of more than one syndicated pundit) are all symptoms of “crime culture.”

    It is a basic, ugly part of human psychology – we want to see ourselves as strong, not as weak, and when society sees someone who has been victimized they are mistreated and disregarded. Why not call it a “crime culture” or a “violence culture”? Why suggest that rape and rape alone is less illegal or more enabled by craven human emotional biases against victims of all stripes?

  10. CLARIFICATION: Victims of home invasions, assault & battery, etc., are “just as humiliated” by clueless anti-victim grilling from society at large. They are not “just as humiliated” by the crimes themselves, which, psychologically, do not equal rape.

  11. Ttt, we recognize the biases in addressing rape specifically by comparing how it is treated to other crimes, so no on that, but see below.

    I see the parallel between the argument that poor reporting is evidence and the argument that the greatest accomplishment of Satan, or dick Cheney, etc, is convincing the world they are not real. But your argument that I am wrong relies on the slippery slope fallacy. My point is still valid and the dynamic of under reporting is recognized, the object of scholarly study, and real. So no there too.

    However you may be on to something in that other areas of violent crime are addressed in a biased way, like gun crimes. “Gun Culture” seems to be a thing.

  12. I don’t know anything about the situation at all. I only remember it coming up in comment threads from people who had previously explained why being accused of rape is worse than being rape, so I haven’t found the sources for the information, particularly credible. If it’s coming up often enough that you are repeatedly explaining what happened, then maybe it makes sense to have a blog post you can link people to. Again, not knowing the details of the situation, I can’t even begin to guess what the outcome of posting about it would be, but that’s my 2?.

  13. I just wanted to say, as a radical feminist, THANK YOU, for all your writings on rape. Really appreciate someone out there telling the truth.

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