What is “Rape Culture”?

My stomach sank hen I read about the latest trend for young boys. “Rape face” is what it’s called. C’mon you know, that awkward smirk a man gets on his face before he is about to rape someone. That knowing look that he knows he is up to something mischievous. Yeah… me either.

On instagram, Facebook and Twitter this trend of taking awkward smile pictures of yourself or “rape face” is taking on like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” did when I was in middle school.

Over the last few months I have heard a lot about “rape culture” and I sort of knew what it meant, but learning about “rape face” made me want to explore this topic more, what does the term actually mean and how it affects our quest for women’s equal rights?

If you’re thinking that this only relates to women who have been raped, please read on, this affects all of us. Men and women alike.

What is rape culture?

It seems that things over time should get better, not worse. In the struggle for women’s equality we can point to areas where we have succeeded (thanks to my grandma and other feisty women).

Unfortunately when it comes to violence against women however, we seem to be going backwards and quickly. Despite being a jarring term, “rape culture” extends far beyond rape having broad reaching consequences.

Rape culture is defined by Marshall University as:

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.”

Wikepedia’s definition: 

Rape culture is a concept that links rape and sexual violence to the culture of a society, and in which prevalent attitudes and practices normalize, excuse, tolerate, and even condone rape. Examples of behaviors commonly associated with rape culture include victim blaming, sexual objectification, and trivializing rape.” 

In short: Violence against women in music videos, magazines, pop culture, pornography, politics, television, movies and relationships is increasing and in some cases, glorified.

Upsetting Rape Culture, discusses the myth of stranger rape, something perpetuated by the media and plays into rape culture. This is the misconception that the majority of rape occurs as a violent act by a stranger. The truth of the matter is, most rape is an act by someone the person already knows, and can even be a boyfriend/husband/partner.

Examples of “rape culture”

  • Music industry. The most popular song of the summer was Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” This song is about date rape and a man’s frustration with the “blurred lines” around a woman’s consent. Rape culture allows songs like this to hit the airwaves, hit the top of the charts and the VMA Award performance with Thicke and Miley Cyrus. Racism rears its ugly head in this discussion as well, women of color often treated with different standards of what’s “acceptable” in the public eye. The VMA show exemplified this as Miley Cyrus treated her female, women of color counterparts, as animals (literally) while she had her way with them.
  • Internet memes. The “rape face” craze I talked about earlier is a clear example of our culture normalizing and accepting rape.
  • Ad campaigns. There are many ways in which advertising contributes to rape culture, which often starts with objectifying women (making it easier to commit acts of violence against women later). These PETA ads are just one extreme example of the glorification of violence against women. Dr. Isis links to a horrible PETA ad (so bad I don’t want to directly link to the video here, but you can find it on her blog here) that shows a young woman limping down the street with a neck brace in her underwear. Only to come home to her boyfriend spackling a hole in the wall (while the commercial clips to an aggressive sex scene). The concept of the ad was supposed to show that vegans have “hotter sex” which is depicted as being so aggressive in bed that the woman’s head breaks the wall and she needs a neck brace afterward. (?!) Jean Kilbourne explains the role of advertising in the increased acceptance of violence against women in her Killing Me Softly video (you can watch it below).
  • Pornography. Increased violence against women in pornography — No one likes to talk about this one. The fact remains that as violence against women has become the “new norm” in pornography, it is creeping into our bedrooms. Women can often feel pressure to be the woman her partner fantasizes or watches in his personal time. The normalization of watching pornography has a common place “tolerance” being built as to what turns men (and women) on. All of these factors lead to an increased acceptance of aggressive and violent sexual behavior in our bedrooms.

Cindy Gallop “decided to set up Make Love Not Porn, to promote “real sex”. She says it well here, “Guys watch porn and when they go to bed with a real woman, all they think about is recreating that scenario,” she says. And women, who are watching porn in ever-greater numbers themselves, “start believing that that is what they have to be like in bed as well.”

  • Politics. Remember in the last election how candidates running for Congress talked about “legitimate rape”? Ignorance and sexism rear their ugly heads in politics and contribute to rape culture.

All of these messages and images affect how we view women in society. As writer Eric Clapp points out,

Studies have shown that viewing images of objectified women gives men “greater tolerance for sexual harassment and greater rape myth acceptance,” and helps them view women as “less competent” and “less human.“ 

All of this is hard to talk about.

We need to have an honest conversation about the role pornography is playing in increased aggressive bedroom behavior (and outside the bedroom) with out creating shame for men and women who watch pornography. We need to talk about the hyper sexualization of young girls and pop stars, without having them feel like they are being punished for expressing themselves. We need to talk about the normalization of rape among friends and partners, and what we can do to quickly show our young men, boys, girls and women that this is not “normal”.

Possible solutions

I don’t claim to have all the answers as to how we can move away from this culture of accepting sexual violence against women. There are smart women who have thought a lot more deeply about this issue than I have, but here are a few of my thoughts on what we can do to move us forward. I would love your thoughts in the comments below.

  • Talk about the issue more – the more we shed light on this harmful trend in pop culture, the more we can address it head on.
  • Call out advertiser, musicians, and movies that glorify violence against women.
  • If your partner wants aggressive behavior in the bedroom talk to him or her about your comfort level.  Be mindful of when you are inviting aggressive behavior into the bedroom because you think it’s what he/she wants.
  • Talk to your children about (and censor when appropriate) the pop culture references your children are exposed to.
  • Talk to your sons and nephews about what is appropriate behavior and why not participating in memes like “rape face” is critical.
  • Pay attention to the role of race and racism in rape culture. If you come from a place of privilege, acknowledge that and work tirelessly to learn and make sure you’re not perpetuating racism intentionally or inadvertently.
  • Enjoy parody videos like this that will make you laugh and feel better about the world.
  • Talk to people about observations you see and why you feel it’s not okay. Talk to men and women about this topic and see what they think — the less shame we have she talking about these issues the better off we will all be.

We need to call out when we see evidence of “rape culture” and not be afraid of coming off as shrill or “overreacting”.

We have a long way to go in accepting women (all women) as equals in society, and we need to get closer to equality faster. It is our collective responsibility to stop this widespread acceptance of violence against women as just the “new normal”.

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8 Responses to What is “Rape Culture”?

  1. Ginny December 19, 2013 at 9:44 pm #

    Lindsay,
    I am so glad you don’t back down from the tough stuff!!
    Thank you for writing about this and taking us all one step closer to those conversations.

    • Lindsay Dahl December 20, 2013 at 6:53 am #

      You’re welcome Ginny. It’s hard for me not to talk about these issues, they are just too important. Silence only lets the beast grow.

  2. Kaitie April 16, 2016 at 8:44 pm #

    I am doing a research paper on Rape Culture, and I stumbled upon your blog. I really like this post. In my research, I hadn’t found anything about the effect of pornography, and I think you bring up awesome points. Also, I had already done my research about the PETA ads. I am still horrified.

    • Lindsay Dahl May 14, 2016 at 11:53 am #

      Katie, thank you for your thoughtful comment!

  3. Jenn Liakos June 23, 2016 at 10:10 pm #

    This is a great article. Even more so in the face of the Stanford sexual assault case that is currently in the media. I agree that the idea of what is acceptable and normal is off track. Perhaps now as much as ever.

    • Lindsay Dahl July 6, 2016 at 10:27 am #

      Thank you for the positive feedback. We have a lot of work to do as a culture!

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