(This is the first in a series of posts on rape culture. You can read the second post here.)
Recently, Emily and I were tabling, and a man who read Emily’s Green Means Single and Ready to Mingle zine accused her of being anti-sex. After explaining why having consensual sex is important and why Stoplight parties that ask you to wear your consent (literally) on your shirt are problematic, the man continued to aggressively disagree with Emily. At one point in the conversation, he tried to belittle Emily, suggesting that because he has a philosophy degree, he was somehow superior. Myself and another women both interjected in the conversation, and when I suggested that we live in a culture that normalizes and condones sexual violence and rape, this man replied “I don’t feel compelled to rape you right now.”
What is most frustrating is that this person’s worldview is quite common. I would go as far to argue that it is the dominant worldview. Maintaining a culture that normalizes rape and gender-based violence requires that people who have power deny its existence, blame individuals and not systems for violence, and work to undermine the credibility of those people who name rape culture, who name sexism, and who name misogyny (the hatred of women).
The maintenance of social structures that normalise sexual violence is also not just the work of people who are ignorant or who reject ideas of social equality and justice. People who believe in building a just world, who claim to oppose structures and systems of oppression, and who do (often important) work within movements for social justice, also participate in the maintenance of these structures.
So how do we fight the war against gender oppression that recognizes that often the people who stand with us in movements for justice are also perpetrators of gender violence? How do we fight rape culture?
I’ve decided to compose a couple of posts on this topic. First, I want to start by talking a bit about what I mean by rape culture, then I’ll post some resources for actually challenging rape culture, and lastly, I’ll likely talk about why I believe that the struggle against rape culture should be strongly connected to the struggle against prison.
We live in a culture that normalizes and condones violence against women. We live in a culture that creates and maintains male privilege, and socializes men to work to maintain their privilege. We live in a culture where it is okay to tell your boys to stop being bitches and man-up or grow some balls. We live in a culture where sex is treated like a conquest, and where treating your partners without respect is valourized. We live in a culture that promotes girl hate because girls who have sex are sluts, but girls who don’t are prudes, so I hope you’re playing hard to get (but not too hard to get).
We live in a culture where sexism and misogyny remains unchecked and where survivors of sexual violence and gender-based violence continue to be silent. We live in a culture where women, especially young women, don’t even have to words to name sexual assault.
Rape culture is a political term used to name rape, sexual violence, and gender-based violence as something that it not just the action of individual actors, but rather as something that is a necessary outcome of our current social and political structures. When I talk about rape culture, it is in a serious attempt to consider both how our culture trivializes rape through jokes, casual use of the word rape, victim blaming, and images of violence against women in the media, and how rape is situated within a culture that continues to treat women like objects, specifically objects for men to use, and not as people with agency and dignity who deserve respect.
Rape culture is not something that one chooses to participate in. It is part of the entire social system that we live within. Saying that you are against rape doesn’t make it so.
Rape culture is something that has to be actively resisted. It is something that we need to challenge in our every day life; with our friends, our partners, our families; in our communities; in our relationships; in our minds. When someone even thinks “she deserved it” – that is rape culture. Every time a young woman says no and isn’t heard – that is rape culture, but rape culture is also every time a women says yes, not because she wants sex, but because she feels obligated because he bought her drinks, or she took him home, or a million other reasons; and rape culture is every time someone doesn’t say anything because they don’t have the words or they don’t know they can say something.
Rape culture is every time your friends say you over reacted when you call out sexual violence, whether it’s catcalls or date rape. Rape culture is telling women to watch their drinks, don’t walk home alone, don’t wear that, don’t go there – instead of telling rapists to stop raping. Rape culture is entire sex lives of women who never experience pleasure because women aren’t supposed to enjoy sex, right?
Rape culture is the code of silence that keeps survivors quiet.
Rape culture is how I know when some girl I barely know gets uncomfortable because some “huge jerk” walks into the bar, it’s because he sexually assaulted someone she knows. Rape culture is also why she’s surprised I guessed so well. Sexual violence is so common and yet still we think of it as all these individual events.
Often, when women and trans- people remove themselves from spaces in our community, or stop participating in political struggles it has to do with sexism, sexual violence, rape, transphobia, or other forms of gender-based oppression. It is not uncommon for women involved in political struggles to go to meetings where someone who has perpetrated sexual violence or partner abuse against them is present. It is also not uncommon for perpetrators to face little or no accountability within the political struggle they participate in.
Political movements are not immune to rape culture and there are no more excuses for leaving it unchallenged in our communities.
P.S. Here are some links [some potentially triggering content]:
Rape Culture 101 [also the blog where I took one of the above photos from]
Rape Culture Thread from a international women’s studies listserv maintained by The University of Maryland, Baltimore County.