What is rape culture? Admittedly, I have little prior experience writing and researching topics relatable to feminism, masculinity, and the like. Thus, I have tried my best to examine numerous voices on the topic of rape culture, and through them hopefully come to a satisfactory answer to this question.
There is confusion with the term. The words “rape culture” can be confusing because we mostly understand the word “culture” from a sociological perspective. Culture in this sense are the things that people commonly engage in together as a society. We also know that our western society does not promote rape, which might be thought to be implied by the phrase. After all, if one is lawfully convicted of rape he or she is going to be spending a long time in prison. Thus, rape culture rather means that we are talking about cultural practices that excuse or otherwise tolerate sexual violence. On this definition this would include situations in which sexual assault, rape, and general violence are ignored, trivialized, normalized, or made into jokes.
Feminist writer Emilie Buchwald, the author of her 1993 work Transforming a Rape Culture, argues that when society normalizes sexualized violence, it accepts and creates rape culture. Rape culture, explains Buchwald, is “a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm… In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable . . . However . . . much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change” (1). Similarly, though broadly speaking, as stated on the WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre website, “Rape culture includes jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words and imagery, that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people believe that rape is inevitable. Rather than viewing the culture of rape as a problem to change, people in a rape culture think about the persistence of rape as “just the way things are”” (2).
One, if not the most prominent of features of rape culture is the objectification of women. Objectification is a dehumanizing process that treats a woman’s body like public property, “rape culture includes the belief that men are entitled to women’s bodies – to immediate gratification of their every passing sexual urge” (3). Our society’s preoccupations with the physical appearance of the female body is what is argued to sustain and nurture rape culture (4). For example, from a young age girls are taught that what is most important about them is the way they look. Boys are also taught to value this in girls above all else. The result is that women are constantly turned into objects. Women, in turn, end up viewing their own bodies as sexual objects which, research has shown, brings about injurious consequences such as eating disorders, body shame, depression, sexual dysfunction, and substance abuse (5). “The problem with turning women’s bodies into objects,” explains Christin Bowman, a doctoral student in Critical Social-Personality Psychology, “is that objects are less than human. Objects don’t have feelings or attitudes or intelligence – objects are there for us to use. Once a woman is seen as an object (and in particular, a sexual object), it is much easier to commit violence against her” (6).
Moreover, though, for the moment, I am unaware of a causal link between actual sexual assault and rape culture, it is likely safe to say that rape is a significant concern in western societies where rape culture is prevalent. In England and Wales, on average, 2.5% of females and 0.4% of males said that they had been a victim of a sexual offense (including attempts) in the previous 12 months (7). This represents around 473 000 adults being victims of sexual offenses (around 404 000 females and 72 000 males) on average per year. These experiences span the full spectrum of sexual offenses, ranging from the most serious offenses of rape and sexual assault, to other sexual offenses like indecent exposure and unwanted touching. Moreover, global estimates published by WHO indicate that about 1 in 3 (35%) women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime (8).
Rape culture is also about men. And although statistics say that men are the predominant perpetrators of rape, it is important to note that rape culture does not say that every man is a rapist. In fact, men are also victims of rape culture. Progressive feminist blogger Melissa McEwan observes that “Rape culture is 1 in 33 men being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Rape culture is encouraging men to use the language of rape to establish dominance over one another (“I’ll make you my bitch”). Rape culture is making rape a ubiquitous part of male-exclusive bonding. Rape culture is ignoring the cavernous need for men’s prison reform in part because the threat of being raped in prison is considered an acceptable deterrent to committing crime, and the threat only works if actual men are actually being raped” (9). Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much help for men who are victims of sexual violence. Survivors UK, the UK’s biggest male-only victim support group, for instance, recently had its funding cut in 2015 despite a 120% increase in reported male rape cases (10).
Rape culture exists most visibly within the entertainment industry. It exists within video games. For example, one of the most popular video games, Grand Theft Auto, includes a mod that allows online players to literally rape each other in the game (11). It is alleged that the majority of these rapes are committed against female avatars (12). Perhaps the act of “tea-bagging” is also suggestive of how rape culture pervades gaming. Tea-bagging is the act of humiliating an opponent one has killed in an online encounter (COD fans will know what I’m talking about) (13). After killing someone the player goes up to him or her and alternates the crouch and standing commands while located directly over the corpse. This is an imitation of the sexual act in which the male repeatedly puts his scrotum into the mouth of a female. It is a sign of domination from one player to the other, and can be witnessed through the kill camera (again, COD fans will know what I’m talking about).
