Defining and explaining the term
By Natalie Serafini, Editor-in-Chief
Rape culture. It’s an uncomfortable term, and one that gets bandied around a lot. For some, it’s become a buzzword; for others, an accusation, a confusing statement, or a tragic reality.
Rape culture has been defined many times over, in different ways. I tend to define it rather generally as a society that facilitates sexual violence against people, but even that has a lot of ideas that need to be unpacked.
It’s been defined more precisely by Lynn Phillips, of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Communication Department, for the Huffington Post: “a culture in which dominant cultural ideologies, media images, social practices, and societal institutions support and condone sexual abuse by normalizing, trivializing, and eroticizing male violence against women and blaming victims for their own abuse.”
I want to note immediately that men are also sexually abused and raped, and face their own issues in coming forward; it is problematic that people think men “can’t” be raped, or that they should “man up.” Ignoring violence—sexual and otherwise—against trans people is also problematic, especially considering the statistics that show these forms of violence disproportionately affect trans individuals.
So, when we discuss rape culture, we need to be inclusive because it affects everyone, while also recognizing that it affects different groups disproportionately. Race, gender identity, sex, sexuality, and many other factors can influence how an individual experiences rape culture. For example, a study which spanned from 1995 to 2010, reported that “approximately nine per cent of all rape or sexual assault victimizations reported in the [National Crime Victimization Survey] involved male victims”—leaving another 91 per cent of women and trans individuals.
Ok, so rape culture normalizes sexual violence, and affects all people in different ways. How does this actually manifest, in plainer language?
We see rape culture when people doubt victims of sexual violence whether it’s a single victim, several, or dozens. A recent and a high-profile example includes ex-CBC employee Jian Ghomeshi, as people preferred to believe his innocence over the ever-increasing number of sexual assault survivors.
Or, in the case of Bill Cosby, the fact that people have ignored allegations of his drugging and raping women for decades; have believed Cosby over the many women who have stepped forward; and that, even when documents from a 2005 civil lawsuit showed Cosby admitting to giving Quaaludes to women he intended to have sex with, people still defend him.
Of course, there’s a problem with being too swayed by the court of public opinion—our justice systems maintain innocence until proven guilty, and rightly so. But there’s a fairly large gap between suspending judgement, and vehemently defending those who have been accused of rape and sexual assault, against all evidence and reports of their guilt. The latter is a manifestation of rape culture.
We don’t just see people believing abusers over victims, and defending them despite evidence of their guilt. We see people side with rapists and sexual abusers, even after the trial and sentencing have passed.
Back in 2013, many continued to defend the Steubenville rapists after their sentencing, even though they had filmed their own crime. CNN correspondent Poppy Harlow went so far as to say, “Incredibly difficult … to watch what happened to these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart.”
And of course, rape culture is evident in the way people blame victims: for what they’re wearing, for drinking, for being out alone at night, and any number of other reasons. It’s disheartening that the simple fact of being in a public space—including our own colleges and universities—can put individuals at risk of sexual violence. UBC’s rape chant scandal from two years ago is chilling, while Caroline Heldman writes for the Huffington Post that “one in five female students and six per cent of male students will experience sexual violence during their college years.”
I know a lot of people will still be frustrated and confused by the term rape culture. People will continue to complain about what they see as bias against men; to say consent can still be given even when one of the parties is almost unconscious; to shout #NotAllMen. There will still be campaigns to end sexual violence which place the onus on victims to learn self-defence, cover themselves up, stay sober, and avoid the shadows when they walk alone. Sex crimes will still go unreported, because no one wants to step forward only to be blamed, shamed, and doubted.
If you see problems in the way that society is handling issues of rape and sexual abuse, I’m throwing down the gauntlet: contribute constructively to the discussion, and voice your concerns respectfully. Don’t share sexist memes, get all your information from questionable sources, and claim to understand a complicated, nuanced issue when you’ve only heard sound bites. The issue cannot be addressed while large factions of society ignore evidence on the subject, then masquerade as if they’re experts.