Rape culture for Joe Sixpack

Ryan Long basically agrees with the content of my definition of rape culture:

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.

With the many strenuous disagreements we’ve had, I’m pretty satisfied with this response. But he believes I’m ultimately unpersuasive on the topic, specifically with respect to the very people who need to hear it the most. Read the whole thing, but I fail to persuade for three basic reasons. “Rape culture” is an off-putting term that is inevitably interpreted as accusatory. The phrase “rape culture” is hyperbolic and – if used to describe developed nations where life on the whole is pretty good and there’s no rape epidemic – can lead to desensitizing of the word “rape”. And thirdly, the name “rape culture” provides no added benefit to just telling people their behavior needs to change.

I won’t dispute that I am unpersuasive. It’s certainly not the first time I have been told my writing couldn’t so much as persuade even someone under hypnosis. I’d certainly never claim to be a brilliant rhetorician who can convince the masses of anything. I won’t even claim to always abide by that trusted rule of good writing: know your audience. But in this case I actually did know my audience. It just wasn’t Joe Sixpack. I was writing for two kinds of people. I wanted to provide a reference that my fellow social justice types could potentially use in their own discourses. And I wanted to reach the educated, well-meaning person who is skeptical of social justice movements for whatever reason. The reaction from this latter crowd that I was hoping for was something like “Oh! That’s what the social justice warriors mean by rape culture! I guess that’s not so unreasonable.”

While I like to think our readership here at Sweet Talk is growing, I don’t think we’re quite targeted to either Joe Sixpack or Betty Bluecollar. It’s not that Joe and Betty aren’t worth engaging with. They totally are! But how would I go about even getting them to read Sweet Talk? I know a few of these folks. They’re decent people. Politics doesn’t come up often, but when it does I don’t shy away from revealing my liberal values. But I also don’t come on too heavy with rhetoric. I try to make my case without jargon, but also without talking down to them. I probably rarely succeed but maybe I get them to think from a different angle sometimes. In any case, I’ve never uttered the phrase “rape culture” in one of these conversations, even when that’s what the subject was really about. (I think the last instance was when all of those nude photos of celebrities were released, and I was arguing against both blaming the victims and viewing the photos. I relied on “common sense” morality).

But granted, I am frankly at my rhetorical weakest when discussing social justice morality with Joe and Betty. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Here is a challenge to Ryan, and to other social justice skeptics who nevertheless agreed with the basic content of my outline of rape culture. If you agree with me, and you believe the issues of sexual assault itself as well as the attitudes and social responses surrounding sexual assault (this is why it’s called a culture, I think) are important, then talk about them. Translate the ideas for Joe Sixpack and Betty Bluecollar, not in long form essays necessarily, but in conversation. If these issues really are important, then it’s worth the effort to bridge the distance between out-of-touch, jargon-tangled social justice warriors like myself and hardworking, down-to-earth folks like Joe and Betty.

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