Rape culture is also seen in the popular book and film 50 Shades of Grey (14) (15). The book is worldwide bestseller (selling some 125 million copies) and the movie has attracted millions of viewers. The book, though criticized for its poor writing, still won awards. Though there was some resistance to stocking the book in some bookstores due to its sexual nature, the book had a demand. For example, Brevard County public libraries later made their copies available to their patrons due to public demand. The problem with works like this, explains Alyssa Adamovich, is the “level of enthusiasm of the books that allow readers to overlook this passage as sexual abuse… This is rape culture, and the series acceptance within society is an example of rape culture. There is better erotica to read than Fifty Shades of Grey; erotica that is free of sexual and mental abuse” (16).
Rape culture is also victim blaming (17). When a women is raped, or sexually assaulted, some might want to know what she did to have brought it on herself. Perhaps it was because of the way she dressed, or that she was intoxicated and vulnerable, and so on. In other words, “She asked for it!” The problem here is that one saying this assumes that the victim is equally to blame for the sexual abuse, when in reality, the sexual abuse is a conscious choice made by the sexual abuser. No-one deserves to be raped no matter how they dress or where they happen to find themselves at any point in time. Rape culture is thus making excuses for the rapist. It is teaching women how to not get raped, instead of teaching men not to rape (18).
How can we fight rape culture? Kathy Parker urges parents to teach their “sons what it means to be real men. That real men respect women. Remind them they are here because they were carried by a woman, birthed by a woman, nurtured at the breast of a woman. They were rocked to sleep in the arms of a woman, cared for by the hands of a woman, taught of life by the wisdom of a woman. Teach our sons to value women, cherish them, love them. To uphold them. Never to hurt them. To honour the strength of their manhood through the protection of women, not through dominance over them” (19). One should also try and change public perception of what’s acceptable. For example, several successful anti-rape campaigns are working to eradicate rape culture. These include the “Don’t be that guy” campaign in Canada, the Take Back the Night and V-Day movements that fight against sexual violence. Boys should be taught to avoid using language that objectifies or degrades women. We need to learn to speak out if we hear someone making an offensive joke or trivializing rape. We need to think critically about the media’s messages about women, men, relationships, and violence. We need to hold abusers accountable for their actions, and avoid victim blaming. Zerlina Maxell writes that “Rape culture is a real and serious, and we need to talk about it. Simply put, feminists want equality for everyone and that begins with physical safety” (20).
1. Buchwald, E. 1993. Transforming a Rape Culture. p. 7.
2. WAVAW. What Is Rape Culture? Available.
3. Prochuk, A. 2013. Rape Culture is Real—And Yes, We’ve Had Enough. Available.
4. Bowman, C. 2014. 3 Components of Rape Culture and What You Can Do to Fight Back. Available.
5. Psychology Today. 2013. The Harm in Treating Ourselves and Others as Sexual Objects. Available.
6. Bowman, C. 2014. Ibid.
7. GOV.UK. 2013. An Overview of Sexual Offending in England and Wales. Available.
8. WHO. 2016. Violence against women. Available.
9. McEwan, M. 2009. Rape Culture 101. Available.
10. Independent. UK’s biggest male rape charity Survivors… Available.
11. Hernandez, P. 2014. GTA Online Mods Lets People “Rape” Other Players. Available.
12. Hooton, C. 2014. GTA 5 Online Players Are Virtually Raping Each Other, Should We Be Okay With This? Available.
13. GiantBomb. 2016. Tea-Bagging. Available.
14. Adamovich, A. 2015. 50 Shades of Rape Culture. Available.
15. Blakeley, K. 2012. Is ’50 Shades of Grey’ Glorifying Rape? Available.
16. Adamovich, A. 2015. Ibid.
17. SCSU. Rape Culture, Victim Blaming, and The Facts. Available.
18. Maxwemm, Z. 2012. Stop Telling Women How to Not Get Raped. Available.
19. Parker, K. 2016. Rape Culture Exists Because Men Rape, Not Because Women Drink. Available.
20. Maxwell, Z. 2014. Rape Culture Is Real. Available.