We're Not "Hysterical" for Talking About Rape Culture

A protester holds a sign saying "end rape culture."

Why does rape happen?

Because a rapist chooses to rape someone. Because someone felt so entitled to sex, they didn’t care whether their selected partner was able or willing to consent. No one is disagreeing there. But why does that choice happen? Where does that sense of entitlement come from?

If you ask RAINN or TIME magazine, they wouldn’t be able to give you an answer. Or, perhaps, they would say it doesn’t matter why. Earlier this month, RAINN—the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization—wrote recommendations for a White House task force on sexual assault that included a line about how in recent years, there has been an “unfortunate trend towards blaming ‘rape culture’" for sexual violence on college campuses. “While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime,” read the recommendations. TIME followed up with an article announcing, “It’s time to end ‘rape culture’ hysteria.”

If you ask me though, or many people working to end sexual violence, we’d tell you that the choice to commit rape happens because we live in a world that supports and condones non-consensual sex in many ways every day.  We live in a culture that makes sex a zero-sum game—something women are expected to perform, and then protect. Something men are expected to relentlessly desire, and then take. 

The theory of rape culture gives us a way to understand why sexual violence happens. It tasks us not with pointing fingers at false problems, but with working together to change our society.

We may very well live in a culture where almost everyone—outwardly, at least—agrees that rape is wrong. But we also live in a culture that doesn’t understand, on a very basic level, what rape really is. And apparently, one of the best-known anti-sexual violence organizations doesn’t have the ability to understand the nuance of why that’s true. 

What RAINN gets wrong in their assertion is the idea that rape culture provides distraction from the real goal of holding rapists accountable. No one I have ever met who understands rape culture disagrees that rapists need to be held responsible more often. While one in four men globally say they’ve forced a woman to have sex against her will, only 23 percent have been punished. When we talk about rape culture, we are talking about holding rapists accountable. We're talking about the reasons that rapists are so frequently exonerated, the reasons rapists feel comfortable committing more crimes, the reasons that rape goes unreported, and the ways that victims are blamed for the choices made by rapists. When we talk about rape culture, we’re talking about the “why” and we're saying that every one of us is responsible for holding rapists accountable. 

Rapists are primarily at fault for rape, but we all have a role in changing the reasons and ways rape is allowed, excused, and misunderstood.

My disappointment with RAINN’s recommendations isn’t that they want to focus more intensively on holding rapists accountable. I, too, wish the criminal justice system, campus administrations, and all systems that impact survivors had a clearer understanding of sexual violence and were better at holding rapists accountable. I wish there were better systems for dealing with rape than just telling survivors to go to the police and putting rapists in jail. We know that those institutions often fail at accountability and fail survivors. The theory of rape culture helps us understand why that is. Talking about rape culture is not hysterical. It gives us a frame for dismantling the ways our society supports rapists, and it tasks us all with changing them.

Hopefully, the White House will hear that loud and clear. 

Megan Kovacs works in Portland, OR on domestic and sexual violence prevention and coordinates Raphael House of Portland's education program. 

Photo Credit: Chase Carter via Creative Commons.


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Comments

16 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Very solid article and I

Very solid article and I completely agree. is there a petition or another method for bringing this attention to the White House?

I don't understand how a prominent anti-sexual violence organization such as RAINN can make such a simple and grievous mistake. We need to take a stand.

Thank you for writing this article.

So important

Thanks for posting this critique of RAINN's stance on rape culture and the Time article that called those who talk about rape culture hysterical. I read this a few days ago, and it was troubling to me. I agree with you and RAINN that men (or anyone who chooses to rape or sexually assault someone should be held accountable, but at the same time, I've witnessed too many things to not believe that rape culture exists in our society. I'm also troubled because I've seen people use the argument this stance on rape culture to attempt to shut down conversations about rape culture in public forums, such as social media, which really bothers me. I particularly find the term "hysterical" that Time uses offensive because, once again, the word hysteria has a problematic connotation, linked with a long history of negating women and their feelings.

As for seeing/witnessing, I recently saw an example of rape culture in the film adaptation of Divergent, where a scene in which he MC is under a simulation / fear landscape that was originally meant to depict the MC as being afraid of sexual intimacy, in part because she was completely inexperienced. In the film, they changed this to a scene where the MC's boyfriend (who has always been respectful) touches her, she says "no," and rather listening, he pushes her down on the bed, pinning her arms until she has to kick him in the groin to get away. I strongly felt like they were conflating sex with rape, and this is a movie that parents take their 11 year old's to. To me, that's scary and without a doubt, rape culture. I wrote about it further here:
http://www.yabookshelf.com/2014/03/rape-culture-in-the-divergent-movie-heres-why-it-matters-part-1/

Is 1 out of 4 men really a

Is 1 out of 4 men really a small percentage as RAINN claim?

do not know if 1/4 of is low

Having lived 40 years as male, I have witnessed men speak about their dates.

