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
- 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”);
- 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);
- 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));
- 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;
- 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);
- rape is not taken seriously in political ways (e.g., leaving thousands of rape kits untested on the shelf);
- 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;
- 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);
- rape is heavily gendered, such that the masculinity of male rape victims is questioned, regardless of the gender of the rapist;
- 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.