March 29, 2014 / News

Rape Culture Is Not Hysteria



The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

In a recent Time Magazine article titled It’s Time to End ‘Rape Culture’ Hysteria, Caroline Kitchens argues that America does not have a rape culture, but rather “an out-of-control lobby leading the public and our educational and political leaders down the wrong path.” She points to statements from RAINN’s recent recommendations to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault to back up her claim.

When the recommendations from RAINN are read in their entirety, they do say, “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.”

But that is not the whole story. Let’s look at what else RAINN had to say in their recommendations:

“This has led to an inclination to focus on particular segments of the student population (e.g., athletes), particular aspects of campus culture (e.g., the Greek system), or traits that are common in many millions of law-abiding Americans (e.g., ‘masculinity’), rather than on the subpopulation at fault: those who choose to commit rape…Research supports the view that to focus solely on certain social groups or “types” of students in the effort to end campus sexual violence is a mistake.”

This doesn’t mean that rape culture isn’t a piece of the puzzle, just that it isn’t the entire puzzle. No activist would disagree with this truth.

Words matter, and I am disappointed RAINN glossed so quickly over the “systemic barriers” and put rape culture in quotes, but I don’t believe anything stated in their recommendations actually disproves or mitigates the very real effect the rape culture has on society as a whole and survivors of sexual assault specifically. And I do not think they were speaking out against the prevalence or relevance of rape culture as strongly as Caroline Kitchens would have us believe. It seems to me they are calling for a balanced approach; reminding us to not focus on just one group or type of students, but to aim our messages at everyone.

RAINN has recommended a three-tiered approach when it comes to preventing sexual violence on college campuses, saying a prevention campaign should include the following elements:

  1. Bystander intervention education: empowering community members to act in response to acts of sexual violence.
  2. Risk-reduction messaging: empowering members of the community to take steps to increase their personal safety.
  3. General education to promote understanding of the law, particularly as it relates to the ability to consent.

It is clear, looking at the first and third items on their list, that RAINN is speaking to the ideas propagated by the rape culture. Anytime you are educating people about bystander intervention or consent, you are refuting messages the rape culture has given us. Messages like: Don’t get involved; it isn’t your business. Women are sexual toys to be used and abused for your pleasure. Even when she says no, she really wants it. Don’t mess with someone else’s “good time.”

RAINN also called for research, asking the federal government to not just rush to create a new marketing campaign, but to encourage innovation and sponsor a rigorous, meaningful evaluation of what is and isn’t working. While I personally disagree that there should be no focus on prevention messaging towards potential perpetrators, because I do believe that can be helpful, especially when started early, I am very excited about the possibility of further research. The fact that many of our statistics surrounding sexual assault are over a decade old is inexcusable.

The truth is, rape culture is very harmful, especially to survivors of rape and sexual assault. Kitchens says, “Rape-culture theory is doing little to help victims, but its power to poison the minds of young women and lead to hostile environments for innocent males is immense.” She wants to dismiss it as “the thought police of the feminist blogosphere.” The normalization of rape and violence against women in our culture – in television, movies, popular songs, advertisements, comedy, casual conversation, and used as a threat against women – does hurt survivors. It is a slap in the face of every survivor who is expected to keep silent or laugh along with the crowd when rape is the punchline to a joke. It screams to them that this is their worth, and they deserved everything that happened to them. And it teaches people that rape is not a big deal.

As a conservative woman and sexual assault survivor, I am disheartened to see yet another conservative woman (Kitchens is a research assistant at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute) lash out against the community of activists who are working every day to not only shine a light on rape culture, but also to support victims, see a change in the way cases are handled, and prevent rapes. A little research shows that Kitchens has questioned the existance of rape culture in the past, not only questioning the statistics of sexual assault on college campuses, but also focusing in on one of the 2-6% of false rape reports to make her case. She seems to think that all women who point out rape culture in this country are man-haters hanging out in lonely corners of the blogosphere, just waiting for their chance to trap and persecute men. But this isn’t true.

If Kitchens wants to protect men, she shouldn’t attack those of us who are pointing out the prevalent rape culture in this country. Rape culture isn’t just about the way women are portrayed in media (although it is important to note how the rampant sexualization of women is damaging). Rape culture is also a large part of the reason so few sexual assaults are reported to the police, with a RAINN estimate of 60% of sexual assaults going unreported. These aren’t just female victims who are afraid of the treatment they will receive, unsure if their rape kit will even be processed, and traumatized by the backlash of people who will assume they are lying.

In response to Kitchens Time article, @ZerlinaMaxwell started the #RapeCultureIsWhen hashtag on twitter earlier this week. It trended nationally for hours. As people shared their personal stories and societal observances, it was easy to see the real harm rape culture is doing in our nation. Even the people who used the hashtag to make jokes, and attack survivors and supporters of survivors, further proved the fact that rape culture is alive and well.

When we speak out against the rape culture, we are not aiming to, “implicate all men in a social atrocity, trivialize the experiences of survivors, and deflect blame from the rapists truly responsible for sexual violence,” as Kitchens claims. We are speaking up in support of all rape victims, male and female, showing society how its messages and actions are harmful to everyone.

The fact that Caroline Kitchens can say, “Though rape is certainly a serious problem, there’s no evidence that it’s considered a cultural norm,” when 1 in 5 women are survivors of rape or attempted rape and 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused by the age of 18, proves the messages of the rape culture are shouting louder than the truth. Do those statistics not prove a startling cultural norm? If one in five women and one if six men were stricken with the same disease, we would call it an epidemic, and it would be on the news every single day. Is it any less of an epidemic when women and men are sexually assaulted at such alarming rates?

Just as focusing only on rape culture will not in itself prevent future violence, neither will pretending rape culture does not exist nor castigating those of us who speak out about it. But the latter might just hurt the survivors, who are already battling the culture that assails them at every turn, and reinforce the thoughts of rapists and potential rapists that these violent actions are not only okay, but normal.