Monday, April 29, 2013

Rape Culture

The term “rape culture” refers to society's tolerance and in some cases encouragement of male sexual aggression and violence against women, as well as the focus upon what the rape victim supposedly did rather than upon the crime itself. Although the term has been used for quite a while in feminist discourse and in programs to increase awareness of sexual assault, the Steubenville rape case has brought that term again into public discussion. (This past year the issues and crises of rape were in the news because of a politician's comments about “legitimate rape”). In the Steubenville case, a sixteen year old girl was raped by two high school football players. This article gives details and indicates that the case is ongoing:

Winnie Wang writes in the Yale Daily News about the case: “When the guilty verdict was announced, some mainstream media outlets became active participants in furthering our victim-blaming rape culture. Probably the most sickening news coverage came from CNN, where anchor Candy Crowley lamented that the ‘young men … had such promising futures, [were] star football players, very good students.’ Registering as sex offenders would ‘haunt them for the rest of their lives.’”

Wang continues, “We need to examine how we think about sexual assault. Instead of questioning whether the victim was intoxicated or dressed provocatively, we should question how we can hold perpetrators accountable. These defendants are responsible for their own actions.” She adds that we also need to examine our social environment in which these crimes happen and in some cases are covered up.  (See her article at:

Part of the difficulty of raising public awareness is the fact that some of us can indeed badly miss the point while trying to be caring and aware. For instance, the people who felt sadness about the young men had a kind of compassion: the men did ruin their lives before they even reached adulthood, and that is tragic. HOWEVER, they ruined the life of the young woman because of their actions, and thus people's compassion should be directed first and very strongly to the victim. This NYT article covers the kinds of community responses:

There have been several related posts and news items about this issue. This letter by Magda Pecsenye, “A Letter to My Sons about Stopping Rape,” has been widely discussed, as seen in the variety of comments afterward. Ms. Pecsenye tries to wrestle with the messages that boys and young men get concerning women and sex.

In another news item, a young man at the University of Arizona student who styled himself a Christian preacher interrupted a campus sexual assault awareness meeting with a sign, “You deserve rape,” and with messages like, “if you dress like a whore, act like a whore, you’re probably going to get raped.” The dean of students responded that his message was “vulgar and vile” but “is protected speech.” The young man’s message is tragically another example of a social culture that would characterize someone as “deserving” rape.

I remember a preacher on the University of Virginia campus in the 1980s, who (on a hot day when students were dressed in summer clothes) proclaimed to students walking by, “You’re all walking billboards for an easy lay!” That is an occasion where I wish I could go back in time and chide the man (other than ignore him, as most other students, both male and female, also did). But at the time, his comment seem more comically prudish and moralistic than a symptom of rape culture; once again, sometimes we need to be shocked into insight and clarity.  

Sexual Assault awareness meetings and information are excellent responses---and are good ways to cure us of blindness and sensitize us to the issues. Obviously it is good whenever this information can permeate many aspects of culture, including religious organizations. That process is at work. For instance, I found an article that described a meeting by Maya Dusenbery, editor of the Feministing blog, who pointed out that (in the Michigan Daily article's words) “the current conception of rape conveys a ‘no-means-no’ culture, allowing the accused to claim lack of a denial as valid sexual consent.” Dusenbery called for a change in that kind of thinking. 
( We owe a great debt to persons like Dusenbery who are experts on this subject and work to education the public.

In another news story this month, the student magazine staff at Palo Alto High School took on this issue. According to that story, “High-profile rape cases from Ohio to India prompted senior Lisie Sabbag to look into local cases. The resulting stories and opinion pieces, published last week, just days before a story emerged about an alleged incident of sexual battery involving Saratoga High students, have grabbed national attention. It's not only the topic. The package [of stories] is being hailed as thoughtful, sensitive -- and disturbing. Students don't clearly understand what constitutes rape, Sabbag's story makes clear. Yet rape is not so rare, and sometimes the response of the victim’s friends and families turns into a second assault.” (

And the difficulties don’t stop there. As I was still looking around the internet, I saw this piece that discusses the fact that “a stunning majority of states – 31 of them – offer some form of visitation and custody rights for men who impregnate their rape victims”:

Later, I saw this video that illustrates how women are portrayed in advertisements---and what the ads would look like if men were similarly portrayed:

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