I will never forget when a guy, stoned, went on this rift about being on a date with an 'annoying hot girl'. He totally went into the date rapist space. It was very scary. This guy was your average white college male that your mother would love to met.

No guy in the group confronted him. Why would they? He was putting in the work, a dull date, to reach the goal- sex with a hot girl.

Yeah, it was a scary thing to witness.

You make many good points,

You make many good points, but one statement is particularly troubling: "Rapists are primarily at fault for rape, but we all have a role..."

This, possibly, is what RAINN might have been getting at. You use the word "primarily" to assign fault, which implies a shifting of culpability away from the person who decided to commit a violent felony and toward rape culture. Perhaps this was the whole point of RAINN's recs? That rape culture, while clearly existent and objectively terrible, should not be used as a scape goat villain in lieu of those who decide to commit criminal acts?

Well thought out piece. But I would have much preferred a sentence that read "Rapists are SOLELY at fault for rape..."

To fight against rape culture and victim blaming is to acknowledge that victims are never at fault for what happened to them. The inverse of this, then, is logically true: if victims are never at fault, than rapists must be solely at fault. Because the minute you blame rape culture for the actions of a criminal, you are blaming a culture in which the victim lives. And in so doing, you are indirectly placing a small amount of blame on the victim. If I accept your statement that rapists are only primarily, and not solely, at fault, then I am able to state that as a society, a society in which the victim lives, we share in the blame for the criminal actions of an individual.

Combating rape culture and making a criminal individually and legally culpable for his or her actions should not be mutually exclusive things. Many are upset with RAINN for implying they are mutually exclusive. But your statement that rapists are only "primarily" at fault accomplishes the exact same thing for which people are upset with RAINN--it implies the same mutual exclusivity.

But you know, otherwise a good piece.

Slightly disagree

You make many good points, but one statement is particularly troubling: "Rapists are primarily at fault for rape, but we all have a role..."

This, possibly, is what RAINN might have been getting at. You use the word "primarily" to assign fault, which implies a shifting of culpability away from the person who decided to commit a violent felony and toward rape culture. Perhaps this was the whole point of RAINN's recs? That rape culture, while clearly existent and objectively terrible, should not be used as a scape goat villain in lieu of those who decide to commit criminal acts?

Well thought out piece. But I would have much preferred a sentence that read "Rapists are SOLELY at fault for rape..."

To fight against rape culture and victim blaming is to acknowledge that victims are never at fault for what happened to them. The inverse of this, then, is logically true: if victims are never at fault, than rapists must be solely at fault. Because the minute you blame rape culture for the actions of a criminal, you are blaming a culture in which the victim lives. And in so doing, you are indirectly placing a small amount of blame on the victim. If I accept your statement that rapists are only primarily, and not solely, at fault, then I am able to state that as a society, a society in which the victim lives, we share in the blame for the criminal actions of an individual.

Combating rape culture and making a criminal individually and legally culpable for his or her actions should not be mutually exclusive things. Many are upset with RAINN for implying they are mutually exclusive. But your statement that rapists are only "primarily" at fault accomplishes the exact same thing for which people are upset with RAINN--it implies the same mutual exclusivity.

But you know, otherwise a good piece.

Slightly disagree

You make many good points, but one statement is particularly troubling: "Rapists are primarily at fault for rape, but we all have a role..."

This, possibly, is what RAINN might have been getting at. You use the word "primarily" to assign fault, which implies a shifting of culpability away from the person who decided to commit a violent felony and toward rape culture. Perhaps this was the whole point of RAINN's recs? That rape culture, while clearly existent and objectively terrible, should not be used as a scape goat villain in lieu of those who decide to commit criminal acts?

Well thought out piece. But I would have much preferred a sentence that read "Rapists are SOLELY at fault for rape..."

To fight against rape culture and victim blaming is to acknowledge that victims are never at fault for what happened to them. The inverse of this, then, is logically true: if victims are never at fault, than rapists must be solely at fault. Because the minute you blame rape culture for the actions of a criminal, you are blaming a culture in which the victim lives. And in so doing, you are indirectly placing a small amount of blame on the victim. If I accept your statement that rapists are only primarily, and not solely, at fault, then I am able to state that as a society, a society in which the victim lives, we share in the blame for the criminal actions of an individual.

Combating rape culture and making a criminal individually and legally culpable for his or her actions should not be mutually exclusive things. Many are upset with RAINN for implying they are mutually exclusive. But your statement that rapists are only "primarily" at fault accomplishes the exact same thing for which people are upset with RAINN--it implies the same mutual exclusivity.

But you know, otherwise a good piece.

the backlash

The one heartening thing about this is the strong backlash. It seems that the concept of rape culture has gotten more traction since cases like Steubenville, though we obviously still have a lot of work to do. The latest episode of Fucking While Feminist with Jaclyn Friedman has an interesting discussion of various problems with the recommendations RAINN is making to the White House.

