Rape culture, a new definition for a contentious idea

Rape culture is a term that can be bandied about rather irresponsibly, both by people who take the term seriously and those who dismiss it. Rape culture does not refer to a culture that explicitly endorses rape (though such a society would certainly qualify). Elizabeth Nolan Brown is characteristically clarifying on the topic:

Much of the skepticism surrounding “rape culture”—and from here I’m moving beyond Soave or McElroy’s critiques to criticism more broadly—takes the term to imply a) radical Islam-levels of female oppression, b) coordinated male conspiracy, or c) a consensus that all elements of rape culture contribute equally to rape rates.

But when feminists decry rape culture in the U.S., they’re not suggesting life for American women is literally a constant struggle to avoid being raped. No one’s saying we face the same level of sexual violence as women in, say, Syria right now. That would be absurd. Which is why I find the “South Africa—now there’s a rape culture, ladies!” argument to be oversimplified and unproductive.

But neither does it mean your common or garden variety objectification of or discrimination against women. I want to propose a definition that is meaningful and workable. I define rape culture as a culture in which

  1. the testimony of women about sexual assault or sexual harassment or misconduct is commonly and instinctively dismissed or qualified (e.g., “surely there was some misunderstanding”);
  2. the behavior of women is circumscribed by constant reminders of the real and imagined threat of rape (don’t go to that party alone; don’t wear that dress; don’t drink; don’t invite him in; etc);
  3. allegations against a man for sexual assault are often turned into a trial of a woman for her character and sexual history (“but she had consented to have sex with him previously” or “she’s been around the block a few times”), implicitly setting up a comparison with a “perfect victim“, as well as her efforts to minimize the risk of assault (see (2));
  4. the effects on the lives of alleged rapists (“he had such a bright future!”) are emphasized in reporting and discussion disproportionately compared to what is seen for other crimes;
  5. rape – when it is believed actually to have occurred – is infused with overwhelming and life-changing power, imposing on the victim additional psychological burdens of playing their role as victim convincingly to fit the socially expected narrative script (in fact, every individual has a unique history and psychology, and can reasonably be expected to have different reactions to sexual assaults, each of which is likewise unique);
  6. rape is not taken seriously in political ways (e.g., leaving thousands of rape kits untested on the shelf);
  7. rape is condoned as an appropriate and justifiable punishment for criminal wrongdoing (as when a convicted criminal is seen to “deserve whatever happens to them in prison”) and indeed this is even an uncontroversial source of humor;
  8. rape is – if not condoned outright – viewed as more of a misdemeanor when the victim is a sexual deviant of some kind (e.g., rape of a sex worker is cheekily framed as “theft of services” rather than a violation of bodily autonomy and consent, and transgender individuals are raped at disproportionately high rates due to their sexualization by society);
  9. rape is heavily gendered, such that the masculinity of male rape victims is questioned, regardless of the gender of the rapist;
  10. and finally, the broad social pattern described above manifests not primarily through conscious intent to create a sexual hierarchy of violent domination, but through tacit acceptance and subtle perpetuation of social norms.

Now, because I embrace tension and ambiguity, I want to acknowledge that a rape culture narrative can be abused. I believe rape culture as defined above exists and is a serious problem. But I also believe that a rape culture is compatible with hamfisted and unwise reactions and solutions, however well-meaning.

Rape culture does not mean every accusation of rape is true or reasonable. Indeed, some accusations are downright absurd and they should not be taken seriously out of paranoia about running afoul of Title IX, “political correctness”, or anything else. Bad sex is not the same as rape. And of course, nothing about the reality of rape culture justifies journalistic fabrication or other kinds of dishonesty.

Acknowledgments: Some folks in the Not That Kind of Feminist Facebook community were extremely helpful in both tweaking the definition above as well as chasing down some of the hyperlinked references.

18 thoughts on “Rape culture, a new definition for a contentious idea

  1. Do you mean to say that a rape culture is one in which any of those things occurs, all of those things occur, or a certain number of those things occur?

