“Rape is caused not by cultural factors”

RAINN,  the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, wrote a letter to a new White House task force charged with creating a plan to reduce rape on college campuses. The letter includes what seems to me to be a strikingly bad piece of advice.

In 16 pages of recommendations, RAINN urged the task focus to remain focused on the true cause of the problem. “In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming “rape culture” for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses. While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime,” said the letter to the task force from RAINN’s president, Scott Berkowitz, and vice president for public policy, Rebecca O’Connor.

Excuse me?

Nobody blames rape culture in the sense of thinking rape culture does the raping. Nobody needs to be told it’s individual people who do the raping. But what motivates them to do that, besides just wanting to fuck someone? What motivates them to do it and encourages them to think it’s ok and that they’ll get away with it? What fails to demotivate them? What is it that fails to cause them to prefer not to do that to their fellow students, their fellow humans? What is it that blocks what should be a fairly normal inhibition on assaulting people?

This phrase for instance doesn’t even make sense – “Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions” – how can conscious decisions not be caused by (among other things) cultural factors? They can’t. People aren’t raised by wolves. Everything we do is caused by cultural factors (along with other factors), because we are in culture, and we can’t get out of it. We’re in culture the way fish are in water. Conscious decisions are shaped by the culture we make them in.

And if RAINN really thinks that culture has no bearing on ideas about women and men, gender and equality, power and hierarchy, who gets to take and who gets to get taken, and the conscious decisions that are influenced by all that – well then RAINN is in the wrong line of work.



  1. qwints says

    How do you respond to this from the letter:

    As Dr. Lisak has noted, we can benefit from decades’ of sex offender treatment work, which supports that it is all but impossible to reprogram a serial offender with a simple prevention message.

    We believe that the most effective — the primary —way to prevent sexual violence is to use the criminal justice system to take more rapists off the streets. Stopping a rapist early in his or her career can prevent countless future rapes.

    RAINN seems to be explicitly saying that interventions at the college level do not shape the conscious decisions of the “3-7%” of men who are responsible for most rapes.

  2. says

    What! RAINN are parroting anti-feminist talking points in official reports … A strawman of what is meant by rape culture so bad that Thunderf00t would be proud.
    Who the hell are “Scott Berkowitz, and vice president for public policy, Rebecca O’Connor.”?

  3. Chris J says

    Here’s the excerpt from the recomendations after the quoted paragraph.

    While that may seem an obvious point [that individuals cause rape], it has tended to get lost in recent debates. This has led to an inclination to focus on particular segments of the student population (e.g., athletes), particular aspects of campus culture (e.g., the Greek system), or traits that are common in many millions of law-abiding Americans (e.g., “masculinity”), rather than on the subpopulation at fault: those who choose to commit rape. This trend has the paradoxical effect of making it harder to stop sexual violence, since it removes the focus from the individual at fault, and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions.

    By the time they reach college, most students have been exposed to 18 years of prevention messages, in one form or another. Thanks to repeated messages from parents, religious leaders, teachers, coaches, the media and, yes, the culture at large, the overwhelming majority of these young adults have learned right from wrong, and enter college knowing that rape falls squarely in the latter category.

    Taking into account cited statistics about how a very small population is responsible for the majority of rapes, they seem to have concluded that focusing on culture masks individuals by implicating everyone rather than just the guilty.

    First off, I disagree with the second paragraph. I went to a pretty posh high school; even there among pretty intelligent guys there were still terribly unhealthy attitudes towards women. Ask someone if drugging someone and raping them was wrong and of course they would agree it was, but ask about less dramatic things like consent and I doubt they’d do as well. Hell, I doubt I would have done as well a number of years ago.

    The overall point, however, I can only take as misguided. Rape Culture doesn’t mean there are a lot of rapists, and it doesn’t mean a lot of people think rape is ok. It means that there’s a general attitude towards sex and sexuality and gender that allows rapists to flourish. Blaming the victim and defending the accused rapist as a default, tossing up your hands and saying “criminals will be criminals” when asked to do anything, role-modelling sex as something taken by men and given by women rather than something shared.

