Rape Culture: It’s Not “Hysteria”, It’s Reality

This post is a response to Caroline Kitchens’ opinion piece in Time entitled “It’s time to end the ‘rape culture’ hysteria.”

In her piece, Kitchens’ argues that rape is not at all tolerated in our society.  That rapists are despised and that we have harsh punishments for them.  She refers to sexual violence advocates as “an out of control lobby”.  She uses quotes around the word “trigger” when referring to efforts by students at Wellesley to remove a statue that they were concerned could cause emotional distress to survivors of sexual trauma.  She then points to RAINN, saying that RAINN disputes the idea of rape culture and encourages that the problem be attacked through 1) bystander interventions, 2) encouraging individuals to talk about consent, and 3) making law enforcement deal with rape on college campuses.

And in doing so, she misses the entire point.

So, let’s check our internalized misogyny and look at what’s actually happening and what RAINN is actually calling for.

First, let’s talk about this whole “rape is not tolerated and we always punish rapists” bit.  It will come as no surprise to anyone reading this blog that this just is not true.  There are numerous reasons for this.  The first is a culture of victim-blaming (and don’t try to tell me it isn’t: we have all heard people say things like “but why was she dressed like that” or “why was she out that late” or “well she was drunk”).  One need look no further than the Steubenville case to see examples of this.  But it doesn’t just end with Steubenville: one can look to examples like the public’s immediate defense of Woody Allen in response to Dylan Farrow’s allegations of childhood sexual abuse, or the Maryville case where the victim’s house was burned down after she reported her perpetrator.  You can see it also in cases of harassment, particularly on college campuses.  You can’t tell me that we never make excuses for rapists, that we always punish them, that we always take these crimes seriously.  Only about 2% of rapists will ever even see the inside of a jail for such a crime-~-so the reality is, we don’t always take this seriously and we don’t always stand by victims.

I won’t really get into this “out of control lobby” argument.  Even if sexual assault advocates were a lobby, we’re lobbying for less sexual assault.  Get on board the human rights train.

This brings me to her triggering argument.  This I think is either ill-informed or just offensive, one or the other.  The reality is that a large number of sexual assault survivors suffer from what is called Rape Trauma Syndrome, a subset of PTSD.  RTS can manifest itself through flashbacks and other physical or mental reactions to things which forcibly bring up traumatic memories.  It is a real thing, and a major reason why activists try hard to take steps like putting trigger warnings on potentially triggering material.  It’s not hysteria, it’s respect for people’s lived experiences and the realities of their needs.

So let’s deal now with the REAL problem with her argument: that rape culture isn’t real, and even RAINN doesn’t think it is.

RAINN is focused on targeting practical potential solutions to the prevalence of rape and since there is no magic button to fix a culture, the reality is that those are concrete steps.  But the quote she provides from RAINN is misinterpreted in her piece.  Here’s the quote:

In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming “rape culture” for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campus. While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important not to 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.

So, RAINN is right: culture alone doesn’t cause rape.  But it does facilitate a mentality that excuses rape, or allows people to write off behavior as something other than rape, even when it is, in fact, sexual assault.  It creates situations that prevent people from feeling or being able to meaningfully report rapes or seek justice-~-those systemic barriers are real.  Rapists do need to be held individually accountable for their actions, because rape culture doesn’t force them to hurt people…but it does permit individuals to commit violent crimes without recognizing them as such, and allows them to get away with it.

Let’s talk for a second, then, about RAINN’s solutions and how they relate to rape culture, shall we?

1) Empowering community members through bystander intervention education

Bystander intervention rests on the ability to recognize problematic situations and step in before a sexual assault occurs.  This means that people need to be able to recognize that individuals may not be able to consent, or that power dynamics may exist that may encourage or facilitate rape.  It means recognizing when people are uncomfortable and being able to say something.  But it also means being able to recognize women’s sexual agency, something our culture too-often ignores.  In short, it means we need to be able to shove aside the ideas of entitlement and permissiveness, and our silence about what it means to be able to consent, and that means rejecting aspects of what we call rape culture.

2) Promote risk-reduction messaging to encourage students to increase their personal safety and promoting clearer education on “where the ‘consent line’ is.”

Our lack of conversations about consent?  They are also a part of rape culture.  It’s not about teaching people that they’re wrong to wear short skirts or to drink-~-though we should be teaching people like how to tell if someone has been slipped a date rape drug, for example.  It’s about teaching people how to draw lines and talk about consent so that these gray areas of sexual permissibility disappear, and people can be safer.

3)  Treat rape like the serious crime it is by giving power to trained law enforcement rather than internal campus judicial boards.

Yes, this is a major fault of universities.  But also, in the absence of an ability to convict, the reality is that when the police won’t do their jobs, like in the Stanford case I’ve previously blogged about, it is useful to allow universities to at least be able to suspend individuals or otherwise punish them in the face of a preponderance of the evidence.

But I’ll leave you with this, because she attacks the idea that we should teach boys not to rape, and argues that men are taught not to rape and to revile rape throughout their lives.  This is true of the traditional stranger-in-the-bushes narrative, but that’s not the problem.  The problem is that boys are not taught to respect no as an answer.  I speak based both on personal experiences and based on statistics: guys will continue to push until a girl capitulates.  It’s the fact that people are taught that silence is consent, even though consent should have to be an active consent.  It’s the fact that people in general are not taught what sexual assault actually is, and as such, perpetrate violations that they consider acceptable because they are never taught that these are violations.  Of men who admit to having committed acts that legally qualify as rape, the vast majority said that what they did was definitely not rape.

Statistics vary, but at least 1 in 12 college men report having committed acquaintance rape in anonymous surveys, and though I can’t find them right now, I’ve definitely seen higher numbers somewhere.  The reality is that rapes are happening, and happening at a staggering rate, without people recognizing them as such.  That is rape culture, and that’s not a hysteria we need to clamp down on: it’s a reality we need to act on, before more people get hurt.


~ by Randi Saunders on April 3, 2014.

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