    Also: Any boundary drawn sufficiently large will encapsulate enough human beings that most or all of those things will have occurred within that boundary. Do you differentiate between something merely occurring, and something that specifically occurred as a result of the rape culture?

    1. Paul Crider

      These are common characteristics of a rape culture. I’m not sure I’d say any single item above alone would constitute a rape culture, but if a few of the tendencies listed are experienced with sufficient frequency, I think it warrants the classification “rape culture”. This is meant to be a guide to thinking, not a hard numerical metric.

      1. Perhaps similar to Wittgenstein’s idea that a category can have a family of characteristics, such that any instance may not have all of those characteristics.

      2. Paul Crider

        Right, which is why I should read Wittgenstein some day. That’s exactly what I’m going for. I sort of had in my mind the “model case” concept that Dan Russell used for the virtuous agent.

      3. Okay, one more question: Would you say the culture of the United States of America (and I am deliberately not being any more specific than that) is a rape culture?

  2. >> the behavior of women is circumscribed by constant reminders of the real and imagined threat of rape (don’t go to that party alone; don’t wear that dress; don’t drink; don’t invite him in; etc);

    These “constant reminders” are perpetuated by women. It’s not the men who rape.

  3. Tom

    Question :
    If the idea of rape is being used by certain organisations and figures to scare the public in a way that is to make them condone discrimination and demonisation of a group , like is happening now with refugees in Europe by groups like pegida and Nationalist Populists like Geert Wilders who otherwise don’t draw attention to the issue of rape or rape at all (Are they so nationalist they think the native men are incapable of doing evil ? Or just deliberately selective ? ) is it justifiable to write some of it off as fear mongering?

    I mean of course there is some risk and it should be taken into consideration when discussing how we house these people and everything. But a lot of it is frankly racism , the same kind of rhetoric you might hear from a clansman ( ‘our women’ , ‘those beasts’ ).

    I find myself torn between trying not to fall for propaganda and not defending policies that might lead to unsafe situation or the parts of the culture of the middle east that are objectively questionable.

  4. Paul, thank you this post — it is rare to find such a thoughtful and even-handed essay on the topic. A question comes to mind, though: does your definition hinge on personally-held beliefs about rape manifesting themselves in these characteristics, or are these qualities independent of those attitudes? A combination of both?

    Put another way, is rape culture the result of these things or are these things the result of rape culture?

    1. Paul Crider

      Interesting question. Hopefully I’m understanding it correctly in my answer: I think a rape culture is entirely possible to have without anyone holding any conscious beliefs about rape. A lot of these ideas and attitudes can be held unconsciously. I certainly don’t think anyone intentionally acts to maintain rape culture. Take item #2. When someone says women should watch what they drink and how they dress, they very often have good intentions, and sometimes on purely prudential grounds they’re not even wrong. But they don’t see the indirect effects of their chosen emphases.

      1. Thank you for your prompt reply. I’ve spent the better part of the last couple of hours trying to figure how to articulate my question more clearly, but I think you’ve more or less got the heart of it. What I came up with was something like a disease-based metaphor, i.e., is rape culture like an infection where numerous symptoms stem from the invasion of bacteria or a virus, or is it better described like depression, where a cluster of symptoms of possibly disparate causes come together with a peculiar symmetry that gives it a power greater than the sum of its parts? If I’m understanding you correctly, your definition is more in line with the latter model. Is that a fair, if crude, interpretation or am I getting you wrong?

      2. Paul Crider

        Yeah I would say the latter. It’s also consistent with not all features of rape culture applying in every case for the term itself to be warranted.

        Separate thought. Nothing to do with your characterization of the disease metaphor (forget about bug invasions for the moment), I do think some kind of a disease metaphor can be useful, in that rape culture and sexism more generally are things that need to be healed more than they are things that need to be, say, punished.

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