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.