Because “Rape Culture” Answers The Question?

In my effort to understand and appreciate the controlled rhetoric of sex offenses, traditional and newly conceived, I’ve raised questions about the definition of rape and the definition of revenge porn.  While it’s fine to non-lawyers to cry “rape is rape,” the fuzziness of feminist rhetoric makes it difficult, if not impossible, to nail down what they’re talking about so that anyone who hasn’t OD’d on the Kool-Aid can discuss intelligently the merit of their view.

One reaction that comes with regularity, and the anger that suggests that anyone who doesn’t grasp and embrace it is, by definition, the scum of the earth, is the phrase “rape culture.”  It’s a catch-all justification for feminists, and spit at people as if no further explanation is needed.  If one doesn’t “get” rape culture, it’s proof of their misogyny. Not only do I not get it, but I didn’t really know what it meant as it was being thrown my way.  I may be thick, but it wasn’t part of my worldview.

Wikipedia, which is beyond dispute as a font of wisdom, has a “rape culture” page. The definition is:

Within feminism, 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. Rape culture has been used to model behavior within social groups, including prison rape and conflict areas where war rape is used as psychological warfare. Entire countries have also been alleged to be rape cultures.

Although the concept of rape culture is used in feminist academia, there is disagreement over what defines a rape culture and to what degree a given society meets the criteria to be considered a rape culture.

Rape culture has been observed to correlate with other social factors and behaviors. Research identifies correlation between rape myths, victim blaming and trivialization of rape with increased incidence of racism, homophobia, ageism, classism, religious intolerance and other forms of discrimination.

This is remarkably unhelpful to someone who isn’t already inclined to want there to be this thing called “rape culture,” and who is more than happy to embrace it as some vague concept rather than definable thing.  The Wiki page goes on to explain that others dispute its existence and suggest it’s a crutch to justify feminist dogma.

The Urban Dictionary explanation is clearer, but decidedly less comprehensive:

Shaming victims of rape, making women feel bad for having consensual sex, making fun and trivializing rape and not embracing sex positivity so the unfortunate victims of rape who want to put their rapist behind bars will have fear that they will be blamed.

While nothing in here strikes me as particularly controversial, an example given at the end of the definition raises the hoary problem:

5. Denying rape culture exists.

If the parameters of rape culture are limited to the Urban Dictionary definition, then it doesn’t seem to be an issue. But from what’s been thrown about lately, this definition barely scratches the surface, and it certainly doesn’t cover the breadth and vagaries of the Wikipedia definition.

The ambiguity of “rape culture” may be fine for those who embrace the Humpty-Dumpty use of language to promote their feelings, but it does little to illuminate their point to those for whom feminism isn’t their guiding principle. When they demand criminal laws in furtherance of their views, and use rape culture as part of their rationale, it isn’t good enough to claim you “know it when you see it.” Either it means something, or not.

Because of my confusion, it was fortunate that I stumbled upon Emily Bazelon’s Slate post on the language of rape. Unlike those who throw bombs from behind rocks, Bazelon comes to the table with the credibility that other promoters lack.  She offers this explanation, repeated in full:

Rape culture is also a useful feminist phrase. It’s the handle for identifying—and dismantling—the misogyny, stupidity, and binge drinking that enables two high-school football players from Steubenville to rape a 16-year-old girl, that allows for humiliating pictures and gossip about the rape to circulate on social media, and that permits some people to rally behind the rapists rather than the victim. Though there are questions about how the story played out online and in the media, where the town and its athletes were widely condemned, there was also vile slut shaming and a disturbing video in which another football player (not one of the two convicted) talked on and on about the assault, saying, “She is so raped right now,” as an audience of boys laughed crazily. Rape culture isn’t a legal term that sends anyone to prison. But it is ugly and real and all too prevalent, as these examples from Soraya Chemaly make clear. I’m glad we’ve found the language to talk about it. (Emphasis added.)

While it’s good to learn that rape culture “isn’t a legal term that sends anyone to prison,” it then can’t be used as a catch-all justification for new criminal laws when there is no articulable basis to justify the creation of a new crime.  In each of the instances Bazelon mentions in the Steubenville rape case, there is a hard definition of why the conduct is wrong and criminal. It requires no resort to vague phrases to explain; there are real definitions and clear explanations for why sex with an unconscious teenager is rape.

If rape culture serves as an amorphous outlet for venting at the outer reaches of feminist anger and dogma, that’s fine. Every identitarian group is allowed to create its own lingo to capture the things that hurt their feelings and they wish didn’t happen. It’s useful for internal discussions, as a shorthand method of discussing that which the group generally agrees upon, even if it doesn’t serve to provide outsiders to the group with an adequate explanation of its contours.

