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Blackburn 101: What Is Rape Culture?

If you follow us on social media or read our blog, you’ve seen that phrase hundreds of times: “rape culture.” It’s become a shorthand term in modern culture for any number of societal issues involving violence against women…but what exactly does it mean? In the first of our Blackburn 101 series, we set out to define this term to help all of our readers better understand exactly what rape culture is ... because if you don’t know what rape culture is or how to recognize it, you’ll have a pretty hard time fighting it!

What Is Rape Culture?

The technical definition of rape culture is “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.” That’s a lot of words — and they may not help you understand what we mean when we talk about rape culture. How about some examples?

The most prevalent examples of rape culture are things that you probably see every day: gendered violence in pop culture, much of which ties sex and violence together in incredibly disturbing ways (How many books depict a male suitor “overcoming the resistance” of an unwilling woman as a “romantic encounter”? How many television shows and movies feature violence against women as a main plot point?). Beyond media, however, there are countless examples of rape culture in daily life. When a woman is raped, she is frequently blamed for her own assault — or her choices are scrutinized (what she was wearing, whether she was drinking, what her motivations were). Do you remember the case where a nursing home worker raped an 89 year old woman, and his boss said that she flirted with her rapist? THAT is rape culture — and victim-blaming happens far too frequently in our country. It can also include situations where a rape victim’s allegations are not taken seriously, for any number of reasons — think about the 26 women who have accused Bill Cosby of drugging and assaulting them, and how so many people denied the truth of their allegations for years (or decades, in some cases). Rape culture also occurs when sexual assault is trivialized — like when someone downplays rape by saying “boys will be boys!” or focuses on how the assault affects the rapist (such was the case after the convictions in the Steubenville rape case, where a CNN anchor lamented about how the rapists would have had such “promising futures” — and didn’t spare a single word for the victim or the devastating impact on her life.) Rape culture is also seen in gender stereotypes, like assuming that men cannot be raped, or that women who are raped must have been “promiscuous”. It can include pressuring men to have sex with a lot of women, and defining masculinity as being dominant and sexually aggressive. Rape culture can also include pressuring women to not be “cold,” and defining femininity as being submissive and sexually passive.Tolerating sexual harassment or sexually explicit jokes can be examples of rape culture. A recent example? The discovery that many top officials and government employees in Pennsylvania were emailing each other pornography at work — including pictures that depicted female employees performing sexual “favors” to advance at work. That is rape culture. It can be seen in street harassment — as demonstrated in the video filmed by Holla Back, highlighted on our blog. Finally, when educating or talking about rape, if the focus is on how women can avoid being raped — instead of teaching men not to rape — that is rape culture. Recently, Ramapo College in New Jersey made national news for telling female students to practice what became known as their “anti-rape face” — instead of educating male students to NOT rape. This attitude is shockingly prevalent in our country, with well-known columnists writing pieces about how the real cause of the campus sexual assault epidemic is alcohol, or how women want to gain “privileged” status by claiming that they are victims of rape.

In short, rape culture is a society where sexual violence is seen as the norm. This happens because we are so surrounded by images, jokes, television, advertising and words that make gender violence seem so normal that we believe that rape is inevitable. It’s a culture where we are conditioned to believe that violence against women is just the way things are. But it doesn’t have to be this way — once we understand what rape culture is, we can (and must!) work to end it. If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve taken the first step by learning what rape culture is — and now you can move forward in the quest to stop it by doing things like taking the pledge to end gender violence, donating your time and/or money to organizations that are trying to end rape culture (like Blackburn Center!) and becoming a conscious consumer of media. In April, you can help us fight against rape culture by joining us for our signature event, Walk a Mile in Her Shoes. All year round, you can stand up against rape culture by refusing to accept sexual violence as the norm — through your thoughts, words and actions. Together, we can make a difference and show that rape is NOT inevitable!


Watch this space each month for more of our Blackburn 101 series!

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