Thanks for the piece, I linked it in my blog post and this and a couple other head-scratching moments from this week's news: http://ow.ly/vavo0

bs

Men don't rape because "they feel entitled". This goes to show how ignorant feminism is about male psychology. They rape because they are horny, women don't have the same sex drive, so it's impossible for them to even begin to understand. So a small minority of men will disregard the emotional and bodily integrity of others and rape them to satisfy their lust. They know it is wrong, they know they AREN'T entitled to it, but they do it anyway because they are bad people. Bad people will always exist. Bad people will always be doing bad things.

The definition of rape

Rape is an act of violence, not of "horniness." Sex drive has little to do with rape. Impotent men rape.

Teresa T. Goodell, RN, PhD

nurse, advocate, feminist

What is the basis of the

What is the basis of the assertion that rape is about power not sex? Is there some sort of study to back this up? An observation?
To me it seems on par with saying robbery is not about money but about power, I'm sure it is in there somewhere, but to say it is the main objective? What is the evidence? If this were true, why would sexual assaults DECREASE when pornography laws are relaxed? Pornography allows for sexual release, but not a 'power' release.

Why do a small percentage of men (and women) steal? Do we have a theft culture? What about child abuse, do we have a child abuse culture? Why do some women, in the throws of post-partum depression choose to kill themselves and their children? Is it because we, as a culture hate children and want them dead?

Women are honey too. People

Women are honey too. People are same, either men or women. There is a myth that women can't rape men. This critical information is censored by selfish politicians for centuries.

TIME: Hysteria - RAINN: Strategy

I thought this was an excellent piece. But I would urge you to make a sharper distinction between what TIME does and what RAINN does. The TIME article is garbage, which borrows fragments from RAINN's recommendations to the White House to make a loud noise, a kind of cognitive fart at the expense of the people that really matter in this debate. What RAINN is doing is strategically focusing policymakers on what is within the power of policymakers as policymakers to change. I don't think RAINN or its representatives are trivializing rape culture, or reducing the rape culture perspective to hysteria. Again, reactionary muck-slinging is TIME's forte. I say this from the perspective of someone who works in the consultancy space, translating data into actionable briefs for policymakers. The latter have neither the time nor resources, nor, frankly, the expertise, to address these issues in the way that a responsible academic or social activist does. This is not to excuse policymakers. Government ought to look very different. But it doesn't. What RAINN are doing is strategic intervention attuned to the peculiar cognitive ecology of the policy space. By framing the issue in the way they have done, they are making it more likely that the policy changes they are hoping for won't crash headlong into the prejudices of a bunch of prickly, terrified old white men trapped in a worldview that practically precludes reflexivity.

The article quoted for the

The article quoted for the figure of one in four men admitting to rape is not a global study, but one covering Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Sri Lanka. The article indeed says, "The researchers caution that some regional attitudes about sexuality in Southeastern Asia may contribute to the results that they gathered across those six countries." If you want people to support your position that rape culture exists against the claim of the author of the Time article, wording cited facts in a misleading way is only going to confirm people's perception that the idea of rape culture is being blown out of proportion.

Problems with math...?

I don't want to sound critical of the writer on something that is kinda trivial, but 23% and 25% are not that far off, especially in terms of legal action against the offender... I can't tell if they were confused on the math or if they were being intentionally dishonest, but I like to assume the former.

"While one in four men (25%) globally say they’ve forced a woman to have sex against her will, only 23 (almost one in four again) percent have been punished."

That technicality aside, I think there are legitimate reasons to have small doubts about all non-consensual sex meaning there is a definite victim and definite offender, especially when we are now calling any intoxication before and the following regretted/bad decisions as being purely the fault of one person.

I have not forced anyone to have sex, but I have had girlfriends use emotional blackmail to get me to have sex more often. I don't think I have ever heard anyone call that rape, but it certainly fits the idea more than a lot of intoxicated consensual sex that gets labelled as rape a day or 2 later. I've also dated 4 girls who were victims of assaults and can understand the triggers that come with any form of PTSD. It makes people see everything as a threat or everyone as if they are that evil person who assaulted them. This is just not as much of a black and white issue as many seem to claim. Maybe someday we can all have an honest conversation and stop thinking in such polarized ways...

Math Clarification

"While one in four men (25%) globally say they’ve forced a woman to have sex against her will,..” means that 25% of the male population surveyed believe that they have forced a woman to have sex.

…only 23 percent have been punished." states that 23% of the offenders (the 25%) have been punished. This is 5.75% of the total respondents. You seemed to interpret the 23% as the percentage of all the men surveyed; if this were the case, all the men surveyed would have had charges brought up against them and the conviction rate would be 23%, which is not true.

In conclusion, the original poster is correct in their assertions.