But then, “rape culture” as a justification for the creation of new crimes is inadequate. Words and phrases without meaning are unavailing outside the identitiarian group that creates them, and if it can’t be defined with sufficient precision to convey meaning to anyone else, it’s of no consequence.

Much as with “don’t rape,” which completely misses the problem of defining “rape,” the phrase “rape culture” is now relegated to the humor section of this discussion. If there is a definition that has eluded me, I am happy to be educated.

But if it’s your personal definition, or it’s just how you feel about things, then you’re shooting blanks. In the absence of any cognizable meaning, it’s just empty rhetoric, the meaningful parts of which can be easily explained with real words having real meaning.

21 thoughts on “Because “Rape Culture” Answers The Question?

  1. John Neff

    I have noticed the words alleged and accused are no longer used in rape reports. There is a prevailing preseumption of guilt and anyone that presumes innocence is in the enemy camp.

    I get occasional emails from the campus police that are notifications about reported sexual assaults. Very few of them result in criminal charges because they don’t like the normal outcome of a rape case. What they want are extra-legal sanctions the first step towards vigilante justice.

    1. SHG Post author

      So they’re just fishing for academic ostracism and hatred under the presumption of guilt? That’s absurd and outrageous. Why is this tolerated?

      1. John Neff

        It may not be tolerated anymore because we had two faculty members commit suicide and two administrators were fired. Presumption of guilt turned out to be very costly but the intitutional memory is very short so the problem could reoccur.

          1. John Neff

            I think it is much more complicated than gender politics age is a factor because the female jury members tend to be middle age and older.

            A distrubing trend is the continuing trend toward isolation of the administration from the students and faculty. Another problem is when the administration does ask the faculty for advice they get contradictory advice.

            The university administration does bad news badly and an alleged rape is bad news. One good outcome is that now the campus police are sending out prompt notifications about reported sex assualts they cannot stonewall the problem.

            It is a huge mess.

  2. AlphaCentauri

    Now that homosexuality is not illegal, why don’t we have gay men sitting on the corner whistling at men walking by and commenting on their butts? Well, because they’d be likely to get hauled off in an alley by a gang of straight guys and have the shit kicked out of them. Everybody knows that.

    That’s what people mean when they call it a “culture.” One group feels automatically safer because another group feels automatically more in danger. It doesn’t mean changing laws is our could be the way to address it. It doesn’t mean that the solution to slut-shaming should be stud-shaming. It just means that people who spend every day of their lives in a more-in-danger group get tired of it sometimes and would like the culture to be less violent in the first place.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’ve heard the guy whistling at a girl story more than a few times, and I think to myself, is anybody stupid enough to think this proves anything? I get “culture,” as a general word, but it doesn’t explain how whistling at a woman leads to rape?

      What conceivable nexus is there between the two, or is it just something women don’t like to be whistled at so they tie it to rape despite no cognizable connection to vilify it, hoping everyone who hears it is stupid enough not to realize how idiotic it is?

      Men open doors for women, and feminists have complained about it for decades, but that doesn’t lead to rape, just open doors. I can spin a story where an open door ultimately leads to rape, but it’s just a fantastical story. I can also spin a story where an open door leads to nothing more than an open door. That’s also culture, except there’s no rape involved. See how confusion leads to stupidity?

      And I might add, you’ve offered yet another example without a definition, thus adding to the meaninglessness of “rape culture.” From this, I gather you have no clue what it means either, but believe it anyway.

    2. Sharon

      “It just means that people who spend every day of their lives in a more-in-danger group get tired of it sometimes and would like the culture to be less violent in the first place.”

      I don’t know if you’re female, but I doubt it. These phony feminists keep claiming they’re part of this “more-in-danger group” that you speak of. It’s a self-serving fantasy spread about by unhappy people. They pretend to be victims by pretending everything is a threat. And drones like you buy this nonsense, proving indisputably that you have no brain at all?

      If we don’t like a catcall, we tell the guy who does it to shove it up his ass. If we say something and someone else thinks it’s stupid, they call us stupid. In the meantime, we are in charge of our own lives, make our own choices, and don’t need some pussy boy like you to snivel for us. We can take care of ourselves.

      1. SHG Post author

        You mean women aren’t delicate flowers who must have special rules to make the world more sensitive to their fragile sensibilities? Now I’m really confused.

      2. Kyle

        THANK. YOU.
        They reminid me of the gross “anti-racist” white peopel who pretend to be more offended by racism than any person of color ever would be.

