My boyfriend is confused about the concept of rape culture, which means I need to explain what rape culture is. Again.
For what it’s worth I don’t think it’s necessarily good to use the word “rape culture,” because people who aren’t feminists tend to respond to the word by saying “…but rape is illegal in our culture, everyone hates rape!” and then wander off assuming that feminists are rape-obsessed and probably hate sex.
According to very respectable national research done by the American government, about 18% of women and 6% of men are raped over the course of their lifetimes. According to peer-reviewed psychological research, between 6% and 13% of men have committed rape. (As far as I’m aware no one has done similar research on female rapists.) That is a lot of rape.
Rape is also a really big problem. For instance, let’s take PTSD rate as a proxy for severity of trauma. Rape survivors have a higher PTSD rate than combat veterans, which suggests that being raped is actually more traumatizing than fucking combat.
Rape culture is the term for “the cultural forces that make the rape rate so fucking high.”
Why Rapists Rape
Nearly all the evidence about why (male) rapists rape is correlational– “huh, rapists seem to have Trait Y more than the general population, let’s try to reduce that.” (This blog post is a pretty good summary of the research. Yes, I could really replace this entire blog post with “go read the Yes Means Yes archives.”)
Rapists are more misogynistic than non-rapists (angrier at women, more likely to want to control them); therefore we stigmatize the hell out of misogyny, particularly those forms (like the treatment of women as machines that you get sexual gratification from) that seem likely to lead to rape. Rapists tend to have “toxic masculinity” traits such as lack of empathy, impulsiveness, and antisociality; therefore we advocate for a wider definition of masculinity. (I am not aware of research on how these apply to female or queer rapists because people tend to totally ignore female and queer rapists.)
Rapists are more likely to have rape-supportive beliefs, like “if a girl is raped when she’s drunk it’s at least a little her fault for letting things get out of hand” and “guys don’t intend to force sex on a girl, but sometimes they get a little carried away” and (presumably, there has not been research on this one) “if a man gets hard he’s consenting.” That is why we’re against victim-blaming: not just because it’s horrible to survivors (which, Jesus, isn’t that enough of a reason?), but because rapists believe victim-blaming ideas and it is reasonable to believe this is a causative factor in rape.
Rapists tend to test boundaries to see what people will assert them and what people will give in. There’s this whole idea that women need to be polite and kind and not make a fuss when their boundaries are violated, until they’re raped, at which point it’s “why didn’t you fight back? Why didn’t you say no loud enough?” (The linked Fugitivus post, btw, was my click moment about rape culture.) A lot of people also seem to have difficulty with the concept that men get boundaries at all. Therefore, feminists need to assert that boundaries matter and they matter everywhere– not just during sex, but during kissing and hugs and cuddling and tickling and conversation and what food you fucking eat. And that if someone does not respect your boundaries, they are not a good person and it is perfectly reasonable to be pissed.
Rapists tend to believe that their behavior is normal: that most men commit rape, or want to. That’s why we’re against things that normalize rape, including most rape jokes. Because Pat Not-A-Rapist thinks the joke is funny because haha it’s so absurd that anyone would think they and their friends are rapists, and Robin Rapist thinks it’s funny because that’s how they think the world actually works.
After a Rape
I have a friend who was raped fairly recently at our nice liberal-arts college full of hairy-legged feminists and dirty hippies. (I have her permission to tell this story.) She reflected that the worst part wasn’t the rape– it was that she can’t be friends with anyone who’s friends with her rapist anymore. They might invite him over to hang out and, well, if she told anyone that she was raped– even just to say “so please don’t invite my rapist over while we’re hanging out”– it would instantly spread everywhere and turn into a referendum about whether she was a lying whore.
See, everyone believes that rapists are evil! Rapists are horrible monsters. They probably have fangs or something. It’s just that people don’t like considering their friends horrible evil monsters. So a lot of people are going to hear “your friend raped me” and respond with “it was probably a misunderstanding” or “you just regretted it the next day” or “you’re a lying whore.”
