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Rape culture isn’t a myth. It’s real, and it’s dangerous.

Emma Sulkowicz, a senior at Columbia University, carries a mattress in protest of the university's lack of action after she reported being raped
Emma Sulkowicz, a senior at Columbia University, carries a mattress in protest of the university's lack of action after she reported being raped
(Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

There's a phrase you are increasingly likely to encounter when reading or discussing stories about sexual assault: "rape culture." It might sound like just another way to talk about high-profile rape scandals, sexual assault at colleges or in the military, or accusations against powerful people such as Bill CosbyWoody AllenJerry Sandusky, or Roman Polanski. Or the controversy around Rolling Stone's article about UVA's handling of rapes on campus.

But those crimes aren't rape culture, they're products of it. What follows is a primer on rape culture: what it means, how it works, where it comes from, why awareness of it is now entering the mainstream, and how it drives injustices that go well beyond rape itself.

What is rape culture? Rape culture is about much more than sexual assault

UK slutwalk

Women march in a 2012 Slutwalk protest (JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/GettyImages)

Rape culture is a culture in which sexual violence is treated as the norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults. It's not just about sexual violence itself, but about cultural norms and institutions that protect rapists, promote impunity, shame victims, and demand that women make unreasonable sacrifices to avoid sexual assault.

Rape culture pressures women to sacrifice their freedoms and opportunities in order to stay safe, because it puts the burden of safety on women's shoulders, and blames them when they don't succeed. As a result, certain opportunities are left unavailable to women, and still others are restricted by expensive safety precautions, such as not traveling for professional networking unless you can afford your own hotel room. That amounts, essentially, to a tax that is levied exclusively on women. Over time, the cost of that tax adds up to opportunities lost and progress not achieved. When women give up social and economic opportunities in order to stay safe, that affects their progress overall, which in turn affects society's progress overall.

And although rape culture has its roots in long-standing patriarchal power structures that were designed to benefit men, today's rape culture burdens men too — for instance, by ignoring the fact that men can be victims of rape and sexual assault, and women can be perpetrators of it. That means that male victims are also left without legal protection and social support.

The goal of talking about rape culture is about much more than just reducing the frequency with which sexual assault occurs or the impunity that allows it to flourish, because the problems at the root of rape culture are much bigger than that.

How the concept of rape culture is becoming mainstream

The term "rape culture" was originally coined in the 1970s. The term appeared in Rape: The First Sourcebook for Women, published by the New York Radical Feminists Collective in 1974, and was explored in depth in the 1975 documentary Rape Culture.

In more recent years, however, the idea of rape culture has received much more attention, including from mainstream outlets:

A Google Trends graph of the popularity of the term "rape culture" over time

This is due in large part to the rise of feminist and female-focused online media and activism. Sites such as Feministing, Shakesville, Colorlines, Racialicious, and Feministe published essays identifying and analyzing different aspects of rape culture.

Their success amplified the voices of feminist writers covering the subject and eventually attracted the attention of mainstream publications as well. At the same time, awareness campaigns run by groups like Know Your IX and Hollaback have compounded that effect, bringing the issue to greater prominence.

Rape culture blames victims, which allows impunity for the perpetrators

Slutwalk photo

Protesters at a Chicago Slutwalk demonstration in 2013 (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

First, rape culture treats rape as a problem to be solved through improving the behavior of potential rape victims (who are presumed, in this logic, to be women), rather than improving the behavior of potential rapists (who are presumed to be men).

This pattern takes many forms. The classic example is when an observer (or a rapist) blames the rape victim for attracting the rapist's attention by wearing revealing clothing. In 2011, for instance, a Toronto police officer sparked the global "Slutwalk" protest movement when he told female students that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized."

Another form of this argument is the "personal responsibility" lecture often given to young female college students, advising them to avoid drinking or attending fraternity parties lest they become one of the one-in-five young women who is sexually assaulted by the time she graduates. Although that advice is couched in terms of "personal responsibility" and "staying safe," it's still putting the onus of preventing rape on the potential victims.

military sexual assaults 2012 (OR)

Data Source: UCCR, SAPR

The second hallmark of rape culture is an unwillingness and/or inability to punish the perpetrators of rape and sexual assault. Police officers, prosecutors, and juries often cling to the stereotypical image of "real" rape. In "real" rape, the crime consists of a forcible attack, perpetrated by a male stranger on a female victim who has not been drinking or behaving in a sexually provocative manner, and is immediately reported to law enforcement and supported by ample physical evidence. Crimes that do not fit that stereotypical pattern are often ignored by law enforcement or dropped by prosecutors who believe — often correctly — that they will be rejected by juries.

The impunity isn't limited to the legal system. Schools, universities, and the military routinely fail to address sexual assaults within their institutions. All of these institutional failures are magnified by social pressure on victims to stay silent and by patterns of blaming or ostracizing victims who do come forward.

In the U.S. military, for instance, only a small fraction of sexual assaults are investigated or punished. According to a report by the US Commission on Civil Rights, the Department of Defense estimated 26,000 service members were raped or sexually assaulted in 2012 alone, and that slightly more than half of those victims were men. However, fears of reprisal and stigma meant that only 2,558 victims even pursued justice by filing an unrestricted report, and only 302 of those cases proceeded to trial.

There was a good reason for that: the service members who did report being assaulted often faced retaliation from their superiors, who had control over whether their cases could proceed. For example, PBS reported the story of one soldier who was raped by a superior in Iraq and reported the assault, but was told that she would be charged with adultery if she pursued her complaint. She endured further threats and retaliation before being "medically retired" in 2012.