  3. Jessica

    I also have challenges with throwing around blanket terms like “rape culture”. Maybe it’s about personal experience I don’t know. I agree with Sharon – just because you’re a woman you can’t tell someone to shove off or for that matter kick their ass. I’ve got a black belt, so I probably could.

    In the meantime, pardon me, but I sort of like the guys whistling at me as I pass by. I hate it when all the feminists try to ruin all my fun. Stop it. Really. Just stop it.

  4. Kateality

    Personally, I think the term is simply a more shocking way to phrase misogyny generally, and therefore attracts more attention. I don’t use it, for precisely that reason. But the fact that the term is hyperbolic doesn’t deny that misogyny is deeply ingrained in our culture. This isn’t to say that I spend all day every day being terrified of getting hauled down an alley and raped, but it means that I am regularly objectified and subject to negative stereotypes and assumptions because of my gender. I’m a lawyer. A married lawyer. Twice in the past 18 months, I have been groped by lawyers I don’t know at professional events (ie dinner celebrating recent judicial appointees). As a guy, when was the last time a complete stranger grabbed your ass at a work event? It doesn’t happen. That type of casual entitlement to the female body is, I think, the hallmark of what people are referring to when they talk about rape culture. It underlies the type of victim-blaming (assuming that a woman wears her clothes for the single purpose of attracting men, rather than because she feels good in them or finds them comfortable, etc,) and doubt that women know is likely to happen if they are in the unfortunate position of being sexually assaulted. I think the term is silly, but I wish that I could be in a position of denying that our culture allows or encourages some men to feel entitled to my body just because I’m female. Unfortunately, I can’t.

    1. SHG Post author

      I hope you hauled off and slugged the jerks who groped you. Despicable deserves to be dealt with as such. At the very least, I hope you announced to all in earshot what had happened and humiliated them.

      Is there pervasive misogyny? So I’m told by the feminists. I’m still not persuaded that it’s not a matter of some men being despicable jerks. Some woman are too, though they may not grope butts.

      Where I find this problematic is the leap from two men who did something disgraceful to a society that encourages it. Some people do bad things. This isn’t in dispute. Some are men who do bad things to women. This isn’t in dispute. Some aren’t men and don’t involve women. I trust this isn’t in dispute either. And yet, rape culture? Doesn’t everyone who is feels victimized then get to lay claim to “_____ culture”? And if so, then it’s a meaningless phrase.

      1. Kateality

        Apologies for the delayed response – the Internet ate my first one. No, I did not either slug nor announce the bad behaviour of the lawyers who acted inappropriately, and the reasons why I didn’t/couldn’t do those things is what’s really at issue here. Obviously, they were just being jerks, which does not indict society generally, and is merely anecdotal. I personally think that it’s significant these anecdotes were remarkably similar, occurred in a relatively short time frame (I don’t go to a lot of these events) and occurred in the context of a profession that ought to be one of the most well-informed about the issues surrounding consent, etc.

        However, let’s play out the rest of the scenario to see where this stops being about individual drunken jerks and about our society. If I punched a guy in the face or loudly and incredulously stated “Please get your hand off my ass” , at a professional event, I would likely be the loser in that scenario. First, the guy is likely to deny having done anything of the sort, and I have no concrete evidence that he did. He may well state that it’s possible that he accidentally touched me, but that he certainly didn’t “grab”. I know that’s not true.

        So it’s his word against mine. He has some natural advantages – he’s more senior and well-known, likely with a good professional reputation. I’m decidedly junior, so my reputation is pretty close to non-existent. Who do you, as one of the other lawyers standing around, believe? Moreover, even if you effectively (and reasonably) conclude that only he and I know, and you’re not in a position to determine which of us is telling the truth, how do you see my accusation? Is it an overreaction? Do I sound “shrill”? Should I learn to take a joke? Is he “just drunk” and therefore not meaning anything by it? Are you likely to change your behaviour to/around the guy? What about to/around me? How does that change if I make a very similar accusation against another lawyer 18 months later? Would you think twice about hiring me?

        When these things happen, and admittedly, they don’t happen all the time, the woman involved has to do a quick cost/benefit analysis. A drunk grabby counsel is disconcerting to me, but I certainly wouldn’t give him the opportunity to strike a second time, so he doesn’t pose an ongoing threat. A public accusation, however, opens me up to suspicion and criticism by my peers and my employers and potential future employers – that’s leaving aside the possibility that this was a client event. All he has to do is deny or downplay, and I become the story. That’s how victim-blaming begins. And I want no part of it. So, when I get groped by some guy from some other firm (or client), I side-step out of arm’s reach and place a male colleague between myself and the offender. Then I continue my conversation.

