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.