So You Live In A Rape Culture: Now What?

Paul’s recently proposed definition of the term “rape culture” is a worthy attempt at explaining to those who require such an explanation that the cards are stacked against rape victims in today’s society.

One challenge with his definition, however, is that it seems to indicate that if you are a human being, you are someone who lives in a rape culture. Any difference between the cult-like sexual mutilations that occurred during Rwanda’s genocide, India’s ability to produce horrific gang rapes on public transportation (in addition to thousands-a-day public gropings), and jokes about prison in the United States is not a difference in kind, according to Paul, only one of degree. Welcome to Planet Earth: Rape Culture.

I think Paul’s hope is that it will dawn on some how bad things are for rape victims, even right here “at home,” so to speak. I he hopes that his audience, upon consideration of his definition, will be moved to alter their behavior. However, there are a few reasons why I don’t think this is likely.

The first reason is that there is probably a category difference between “people who would use the phrase ‘rape culture'” and “people whose behavior needs to change.” To the extent that I am right about this, then the phrase “rape culture” provides no benefit that the phrase “your behavior needs to change” does not already provide. (It’s unlikely to me that a person who regularly engages in the behaviors that comprise Paul’s definition will change his mind solely because his behaviors have now been identified as “rape culture.”)

A second reason I don’t think Paul’s proposed definition will sway people is that there is cry-wolf effect involved. What I mean is, despite the fact that there is lots of room for improvement, life in the Western world is pretty good – even, or perhaps especially, by comparative rape culture standards. If someone lives in a pretty-good culture, but is told that they live in a rape culture, it’s possible that they will become desensitized to Paul’s claim. A phrase, once used for shock value, cannot be reused for shock value; we can only be shocked by it once. Afterward, it becomes “another one of those aggressive terms social justice warriors use,” like “greed culture,” “victimhood culture,” or essentially, Anything-That-Needs-To-Change Culture. It blends in with the other things being shouted at us and we no longer give it specific attention, even though it is indeed a matter that deserves our attention.

A third reason I don’t think Paul’s definition will persuade people to change their mind is because ordinary people – especially those most likely to be unwittingly misogynistic – don’t tend to think in the terminology of academic philosophy or feminism. So, to them, being told that they live in, and might be passively propagating, a “rape culture” feels like they are being accuse of something. If there is anything less effective at changing someone’s mind than immediately putting them on the defensive, it’s seemingly accusing them of one of mankind’s most heinous crimes.

As an important side-note to this third point, there is a growing body of journalism that seeks to call attention to false accusations of rape. Imagine what impact it must have on Average Joe when he sees victims advocates calling his culture a “rape culture” in one place, and making actually false allegations of rape elsewhere. Needless to say, Joe would not be convinced.

What Paul has managed to do, however, is provide a list of serious grievances that any sufficiently introspective person will find non-contentious. The content of Paul’s list is basically indisputable, as his many citations ably demonstrate. I believe his list functions as an excellent starting point for identifying problematic aspects of cultural behavior and attempting to correct them. To that end, I feel his invocation of the term “rape culture” works against his objective – an objective with which I most assuredly agree.

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