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3 Components of Rape Culture and What You Can Do to Fight Back

Fingers pointing at young woman

By Christin P. Bowman, MS, MA (Doctoral student in Critical Social-Personality Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York)

**Trigger warning. This blog is about sexual violence.**

Let’s make something clear right from the start: Rape is caused by rape culture.

Rape culture has many ingredients, and like any successful recipe, once you blend them together, it’s harder to taste the individual flavors. Rape culture is so entrenched in our society, and its components so ubiquitous, we may sense that something doesn’t taste right, but be at a loss to pinpoint the problem.

This blog will break down the main components of rape culture and then give you concrete ways to combat it.

#1: Power, Anger, & Hyper-masculinity

While it may be true that men do the vast majority of the raping, men who rape did not become rapists in a vacuum.

Our society values men most when they adhere to the harsh expectations of hyper-masculinity. Being hyper-masculine has a lot to do with power. Men learn that they should always be dominant, and if their dominance is threatened, they should express the only emotion they are allowed – anger. Research shows that most rapes are exercises of power or anger.

Hyper-masculinity also expects that men are always up for sex. Men apparently have such uncontrollable sex drives that once they’re aroused, there’s no turning back. Let’s say a woman consents to certain levels of sexual activity, like kissing or touching, and her male partner is aroused. If she dares to say no to sex after “leading him on,” then some would say he is justified in raping her. After all, as Virginia state senator Richard Black said, rape is “human nature.”

While we can all be grateful that politicians who make such dangerous statements are generally criticized these days, rape is still justified through the use of that ol’ “human nature” chestnut. But men aren’t rapists by nature. Men are socialized in a rape culture that promotes rigid expectations of masculinity. Simply blaming men without examining masculinity buys right into rape culture and sells men short. And let’s not forget that men and boys are raped too.

#2: Sexual Objectification of Women’s Bodies

Our society’s obsession with the appearance of women’s bodies sustains rape culture. Girls learn from a young age that what matters most about them is the way they look, and boys are taught to value this in girls above all else. Because of our culture’s relentless focus on appearance, women are constantly turned into objects. Women literally are hamburgers in some advertisements, or are cut into sexualized pieces in others.

This obsession with women’s appearance causes women to look at their own bodies as sexual objects, a phenomenon known in psychology as self-objectification. Research shows that self-objectification is linked to body shame, disordered eating, depression, substance abuse, and sexual dysfunction.

The problem with turning women’s bodies into objects 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.

#3: Systemic and Institutional Support

When we say that something is a “systemic” problem, we mean that it spreads throughout the entire system (in this case, our society), and when we say that something is “institutional,” we mean that there are structures and mechanisms in place to maintain something. Rape culture is both.

For example, when rape victims seek help, they must often answer invasive and offensive questions to defend the circumstances of the rape. Police may ask: “What were you wearing?” “Were you drinking?” “Did you flirt?” “Did you say ‘no’ loud enough?” “Did you fight back?” “Did you scream?” Furthermore, in hundreds of thousands of instances, victims’ rape kits have never been analyzed. This isn’t one victim, one rapist, one police officer – it’s not an individual problem. This is embedded in our very systems of social order.

Or take the case of politicians arguing that only some sorts of rape are “honest,” or “legitimate,” that women frequently fake having been raped, that marital rape shouldn’t be a crime, that pregnancies resulting from rape are really just gifts from God, and that because rape is inevitable anyway (there’s that “human nature” gem again), why shouldn’t women just “sit back and enjoy it?” In fact, many politicians still refuse to take sexual assault in the military or in prisons seriously, and it doesn’t get more institutional than that.

Thankfully, many of these politicians have since lost their elections. But in many cases, the damage of this systemic rhetoric is already done. Young women who have come forward about their rapes have been bullied by their peers, ridiculed by their communities, ignored by the authorities, and in these three cases have committed suicide. Though it is systems and institutions that uphold rape culture, it is individual lives that are destroyed.

How to Fight Back

Preventing rape means changing an entire culture. Here’s how to get started:

  1. Encourage boys and men to express emotions and unravel hyper-masculinity: William Pollack’s work is a great place to start, and look out for a documentary on the topic coming soon.

  2. Push back against sexual objectification: Evidence-based activists at the girl-fueled organization, SPARK, provide a great model and the Miss Representation documentary is a must.

  3. Rape prevention courses: Foubert, Godin, and Tatum found that men can take a rape prevention class in college that affects them for years. The course teaches empathy and then how to intervene in dangerous situations, support a rape survivor, and even confront others who tell jokes about rape. Another study by Klaw and colleagues found similar results. Get involved here.

  4. Engage bystanders: Cases like the Steubenville rapes remind us there are often times when people see something bad happening, and don’t know how to stop it. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center provides tons of research and information about how to reverse this trend.

  5. Change public perception of what’s acceptable: Several successful anti-rape campaigns all around the globe are working to dismantle rape culture. Check out the “Don’t be that guy” campaign in Canada that has cut sexual assaults in Vancouver by 10%. A campaign in the UK takes a similar approach. Feminist organizations like Take Back the Night and V-Day have long histories of pushing back against sexual violence. And remember that women have many male allies committed to tearing down rape culture (including President Obama).

Rape culture may be a giant multi-faceted problem, but if we commit to addressing each of these damaging components in turn, we can move ever closer to eradicating rape for good.

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