    Here are RAINN’s suggestions for reducing rape on school campuses:

    RAINN recommends a three-tiered approach when it comes to preventing sexual violence on college campuses. A prevention campaign should include the following elements:
    1. Bystander intervention education: empowering community members to act in response to acts of sexual violence.
    2. Risk-reduction messaging: empowering members of the community to take steps to increase their personal safety.
    3. General education to promote understanding of the law, particularly as it relates to the ability to consent.

    #2 seems like more of the same victim-blamey bullshit that has already failed to do much, and RAINN admits as much in the description. While they admit that it is a “sensitive topic” and are clear to say they aren’t “victim blaming,” they also don’t actually say anything that would positively differentiate their suggestion from victim blaming. Ugh.

    But anyway, #1 and #3, and indeed the rest of the suggestions in the document, all could be seen as implementing systems necessary to change the culture. When schools take punishment of rape seriously and don’t give “ceremonial punishments” through internal judiciary committees, that sends the message that rape is just like any other serious crime. That helps! So I guess I don’t understand why they seem to think that culture should be considered irrelevant. Like you said, Ophelia, individual actions are intrinsically tied up in the culture. Education about the law and about consent and instituting new systems to deal with rape, likewise, will affect the culture while dealing with the individuals.

  4. says

    1. Bystander intervention education: empowering community members to act in response to acts of sexual violence.

    Wait ’till the NRA sees that …

  5. Stacy says

    @qwints #1

    RAINN seems to be explicitly saying that interventions at the college level do not shape the conscious decisions of the “3-7%” of men who are responsible for most rapes.

    I think they’re saying that such interventions don’t help with serial offenders. And they are likely right: most serial offenders–or at least the sort of serial offenders who are most likely to land in jail–are probably sociopaths, and thus not likely to respond to education about consent. They just don’t care.

    But not all rapes are committed by sociopathic serial offenders.* Intervention is aimed at ordinary young people who aren’t clear on the concept of consent. Remember Whoopie Goldberg’s comment about what Roman Polanski did to that thirteen year old girl–“It wasn’t rape rape”?

    Intervention is also aimed at changing the attitudes of people besides potential rapists. I’m all for getting serial offenders off the streets, but suspicion and hyperskepticism towards victims, stereotypical notions of what is “rape rape” and what is “boys will be boys” or “she went back to his room so she must have wanted it” can interfere with that. We need better education for the public so that rapists–including the ones unresponsive to intervention–have fewer excuses, fewer ways to hide. And we need better education for criminal justice workers (and future criminal justice workers–they go to college, too,) so we can get more rapists off the street.

    * Are “most rapes” committed by them? Or just the ones that make the news and scare the parents; the rapes that the police take seriously, the “rape rapes? I don’t know. Does RAINN know?

  6. qwints says

    @Stacy, I don’t know. Here are the studies RAINN cites for the proposition that most rapes are committed by 3-7% of men who are repeat offenders:

    Greenfield, L.A. Sex Offenses and Offenders: An Analysis of Data on Rape and Sexual Assault, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1997.

    Lisak, D. & Miller, P.M., 2002. “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists.” Violence and Victims 17(1), 73-84.

    I think Chris is basically right that RAINN is misguided in its dismissal of the idea of rape culture because its proposals are set up to combat rape culture. I think they are trying to make the point that men aren’t accidentally or mistakenly raping people because of misguide social norms. That’s obviously not a point that the feminist community has any confusion over, but it is a point that some in the general population might (ironically, a mistaken belief that is itself part of rape culture.)

    I’ve seen the studies reported on FTB and elsewhere that say men aren’t misunderstanding negative social cues, that men are actively targeting intoxicated women, and that men use complex strategies to socially isolate their victims.

