Changing Rape Culture

Rape culture is the term feminists and feminist allies use to define the aspects of our culture that encourage us to see rape as the norm.  It’s strange, at first, to see that phrase:  “rape as the norm”.  We don’t think of rape as the norm—we think of it as an aberration, a heinous crime. Something bad people do to innocent people, something to fear.  But dig a little deeper, and you quickly find our cultural answer to this crime:  examination and indictment of female behavior.  What was she wearing?  Was she drinking?  Did she lead him on?  In other words, what did the rape victim do to confuse or encourage her rapist? Many of these questions surround the more common type of rape—when a rape victim knows her attacker.  

We think this way about rape because it is how our culture has handled rape for—well, ever.  We connect it to sex, rather than to violence and power (which is its true root), and we believe as we have been taught:  men can’t help themselves when it comes to sex, and it’s up to women to keep things under wraps.  This line of thinking lands us right where we are:  if a woman is raped, she didn’t do her womanly duty and keep everyone’s sexuality under wraps.  She failed, and so she paid the price.  That, my friends, is the subconscious foundation of rape culture.  And it must change—our daughters’ lives depend on it.

Our latest daughter to be raped, videotaped, left for dead, and then bullied to within an inch of her life is named Daisy—the teenager at the center of the Maryville rape case.  Authorities tried to cover up the video evidence of her rape, which was passed around school.  (This alone should tell us that something is amiss—technology is aiding rape culture, and our authority structure is firmly grounded in “boys will be boys and girls better watch it” thoughts and actions.)  The facts are now coming to light, and Daisy isn’t done fighting.  Good.  For.  Her.  And good for us all.

But, you might think—Daisy snuck out of her parents’ house to hang out with a bunch of boys, and she was drinking.  She was drunk to the point of incapacitation.  This, surely, is part of the problem—and young women need to know that, and watch their behavior accordingly.  So said Emily Yoffe (Slate’s “Dear Prudence”) and the response from feminists was swift—Yoffe was aiding and abetting rape culture.  Yoffe’s response was that, while she wants rape to “fall squarely on the shoulders of rapists,” she wants to protect young women with the information they need to survive—don’t drink to incapacitation, don’t fall prey to a predator. 

This, my friends, is the very heart of the dilemma:  how do we best protect our daughters?  For it is true that if young women take certain steps to protect themselves, including monitoring their own behaviors, they will be safer.  I said as much in an earlier post, and it is certainly advice I will give my daughter.  It is advice I think all young women need to hear.  However:  it won’t stop rape, and it won’t save the young women who don’t have the personal support system to protect them from our increasingly violent, increasingly technologically savvy rape culture.  For that, we must change our thinking, and we must communicate and enforce a zero tolerance approach to rape.

Author and speaker Jackson Katz, in his book The Macho Paradox, relates an exercise he performs with college students:  he draws a line down the center of a whiteboard, then asks the men in the classroom to tell him what they do to avoid being raped.  There is usually an awkward silence, followed by an admission that men don’t think about it (this is not to make light of male rape victims, who face pain and stigma of their own, but simply to make a point about our culture).  Katz then asks the women the same question, and the board fills up with the minutia of the ways in which women police their own lives.  Many women are not only aware of what they need to do to avoid being raped, they are hyper-aware.  And those who aren’t—or who simply don’t follow all of the advice that might contribute to their safety and are then raped—are sexually shamed and bullied until they want to kill themselves.  Many do.

To change rape culture, we must understand that rape is about violence and power, not sex.  And we must understand that while it is important to protect our daughters by letting them know what behaviors will help keep them safe, it is just as important to do teach our sons:

  1.  Rape isn’t funny, and it isn’t OK, and it isn’t manly.  No matter what the jokes they’ve heard or the things they’ve seen on Facebook might say.
  2. No one deserves rape, no one asks for it, and no one encourages it in the way she walks, drinks, talks, dances, flirts, or dresses.
  3. It isn’t enough to stand idly and uncomfortably by in the midst of a culture that teaches men to rape.  Instead, men must become active in the fight to change rape culture.  (See Men can Stop Rape and the White Ribbon Campaign.)

If boys learned these things—while girls learned that even a lapse in judgment about drinking or boys doesn’t mean they deserve rape and abuse—we’d begin to see real change. Until then, rape will be the norm, and culture will encourage it.

5 thoughts on “Changing Rape Culture

  1. Lisa Scheff says:

    Great post! I appreciate that you grapple in such a clear way with the hard questions around teaching girls to be careful about drinking. It’s difficult to talk about because we focus so disproportionately on telling girls and women what to do or not do to avoid rape, and yet being careful around alcohol is without doubt sound advice.

    Have you followed the flap about “anti-rape” underwear? (If you haven’t, Google “AR Wear”.) So unequivocally a horrible, victim-blaming idea that does nothing to keep women safer. I run a small nonprofit that teaches full force self-defense classes. We are trying to leverage the attention being given to the underwear to raise awareness that women and girls can actively defend themselves–they don’t need so-called “passive resistance” strategies like locking underwear, which are useless at best and dangerous at worst.

    Check out our Indiegogo campaign below. I’d love to talk with you if you would be interested in writing about this. Like telling young women not to drink, teaching women self-defense is sometimes perceived as victim blaming because it looks like we are putting the burden on women to stop rape. I disagree, but it’s a tricky discussion. And one that I think deserves a lot more attention.


    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      Hi Lisa,

      Thanks for your comment, and for letting me know about your nonprofit! I have read about the “anti-rape” underwear and I agree, it’s a terrible idea. I love the idea of self-defense–I took a class in college and would like a refresher course, and I want to take my daughter to a self-defense class when she’s older. Women do indeed need to be savvy about their own safety while also knowing internally that abuse is never their fault.

      I would be very interested in talking to you/writing about your work! I will check out your campaign!




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