Blaming victims doesn't just fail to prevent rapes — it constrains women's lives and limits their opportunities

The result of all this, unsurprisingly, is an environment in which rape is common, victims are silenced, and rapists are not punished. But there is a less obvious, more pernicious consequence as well: rape culture polices women's lives, constraining their freedom and limiting their opportunities.

When the burden of avoiding sexual assault is placed on women, that essentially grants sexual predators the power to set the boundaries on women's lives. Those who don't are held responsible for their own fate.

Sometimes sexual threats and violence are overtly used to police women's behavior, such as when rape threats are used as a tool to silence female writers and activists. The online threats leveled against women like feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian and blogger and programmer Kathy Sierra are good examples of this. An even more brutal form of this behavior is "corrective rape," in which lesbians and gay men are raped in an attempt to force them to become straight.

But often it's more subtle. Much of the advice given to women about how to avoid sexual assault is really just a laundry list of things, people, places, and situations to avoid. Alcohol. Men's homes. Solo travel. One-on-one meetings with potential professional mentors who are male. Over time, those limitations add up, making rape culture a tax on women's lives and opportunities.

Rape culture means that rape is incredibly common. But rape culture also prevents us from knowing exactly how common.

FBI crest

(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Rape culture allows rape to flourish. But it also makes it hard to measure — which itself makes rape more common still.

Stigma, victim-blaming, and the (often correct) assumption that reporting a rape to law enforcement won't result in prosecution make many victims reluctant to come forward, which contributes to underreporting. Stereotypes about what constitutes "real" rape affect the definitions used in data gathering: if the crime is defined too narrowly, then some rapes won't show up in the statistics.

For example, for years the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting data did not even count rapes in which the victim was incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, or in which the victim was male.

The difficulty of accurately measuring rape and sexual assault is not just the result of rape culture, however. It also contributes to it. The lack of complete, reliable data masks the degree to which rape and sexual assault are widespread. That means that energy and resources that could be better spent coming up with solutions to rape culture are instead spent litigating whether it's a problem at all.

Rape culture is a direct continuation of a time when gender discrimination was written right into the law

Lord Hale

Lord Matthew Hale really has a lot to answer for (Scientific Identity)

Rape culture didn't come out of nowhere. It's the direct continuation of centuries of patriarchal power and the institutions that developed to support it.

When the US was founded, the powers that be — which is to say, men — constructed a system in which women's rights were legally and socially subordinate to men's. While justifications for this system were often couched in morality and tradition and the need to "protect" women, in implementation they were all about male power over women.

While we think of those institutions as long-gone, if you listen to way that rape is discussed you will hear the exact same patterns — right up to the admission that this is actually about power, often expressed as a fear of giving women the ability to put men in jail on their word alone.

History is full of instances of men wringing their hands about how scary it was to give women that kind of power. "Rape...is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent," warned British jurist Lord Hale in 1680. His concern took root and flourished in the US justice system. In one famous 18th-century rape trial, the defense attorney warned the jury that the rape charge "placed the life of a citizen in the hands of a woman." (The "citizen" in question, Harry Bedlow, was acquitted.) In 1842, another judge warned that, in rape cases, "there is much greater danger that injustice will be done to the defendant, than there is in prosecutions of any other character."

Those ideas are not just ancient history. Until 1975, California courts were required to give the following jury instruction in rape cases: "A charge such as that made against the defendant in this case is one which is easily made and, once made, difficult to defend against, even if the person accused is innocent. Therefore, the law requires that you examine the testimony of the female person named in the information with caution." (Lord Hale, call your agent.)

And just as those fears haven't changed much over the centuries, neither has the solution: to limit men's vulnerability to rape accusations by limiting women's ability to bring rape charges. This used to be done more openly than it is now, but the parallels to modern responses to rape accusations are striking.

In early US legal decisions, courts treated rape as a crime against a woman's sexual purity, rather than as solely against her consent: a complaining victim had to prove that she had "good character" in order to pursue charges against her assailant. Second, the woman had to prove that she physically resisted the attack; in the words of one New York court in 1838, "she must resist until exhausted or overpowered, for a jury to find that it was against her will." Many states also required that the woman cry out for help and report the assault immediately in order for it to be a prosecutable offense.

And even when those elements were met, women's testimony was weighed against the standing and respectability of the alleged rapist. That meant a rapist was much less likely to be punished if he had higher social standing than his victim — or if he was white and she was not.

If that sounds familiar, it should. Although those elements aren't legal requirements for rape cases anymore, they are still at the core of social attitudes towards rape today.

A woman who comes forward with an accusation of rape can be expected to have her history and character subjected to scrutiny. (Why was she drinking? Why was she even at that party? Why did she take a birth control pill?) If she did not physically resist the assault, she will be accused of consenting to it, or at the very least "confusing" her attacker. If she did not report the assault right away, that will be seen as a sign that she is lying. And her social status will be weighed against that of her rapist. The higher-status her attacker is, the less likely it will be that she is perceived as credible.

What can society do about rape culture?

Gillibrand military rape press conf

Sarah Plummer, a former U.S. Marine and survivor of sexual assault, speaks alongside Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand at a news conference supporting passage of the Military Justice Improvement Act (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

There isn't any single program or law that can magically fix rape culture. However, advocacy campaigns run by groups like Know Your IX and Hollaback have brought attention to the problems fueling rape culture and have helped women to organize in opposition to it. Because rape culture derives some of its power from unconscious biases and hidden assumptions, simply drawing attention to it is a step towards changing it.

Institutional changes will matter too. The pressure put on the military, for example, by activists and politicians such as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has led it to pay more attention to the problem of sexual assault, and there is some evidence that assaults are decreasing. The White House has established a task force to address the problem of sexual assaults on campus, although it is too soon to know what effect it will have.

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