What is 'rape culture' and how can you fight it?

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Residents of Cape Town, South Africa, take to the city streets to protest the use of a woman's appearance as an excuse for rape during an annual march held in cities worldwide.

Supposedly, our culture is opposed to rape. We like to think that all good people are as offended by sexual assault as they are by, say, cannibalism. Yet, rape happens every day to people of all ages.

And the perpetrators aren’t all barbarous, dead-eyed monsters; they’re other humans, often close to those they abuse. Rapists can have loving families and respectable jobs; they are simply people who choose, for some reason, to disregard consent.

Pretending that rape only happens in specific communities or is a crime committed by certain types of people is a fairy tale that allows us to avoid looking at how our culture allows sexual assault to happen.

Rape culture” is increasingly being used to talk about the ways we implicitly condone rape, make it easier for it to happen and harder to combat. It refers to the ways that we talk about sex, gender, relationships and power that inadvertently contribute to a climate where people are put at risk and disbelieved when they try to report. What are some examples?

Gender Stereotypes & Double Standards

A couple of years ago a blog, written by a mother with several sons, went viral. She admonished young women to be modest with their selfies, so as not to lead her boys into immorality. She suggested girls keep their bra straps hidden, necklines high and skirts long. Without any sense of irony, she included a photo of her boys at the beach … in only their swim trunks.

The implication is that males are incapable of self-control and that the responsibility lies with women to not tempt them. Not only does this make rape the potential victim’s job to prevent, but it creates a narrative where boys are mindless predators. This idea fuels the argument that someone (well, females, at any rate) could “ask” to be raped by their clothing and also the idea that it’s impossible for a woman to rape a man.

Glamorizing Abuse

Popular culture depicts behaviors as romantic that would actually be deeply disturbing in real life. Sending repeated unwanted messages, randomly showing up to an ex’s work, and other inappropriate behavior are glamorized in many movies.

Take the scene in The Notebook where Noah climbs a Ferris wheel and threatens suicide if Allie won’t date him. If it were anyone other than Ryan Gosling, it’d be an obvious symptom of borderline personality disorder and a reason to head for the hills. Pretty much everything Edward Cullen does in the Twilight series is terrifying, yet a generation of young people have been raised to find his stalking romantic.

Endless music videos and TV shows depict women resisting a man’s advances, only to cave when physically overpowered. We become accustomed to the idea that we should be aroused by uncontrolled lust and that, through aggression, men should seek to push past a woman’s objections.

What about “false” rape accusations?

Yes, there have been false claims of rape, much as people have tried to cover up arson or wrongly reported grand theft. But when a person says they had their bike snatched, rarely are they met with a slew of disbelief. Even more rare is when they subject themselves to harassment that defames them for reporting to the authorities.

There are a variety of reasons sexual assault goes unreported (especially by male survivors), including: fear of retaliation, shame, lack of trust in the justice system, and many survivors internalize messages that they are somehow to blame for their own victimization. Every time it’s suggested someone “should have” done something differently, this makes it harder for folks to come forward, and is why only a tiny percentage are every reported.

When we talk about the number of accusations that are made and then rescinded, we’re including cases where survivors decide it’s not worth the trauma to keep pressing charges, as well as reports made by parents angry about their kids having consensual sex. While assault is extremely common, the likelihood of a false accusation is a really rare circumstance, far from warranting the same degree of concern. Is it problem? Yes, just like false child abuse allegations, it happens and can ruin someone’s life. But it shouldn’t deter us making it a priority to prevent assault.

Unsafe Streets

Rape isn’t really about desire; it’s using sex to control another person. Rape culture is supported by the idea that some bodies exist for public consumption, are open to comments, even available to be touched by strangers in a crowd. Through gestures and comments about other people’s bodies, we make the world an unfriendly and unsafe place … especially for women.

Street harassment is often excused as a compliment or friendly greeting taken badly. But the people who make these overtures don’t really expect “hey babe, nice ass” to translate into a relationship. If it were respectful to get someone’s attention by making kissy noises, men would do it to other men. The larger message is that women are open targets when they go out alone, perceived first and foremost as objects.

Street harassment hinges on the idea that it doesn’t matter if someone wants to talk to you: If you want to talk to them, you have the right to demand their attention. And if you believe you have that entitlement, it’s not a stretch to think you have rights to other things whether they like it or not.

What Can We Do?

Value consent: Teach children their bodies belong to them. Even though Grandma is probably not a sexual predator, it’s bad practice to force kids to hug her. Arguing she loves them, bought them presents or it would make her happy makes it easier for others to use the same arguments later. Make enthusiastic, informed consent the baseline for all your own sexual behavior.

Step In: Intervene when a friend is too drunk to go home with that stranger; make your presence known in domestic violence situations;, tell others their sexist comments are dumb.

Activism:  Volunteer for an organization that battles against rape culture like Take Back the Night, Pussy Division, Project SAFE, Women Against Abuse, Women Organized Against Rape, Hollaback! or any of the organizers of this weekend’s March To End Rape Culture.


Editor’s Note: Columnist Timaree Schmit will be speaking at the March to End Rape Culture at Thomas Paine Plaza (1401 JFK Blvd.) in Philadelphia on Saturday, Oct. 3 at 11 a.m.

Dr. Timaree Schmit earned her Ph.D. in Human Sexuality from Widener University, where she now trains future sexologists and clinicians. Her passion is bringing rational, empirically-based, sex-positive information to the world, empowering others to celebrate their bodies, build intimacy and experience pleasure. 

She has an award-winning podcast, "Sex with Timaree", and hosts a BYOB sex ed, comedy/game show "DTF: Darryl and Timaree Fun Hour" which can be seen every second Friday at the Franky Bradley's (1320 Chancellor St.)