        I’m not going to try and argue that it’s living hell to be a woman in North America – it’s not. I’m gainfully employed in the profession of my choice, my clients respect me (although one or two have had the erroneous impression on first meeting me or speaking to me that I am an assistant, rather than an associate) and I very rarely have to deal with unwanted sexual advances. The potential social and professional impact of responding to or reporting on anything that might be seen as “trivial”, however, like the casual groping I’ve described, can be seen as tacitly excusing, and thus perpetuating, the behaviour of jerks. I can’t even imagine dealing with an actual sexual assault in that context. That, for me, is what people mean when they say “rape culture” (although I still don’t like the term).

        1. SHG Post author

          Well, you kinda lost my sympathy a bit when you made the excuse not to respond to the jerks. First, I’m not buying. I would believe you and I would never hold it against you. But if you’ve made an active decision to do nothing about it, then you can’t simultaneously complain. As you note, it can be seen as “tacitly excusing, and thus perpetuating, the behaviour of jerks.” Yes, it most certainly can.

          While you’re still giving quasi-examples and not a definition of rape culture, we’re no closer to an understanding than before. But even as to your examples, the options are to deal with something or not to deal with something. It’s your body, your life, so it’s you choice. But having made the choice of doing nothing, then you have to live with your choice and can’t blame externally for what you refuse to address internally.

    2. Kyle

      Never, I’ve never had my ass grabbed. A woman would never think to do that. The universe is unpredictable, human beings are going to do what they do. Getting groped by single sexually frustrated guys is going to happen I guess, but that isn’t my fault. 99% of men have never groped. And you’re a lawyer, you work with other lawyers, you know what types of people some of them are! I wouldn’t say that some men feel entitled, it’s more like, they get an urge to touch a nice looking ass, and what are you going to do to stop them? I’ts like a dog licking it’s crotch, it can reach down there, it feels good, so why not? I think that you are conceptualizing the actions of a few horny lawyers , and projecting that onto your expectations of what other men may do in the future. Which is fair, that is your expericence.
      As a guy, no I have not been groped since stupid roughhousing in elementary school. But there is shit that happens to boys that you may not be happy about either. And us guys are under a ton of pressure when it comes to relationships, and finding a girl who likes us. Sometimes that pressure can drive you crazy and casue you to grab an ass indiscriminately. I’m not making light of that, that sure can be anaggregious sexual assault, but sometimes it really can be a bit of harmless fun. You have to admit, where a geroge castanza ass grab may be sexual assault, a christian grey ass grab can be and unbelieveably hot come on.

  5. mirriam

    You know there was a whole thread about women getting inappropriate and undesired attention from men in professional settings. In that case the listserv was discussing clients hitting on their female lawyers. I am barely 5′ tall. I don’t look horribly intimidating, but that has NEVER happened to me. Nor have I ever been groped by men at a professional function. Never. I used to think there was something wrong with me, now I think it’s probably because I just don’t look like that sort of thing would go over well with me, despite my small size.

    I wish someone would define rape culture in the United States for me as well. I grew up as a muslim woman from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Talk about a culture of misogyny.

    1. SHG Post author

      This has proven to be remarkably disappointing to me. Not that I’m unsympathetic to anyone who suffers inappropriate behavior (in a patriarchal sort of way, of course), but we all have our anecdotes of people who do bad things, to or around us, but that doesn’t give any clue as to how rape culture is defined. It just seems to be bad people doing bad stuff, for which they should get what they deserve. How that becomes “rape culture” still eludes me.

      As for Kandahar, yeah, that’s misogyny.

  6. Mirriam Seddiq

    I think the definition is lots of bad people doing bad things and those of us who aren’t doing bad things are saying it is ok for them to do the bad things. The error there is that the ‘culture’ is not saying it is ok to do bad things, yet these people persist in doing the bad things even though they should not, in typical people fashion. Rape culture is permitting people to do things that lead to rape (which is about power) so rape culture includes allowing men to open doors for women which signifies women are the weaker sex and therefore, rape is ok. Or saying a woman looks lovely in court, which means it is ok to objectify a woman and rape her (eventually). Unless you act like a woman is a man (which is also misogynistic) you are participating in the eventual rape of women.

    1. SHG Post author

      So by opening a door for a woman, I contribute to rape? If I’m first to the door, I open it for whoever is behind me. If that’s a man, do I contribute to male rape, or does that not count because it’s inconsistent with rape culture and it magically disappears?

      From what I gather (and I thank you, for being the only person who has made the effort to try to provide a cognizable definition), treating a woman as a woman rather than something else (which can’t be a man, since that’s wrong too) is rape culture, and treating a woman as anything but a woman is rape culture too. This strikes me as a problem.

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