What Is Rape Culture?
When Donald Trump started campaigning for president, what feels like a million years ago, I immediately got a bad feeling. Not because he’s orange and gross, (I won’t even bring up the hair) although these were all unsettling traits. The thing that instantly tipped me off that something was wrong was the way Trump treated and talked about women (among his other unsettling comments).
From his “grab ’em by the pussy” comments in 2005 to the many comments he made as president, Trump has had a long history of treating women like dirt. His personal history is rife with frequently comparing women to objects and rating women for their looks in humiliating ways (he used to make the male Apprentice contestants rate the female ones on hotness in front of them).
I’ll attach a link so you can see the full list for yourself; I wouldn’t enjoy spiraling down a rabbit hole of sexism tonight.
He has also been accused of sexual assault by 21 women, so there’s that too.
The thing I didn’t like about Trump, I realized, was that he embodied rape culture in everything he did. As an assaulter, it made sense that he was the human representation of rape culture, but it made the whole concept of him being the Commander in Chief so much scarier.
And then he won and became the 45th president of the United States.
For those of you who have never ventured into a Women’s and Gender Studies class, “rape culture” is a sociological concept in which rape and sexual violence against women is normalized, excused, and seen as an unavoidable part of our culture. Now, stay with me here. This shows up as victim blaming, sexual objectification, the lack of prosecution of assaulters, and the outright acceptance of rape as a part of life altogether. All of these work together to create a society that not only normalizes and perpetuates rape and objectification but diminishes it all at the same time.
Now, this was a term I had never even heard of until an introduction Women’s and Gender Studies course in my freshman year of college (aptly named “Gender Justice”). It was utterly confusing when I was first introduced to it, but after some explanation, it completely changed my worldview. Let me try and break it down for you.
How many times, after hearing or reading about a rape or a sexual assault, have you heard someone say, “That’s why you need to be careful about drinking” or “That’s why you need to cover yourself up before going out” or “Well, she shouldn’t have been out so late by herself.”
This perpetuates rape culture. By saying that the victim shouldn’t have been doing this or that, you’re blaming the victim for their own sexual assault when the only issue here is that people shouldn’t rape each other. The unfortunate fact is that nothing the victim could have done could have prevented an assault, as we can see from studies that show that rapes happen during the day when the victim is sober and/or fully clothed. Insinuating that something a victim did with their own body brought on an assault excuses the assaulter from their crime and takes them out of the equation altogether. That’s victim blaming.
My favorite analogy to use to explain victim-blaming is: You go outside without putting on a helmet and I come up and hit you in the head with a hammer. When you ask why I did that, I justify my action by saying “well, you should have been wearing a helmet.” Make sense?
And objectification, this one’s easy to pick out. How many times have you seen an ad with a woman’s body in it that’s been cut up or turned into an object? I won’t even bother linking any, you know the ones I’m talking about, you know the ladies who are half woman, half beer bottle? How many times have you heard men refer to women by their body parts only? Or cat-called a woman who passed them on the street?
That’s sexual objectification; by treating a woman like that, you are taking away that woman’s personhood. You are taking away all of her thoughts and feelings and turning her into an object for pleasure. And it’s not just that, either. I’ve heard arguments from the other side that “hey, men get objectified too!” And that’s true. But, the difference is that, in ads, when men are turned into objects, they still have power. They’re standing, or flexing, or have women hanging off of them. They’re still valued members of society, physically perfect and flawless, but powerful figures. When women are objectified in ads, they’re never standing, (or if they are, they’re contorted into some weird stance) they’re always in some vulnerable position. They’re never granted the dignity of dignity. They’re turned from people into objects to be used.
And, the issue with this is that we see it EVERYWHERE; T.V., billboards, social media, bus ads, what have you. It is inescapable and omnipresent in our world. This only perpetuates the normality of objectification, desensitizing and normalizing the idea that women are objects and not subjects.
Furthermore, rape and assault, although astoundingly prevalent in our culture, is not taken seriously. It is dismissed, justified, and excused every day. Plus, time and time again, it goes unpunished.
Case after case, men who have assaulted women get off easy. They’re given hilariously small sentences which are then reduced anyway. Take the case of Brock Turner, released from jail after only three months after sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. Or John Enochs, who got a year of probation after raping two women. Or David Becker. Or Austin Wilkerson. In each case, the assaulter’s normal life was at risk from the sentencing, prison threatened their promising futures and “promising careers”, so they were let off easy.
The unfortunate truth is that, in many places, the possibility of “ruining” a rapist’s life by sending him to prison is more reprehensible than the victim receiving any justice or help with their trauma.
More and more, rape and assault are just seen as an unavoidable part of living, a side effect of having men and women coexist in the same spaces.
It’s why no one believes rape victims when they come forward. It’s why only 6 out of 1,000 perpetrators will be jailed for their crimes. It’s why hundreds of thousands of rape kits sit in storage facilities untested.
It’s why so many cases go unreported because victims know that they will be dragged through the mud; called a liar and a whore, often to just watch their assaulter walk free.
It’s why it took so long for all the Harvey Weinstein stuff to come out because we’ve seen how our society handles rapists. We’ve seen how women who come forward are treated, they’re harassed and called names. They are asked questions like “Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?”Those who accused Weinstein were women who were afraid no one would believe them and that they’d be ostracized from the communities they’d worked so hard to become a part of.
Furthermore, the President recently tweeted this in defense of finding out that nearly 26,000 sexual assaults go unreported in the military every year.
When the president of the United States brushes rape off as something that happens when you put men and women together, that’s rape culture.
All of these things come together in devastating ways.
It means that we teach young girls self-defense instead of teaching young boys that a person’s body is their own and requires consent to touch.
It means that we teach young women to keep track of their drinks in bars instead of teaching our young men to not drug young women.
It means that young women are advised to not walk alone at night and to carry pepper spray instead of teaching our men to not assault young women who are alone at night.
It means that frat guys at esteemed schools like Yale (among others) can walk around cheering things like this and get away with little to no consequences.
The hardest part of all this to stomach is that, with all of the progress we’ve made in recent years, that someone like Donald Trump could still be elected president. Someone who has a long history of assault and objectification himself who continues to treat women as secondary citizens even while in office.
What kind of a message are we sending to our children? Or to our young men that believe they are entitled to a woman’s body? To those despicable frat guys?
Rape Culture, our culture, is devastating and heartbreaking and seemingly crushing. And, the truth is, I don’t know how we’re even going to begin to fix it. The task feels daunting, to say the least. But, I figure spreading the word and putting a name to it is the first step, making sure everyone knows that it’s there, always hovering over our heads and maybe, if we’re all aware that it’s there, we can begin to do something about it.
Because I refuse to be afraid anymore.
So, teach your boys from a young age to be mindful of others personal space, show them to teach women with respect. Lead by example. Watch the way you talk about women. Call out your friends when they make gross jokes or when you see them yelling at women on the street. Call out your bosses and supervisors when suspicious stuff happens.
And believe women. And believe women. And believe women.