This means that a lot of rapists experience no negative consequences for their rape whatsoever. It means that repeat rapists– who commit most rapes– continue to have access to a social group where they can rape people. It means that rape survivors don’t get the support they need.
This is why feminists are dicks about affirmative consent (other than the boundary stuff above). Because if the norm is “you don’t have sex with someone who doesn’t obviously want to have sex,” people cannot be like “well my friend probably just misunderstood the situation” and justify the commission of rape. Because we are the 95%, we are capable of telling when our partner does and does not want sex, we are not rapists, and we should not be giving social cover to rapists.
–A related but distinct kind of social cover for rapists, which I would be remiss to end the post without mentioning, is that of prison rape. A lot of people seem to accept that rape is a reasonable punishment for crime, which makes it harder to get political will to end prison rape. Some people even seem to believe that rape is a reasonable punishment for rape, which you would think would lead to this weird recursive thing where rapists are raped by people who are now rapists and have to be raped, and so on and so forth ad infinitem.
(I’m kind of dodging the justice system issue here, because I’m not a legal expert, and because while our justice system often treats rape survivors horribly it’s hard to imagine a justice system that simultaneously protects the mental health of the survivor and the rights of the accused. Anyway, we are not going to lock up ten percent or so of the male population. The solution to rape culture has to be a cultural change, not a legal change.)
Because it is apparently necessary that I link to every post on Yes Means Yes, I want to signal-boost this as a really good case study of rape culture in a particular community– namely, the BDSM community. The BDSM community is a really interesting group to look at because it’s about sex, so a lot of the dynamics that are hidden in other communities are out in the open.
So What Do I Do?
- Don’t rape people. Okay, this shit is obvious, but I feel like it needs to be said anyway.
- Respect people’s “no.” All the time. For everything. Without fussing about it.
- Don’t say “no” when you don’t mean “no.” Again, I can’t believe I have to say this, but apparently some people are going about saying “no” when they don’t mean it and then everyone else is like “women! Sometimes they say no, but they don’t mean no, therefore I am totally justified in having sex with people who have said no!” So seriously, if you pull that shit, stop ruining it for everyone else. (You can do rape play if you want, but use a safeword.)
- “Ask before touching people” is a really really good social norm. So is “ask before sex.” (I know this is stigmatized in some social groups– which is horrible and rape-culturey itself. But it’s still a good thing to do.)
- Make it clear that you are part of the vast majority of people who are not rapists and that violating people’s consent, victim-blaming, misogyny, and so on are Not Okay. You do not have to lecture people about rape culture– I mean, I do, but that’s less anti-rape activism and more being a boring one-trick pony. But you can be like “dude not cool” when someone talks about how funny prison rape is or about getting women drunk to have sex with them.
- Check in and, if necessary, rescue people if it looks like something skeezy or abusive is happening. (Examples of “skeezy or abusive”: person looks creeped out; one person is getting another person very drunk; someone has said “no” and the other person is trying to get them to do a thing anyway)
- Believe survivors. I know, I know, some unknown (but small!) percentage of accusations of rape are false rape accusations. But like. It is not that hard to not invite a survivor and the person they accused to the same party, or to keep an eye on people accused of rape to see if they seem to be repeating it, or to provide support to a survivor, or to bluntly talk to someone about their behavior. And if someone has been accused of rape multiple times or has a history of being a gigantic boundary-violating creeper… seriously, you don’t have to be “innocent until proven guilty” on being friends with someone. Not being invited to parties is not a goddamned death sentence.
I mean. Nearly everything on this list is stuff that people I know– even people who aren’t super-aware of rape culture– do anyway, because they’re not douchebags and they’re not rapists. Because… really if there’s one takeaway point here, it’s that we are not rapists, we don’t approve of rape, and we need to stop fucking acting like we do.