  7. mesh says

    Such a naively simplistic view of the “conscious decisions…to commit a violent crime” completely detached from the “systemic barriers to addressing the problem” does not fill me with confidence. Seriously, we’re not talking about cartoon villains that wake up in the morning, twirl their handlebar mustaches, and go, “Hmmm, what evil shall I commit today?”; we’re talking about human beings capable of employing well-understood psychological processes to carve moral exemptions for themselves and others immersed in cultural ideals that grant certain behaviors social approval. To dismiss the environment as irrelevant to the “simple fact” is to miss the forest for the trees; the barriers are themselves part of the problem!

    What good does it do to “empower” a community that is conditioned to vilify the victims of rape as lying whores? What good is “risk-reduction messaging” that doesn’t address the central problem and instead becomes a way to blame the victims? What good does it do to “promote understanding of the law” if one’s first question asked upon hearing of a rape is whether the victim was asking for it?

  8. Blanche Quizno says

    Hmmm…RAINN has “incest” in its title.

    What, pray tell, are its helpful guidelines to help small children avoid being raped by their fathers or other relatives?

    I’m breathless with anticipation….

  9. Claire Ramsey says

    What a poorly argued little piece of junk. They don’t have a clue what culture is. And they do not understand what “rape culture” refers to. They sound terribly ignorant.

  10. chigau (違う) says

    So the only rape they want to prevent are the ones involving “violence”.
    I’m guessing they mean the rapes with the choking and/or punching and/or other physical stuff.
    ’cause other kinds of ‘rape’ are not really “rape” “‘rape'”.

  11. John Horstman says

    RAINN is stuck somewhat stubbornly in an essentialist framework. They certainly do more good than harm, but they could still do an even better job if their policies/positions were keeping up with feminist theory on rape and rape culture. For example, we now have evidence from campaigns with messaging targeted at rapists telling them to not rape that they DO work to reduce rape rates, which directly contradicts the assertion that they don’t/can’t work and that the criminal justice system is the best means for combating rape (when the contemporary mainstream academic feminist analysis holds that it’s actually one of the worst vectors, as in practice, becasue of how police treat victims/survivors like suspects, becasue of disbelief and unwillingness to prosecute on the part of prosecutors, becasue of low conviction rates, because of misogynist judges reducing sentences or even overturning convictions even in the rare case that there IS a conviction, it does more to re-victimize victims/survivors than prevent rapes).

  12. brianpansky says


    ya, back when that “wasp” metaphor video and rebecca watson’s response came out, i distinctly recall some rape apologists pointing me directly to read the pages at the RAINN website.

    so all of this is old news to me.

  13. cressida says

    RAINN’s statement strikes me as an odd straw man. The ones who are vigorously beating the drum against rape culture don’t blame rape culture so much for *causing* rape (although I’m sure they wouldn’t disagree with Ophelia that it certainly can) as they blame it for *excusing* rape. So RAINN is criticizing a trope that doesn’t really exist and, by association, implying that we shouldn’t complain about an actual thing that very much does. Nice work, RAINN, you’re really helpful.

    I mean, by all means, make the case that individuals are responsible for rape, but don’t contaminate a useful phrase while doing it.

  14. John Anderson says

    People steal too. Are you saying that there’s a culture of theft? Maybe it’s just greed.

  15. mesh says

    Depends. Is theft significantly underreported compared to other crimes? Does theft have a significantly lower conviction rate than other crimes? Do the police often discourage victims of theft from from bringing a case forward? How many times has an unlocked door resulted in acquittal proving that the victim must have really wanted the burglar to take their stuff? How many times has amassing too much nice stuff resulted in acquittal proving that they were clearly asking for it to be stolen? Do people generally regard allegations of theft as lies unless they go to trial and result in conviction?

    Is there any evidence of widespread pushback against reporting and criminalizing theft? If so, are there any possible cultural explanations for it such as prevalent myths about the nature of theft?

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