There’s been a tumblr post circulating among my Facebook friends to support the idea that there exists a “rape culture” in America, and it demands serious action. Rape in our culture is a point of contention between various groups- debates over whether rape jokes are socially acceptable, or if the term is used too casually have happened again and again in the past few years.
The statistics in the post are legitimate, and are collected with citations here. A series of surveys and academic articles, published between 1981 and 1994, found widespread acceptance of rape among middle school and college students. In a disturbing result, many young girls accepted rape as justified in some circumstances- sometimes at a rate equal to young boys.
This data is compelling, but dated. However, an exhaustive survey by the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey has been published recently, thanks to significant support from government agencies. It is stark in its conclusions: if the rate of sexual abuse has gone down, it hasn’t gone down much. In the 1988 college survey, about one in four women reported rape or attempted rape. In the 2011 report, it was one in five.
I don’t mean to drown this post with statistics; rather, I want a strong grounding to stand on going forward. More below the fold.
Before getting into my response to the subject, I should take time out to flesh out my use of the term ‘rape culture’. Since there is no single accepted definition, it is time to mention what I include and what I exclude from the term.
Rape culture to me is the systemic societal attitude that rape can ever be justified. At its core it is undervaluing or demeaning the victim and overvaluing the assailant in the legal system. A lack of urgency by law enforcement is also an aspect, evidenced by the huge rape kit backlog in many cities. When cases do go to trial, convictions are rare, and sentences are often lenient.
The more difficult issue of rape in popular culture is another thing. Penny Arcade, the most famous webcomic on the Internet, faced a years-long controversy over a strip that included rape in a comic context. As my friend Sally remarked when we discussed this post, “if the butt of the joke is the victim” it may represent cultural insensitivity. As this part is harder to quantify, I prefer sticking to areas where evidence is less subjective. *
At the end of 7th grade, I had almost six weeks of comprehensive sex and drug education. Going to an independent, secular school, there was a lot of openness to discuss the issues in a pragmatic (rather than dogmatic) manner.
When we got to how men and women are viewed sexually, our science teacher drew a two-by-two diagram. It contains a foundation for sexist thinking. For men, if they have little to no sex in adolescence and early adulthood, they’re a loser or a fag. If they have a lot, they’re a player– something to aspire to. If women have little to no sex, they’re stuck up, or a prude. if they have any more than that, they’re a slut and deserve what happens to them. For men, there’s a large middle ground where society doesn’t pass a strong judgement. Women, on the other hand, are most often put in one of the two camps- you don’t have to be all that sexually active to be a slut.
How attitudes on rape enmesh in local and global society is complicated, but it can have serious consequences. The indescribable atrocity that occurred in Delhi three weeks ago underlines the listless nature of the judicial system in many countries, buttressed by police officers that often side defend their actions with arguments often used by the assailants themselves. SlutWalks have revitalized (and divided) anti-violence groups in an attempt to start a conversation typically on the edges of law and order discussions. Both the Delhi case and SlutWalks have a common aspect- they have caused developed countries to defend their inaction. Owen Jones, writing for the British newspaper The Independent, agrees that Western nations scolding India have no high ground upon which to stand. Police often don’t follow up on reports. Prosecutors decline to press cases. Juries and judges give out insulting sentences or let the guilty walk free out of sheer indifference. It is a global problem that demands structural change in how men and women view and value each other.
I shall finish by returning to the surveys that prompted this. Spending large on a lady does not entitle you to sex. Neither does being in a relationship. Consent is immutable. It does not weaken or disappear in some context. Rape culture is the rejection of the last two sentences. Men need to realize that, like with racism, calling your gender part of the problem does not implicate or insult you personally. When someone is charged with theft, every man is not put on trial. But there does exist responsibility to society- and you cannot run from that responsibility.
* I’ve added a personal definition of rape culture, because it is a modern term with no agreed-upon definition. This is my attempt at encapsulating why I use this term instead of something else.