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In a growing conversation about sexual assault on college campuses, we often hear the term "rape culture" used to describe the metaphorical "system" of society that allows these horrible crimes to keep happening with seemingly little effort to stop them. You also probably hear the term "rape culture" dismissed as some radical-liberal PC myth. So, what really is a rape culture, and wtf does it mean on a college campus?
What is rape culture?
The term "rape culture" refers to a setting in which sexual violence is normalized, excused, and even accepted as a fact of life, due to assumptions about gender and sexuality. Rape culture does not simply exist. It's created by the ways people think about what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, and what sex is and should be.
When people believe that men should be aggressive, dominant, and strong, and that women should be passive, submissive, and weak, we create a certain set of normal or excusable behaviors based on these characteristics. When we believe that sex is something that men want and women give up, and that attitude combines with established norms for men and women's behavior, we normalize, excuse, and accept sexual violence as a simple fact.
Rape culture is ever-present in our lives. Perhaps, most unfortunately, in ways that we do not even notice.
In a rape culture, we start with the assumption that a woman who reports a rape is lying when we easily believe that victims of virtually all other crimes are being honest with their reports.
When students go away to college they assume that everyone just gets drunk and has sex. They assume that it's okay to get someone drunk in order to have sex. That's rape culture.
In a rape culture, a woman who has sex often and with many different people is a slut (or loose, or easy), but a man who has sex often and with many different people is a boss.
A rape culture is one in which violence against women is excused, in many forms. Rape culture is when no one thinks it's a big deal to catcall or grope women on the street, or when NFL players hardly get a slap on the wrist for beating the living hell out of their spouses.
It's also rape culture when a rapist (finally, and rarely) gets punished for the crime, and onlookers lament the rapists' "promising futures," as happened in the Steubenville, Ohio case where high school football players documented their night-long, brutal assault of a female classmate with photos and text messages.
Rape culture is also when we teach kids that teasing, and hurting, and being mean to one another are signs of "love." Like when a boy beat up a little girl, and a nurse at the hospital told her that he must just like her. Rape culture teaches us that sometimes the people who love us show it by beating us up. That teaches kids that violence is ok, and those kids grow up to feel they deserve their abuse: "he only punched me because I wouldn't listen," or "he wouldn't have raped me if I just said yes."
I knew I was living in a certified rape culture when a friend of mine mentioned to a group of us, very casually, that she was raped. She even called it that, but then immediately dismissed the incident:
"Yeah dude Matt is a douche. Like, he's hot, but scary.""Wait what are you talking about?"
"No, I've told you guys this before. I blacked out and woke up naked and clearly he fucked me and I was like uhh, what the fuck?"
"Holy shit, Linds."
"It's really whatever. I literally have sex with anyone so can you really like, even rape me?"
"Can you really even rape me?" Laughing ensued. It is only in a rape culture that a woman can be violated in the most intimate way possible, and yet explain it away herself.
We live in a world where approximately 1 in 5 women and about 1 in 71 men in the United States have survived an attempted or completed sexual assault (National Violence Against Women Survey; CDC's National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey). And yet we live in a world where rape and sexual assault aren't discussed. Despite the staggering statistics that show that sexual assault is an important and prominent issue for girls, young women, boys, and young men, only 21% of children receive sexual assault education in school, while 55% receiving bullying education (Finklehor 2014).
A rape culture allows sexual violence to continue without serious opposition or efforts to fight it. For the pervasive violation of women to truly end, our society has to change its attitudes about men, women, and sex.
This is our problem to change
You don't have to stand idly by and accept that you live in a world where 1 in 5 women survive a sexual assault. Each of us, everyday, can take action in both big and small ways to start to change the rape culture around us. In smaller communities, like college campuses, these concerted actions can have a combined impact that truly changes things.
To stop trivializing rape, we need to stop laughing at or brushing off rape jokes.
Rape is a seriously damaging crime, and that's nothing to have a chuckle at. On top of that, you never know if someone around you has survived a sexual assault. You could be giving them a flashback to the worst moment in their life, and that's nothing to make light of.
If or when someone tells you they've been assaulted, be understanding, supportive, and believe them.
You wouldn't start questioning the reliability of a friend's story about having their wallet stolen, so don't question their reliability here. You can read more about how to be supportive of someone who's been assaulted here.
It is possible to interfere in potentially dangerous situations in a non-aggressive way.
If you see a situation that looks like it could end up in a sexual assault, you can separate the people in a number of ways. Join in the conversation and be, (excuse the crude term), a cock block. Tell one of the people their friend is looking for them in another place, make sure someone gets walked home safely, or ask someone else to interfere in another way. It may not be the most comfortable thing for you to do at a party, but you could truly save someone. That is priceless.
Don't hold people to bullshit standards.
It's time we stop putting expectations on other people. Don't give your guy friends shit for being "soft" or "a pussy" or "whipped." Don't call other women "sluts." This language can seem harmless, but it contributes to our expectations of what people should and shouldn't be, and creates an environment in what rape is excusable.
Sexual assault is a serious epidemic on college campuses, and sadly, it doesn't appear to be going anywhere in a hurry. I don't want to allow these crimes to continue happening in the places we love. It is up to you, to me, to the people who make these campuses what they are: vibrant, exciting, and challenging. It's up to us to come together to make them better, safer, more accepting places. It is not impossible, and it can happen sooner than any of us might expect.