Strawmanning Rape Culture (Part One)

[Content note: sexual assault]

Rape culture is a very difficult concept for many people to understand, perhaps because, like many sociological constructs, it works in such a way as to make itself invisible. Understanding rape culture, especially if you are someone who isn’t affected by it very much, requires a keen attention to detail and a willingness to examine your own complicity in things you’d rather not believe that you’re complicit in.

For a great introduction to rape culture, read the Wikipedia page and this Shakesville piece. If you’re not familiar with it, read these things before you read this post, because this is not a 101-level post. Here’s another definition, from the book Transforming a Rape Culture, that may be useful (although you’ll notice that I’ll expand on it a bit later):

A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.

Many people hear about rape culture briefly, perhaps online or in a text assigned in a sociology or gender studies class, and don’t really read about or grasp the nuances of it. This makes it very easy to strawman the rape culture argument, to reduce it to clearly absurd and obviously inaccurate claims that are easy to strike down–and, crucially, that nobody who claims that rape culture exists ever made to begin with.

Here are some common strawman versions of rape culture, and why they are inaccurate.

“So you’re saying that people think rape is okay.”

When many people hear “rape culture,” they assume this is supposed to imply that we live in a society where people actually think rape is okay and/or good. That’s an easily falsifiable claim. After all, rape is illegal. We do, in some cases, punish people for committing it. If someone is known to be a rapist, that person’s reputation often takes a huge nosedive. We teach nowadays that “no means no.” People obviously resist being identified as rapists, and they wouldn’t resist it if it weren’t generally considered a bad thing to be.

So how could we really have a rape culture? More to the point, if people who say we live in a rape culture are not claiming that people literally think rape is okay, what exactly are we claiming?

One way rape gets shrugged off and thus accepted in our culture is by constantly shifting the goalposts of what rape is. If you flirted with someone, it’s not rape. If you had an orgasm, it’s not rape. If you dressed sluttily, it’s not rape. If you’re a sex worker, it’s not rape. If it was with your partner or spouse, it’s not rape. If you’re a prisoner, it’s not rape. If you’re fat or unattractive, it’s not rape (because you must’ve wanted it). If no penis was involved, it’s not rape. If you were unconscious, it’s not rape. The fact that we have politicians debating what is and is not “legitimate rape” is evidence that we do not consider all rape to be legitimate. And, unsurprisingly, studies show that people will admit to having committed sexual assault provided it’s not called “sexual assault” in the survey.

Another way rape gets excused is through victim blaming, which I’ll discuss a bit later. Even when we admit that what happened to someone is rape, we still often blame them for it, thus implying that, in some cases, rape isn’t really so wrong because the victim was “asking for it.”

One more related way in which rape gets excused is through claims that rapists (male rapists, generally) “can’t help themselves.” By framing rape as the inevitable result of masculinity, hormones, sexual tension, and so on, we’re implying that rape is a normal part of our society that we’re not going to do anything about. The hypocrisy of a society that pays lip service to the idea that rape is bad while also suggesting that in some cases it’s not “really” rape and in some cases it’s just what you’d expect and ultimately it’s inevitable anyway is emblematic of rape culture.

Remember, though, that some people do actually think rape is good and/or okay. Some men do openly admit to wanting to rape women, and even if they’re attempting to make a so-called “joke,” their choice of joke says a lot about their beliefs about rape.

“So you’re saying that without rape culture, there would be no more rape.”

People also misinterpret the rape culture argument as a claim that all rape is caused directly by rape culture. While some people probably do believe that there would be no rape in a society free from rape culture, I don’t. I think that rape culture drastically increases the prevalence of rape by encouraging attitudes that lead to it, reducing penalties for rapists, and making it more difficult for victims to speak out and seek justice.

Strawmanning the rape culture argument in this way makes it seem patently ridiculous. After all, we don’t claim that there’s a “car theft culture,” but people steal plenty of cars. We don’t wring our hands over “identity theft culture,” but lots and lots of people fall victim to identity theft. Same, unfortunately, with murder. So if you think we’re saying that rape culture is the entire reason rape exists as a phenomenon at all, it’s easy to refute that claim by pointing to other crimes, and also by pointing out that people often commit crimes because it gives them some sort of advantage.

If rape culture did not exist, rape would still exist, but things would look very different. Rape would be much rarer. When there is enough evidence to show that someone committed rape, that person will go to jail. Although there may still a bit of stigma surrounding being a rape victim, that stigma will not be any greater than it is for being the victim of any other crime (right now, it’s much greater). Rape would not constantly be threatened and used as “punishment” for being queer, for being a woman who speaks out, and so on. There will still be researchers trying to understand what causes people to become rapists and activists trying to stop them from doing so, but the key difference will be that when someone gets raped, we’ll ask more questions about the person who raped them than about the person who was raped. We’ll ask what led the rapist to do such a thing, not what led the victim to be so careless.

“So you’re saying that the fact that a given crime exists means that ‘[crime] culture’ exists. Why isn’t there a murder culture, then, huh?!”

Closely related to the previous one. The existence of a given type of crime is not sufficient to show that a “culture” exists that encourages and excuses that crime. The reason there is a rape culture but not a murder culture is because, overall, our culture does not claim that murder is acceptable, okay, inevitable, or even commendable in certain cases. Are there individual people who believe this about murder? Certainly. But for the most part, these people lack institutional backing. Police officers and judges and jury members are not constantly going on record saying that, well, it wasn’t really murder in this case, or the victim’s past behavior suggests they have a tendency to lie about these things

It’s still absolutely reasonable to say that we have a problem with murder or theft or [other crime] in our society without having to make the claim that a [crime] culture exists. These crimes do have sociological causes, not just individual ones. Economic inequality, for instance, tends to contribute a lot to these types of crimes; they are not simply personal failings as we often dismiss them to be.

Culturally, however, rape gets a lot more support and excuses than theft or murder do. Victims of rape are blamed to a greater extent than victims of any other crime; and not only that, but that blame is used by people in positions of authority to avoid finding, trying, and sentencing the rapist.

The second half of this post will be up tomorrow. If you have more strawmans to add in the comments, try to hold on to them until that post comes out and you see the rest of them.