April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This is a time to examine our beliefs about sexual assault, raise awareness of prevention and treatment issues and provide support to survivors courageously living life every day. This is a previous post from An Untangled Life (Sept. 18, 2014) on the subject for you to consider again.
What do you think of when you hear the word rape? Many people only think of rape in the most stereotypical terms: a man jumps out at a woman from a dark alleyway when she’s walking home or breaks into her home and sexually brutalizes her. While there are many rapes that are committed by strangers to the victim, according to the Center for Disease Control, it is much more common for a person who is close to the victim to sexually assault them. According to a 2012 CDC survey, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men reported being raped in their lifetime. Approximately 1 in 20 women and men experienced some type of sexual violence other than rape. In a nationally representative survey of adults, 37.4% of female rape victims were first raped between ages 18-24 (typically college age). Among female rape victims, perpetrators were reported to be mainly intimate partners, followed by acquaintances, strangers, and lastly, family members. Male rape victims reported that their attackers were mainly acquaintances. Rape results in about 320,000 pregnancies a year.
Why is sexual assault not a topic that has an adequate and well known definition? Why is it that 1 in 5 women will be raped in their lifetime but only a fraction of these are reported and even fewer prosecuted? One reason is Rape Culture. It’s a phrase that makes most people feel uncomfortable and brings out hostility in others. According to Wikipedia, rape culture is “a phrase used to describe a culture in which rape is pervasive and normalized due to societal attitudes about gender, sex, and sexuality.” This often manifests in a cultural norm where we teach young girls how not to be raped instead of teaching young men that rape and sexual assault in any form is unacceptable. This idea that rape is pervasive enough in our culture that is goes unnoticed makes many people squirm in their seats. And like most people, they want to deny it.
“Rape isn’t acceptable! Everyone knows that! There’s no rape culture because everyone knows that it’s wrong!!!”
What is so dangerous about rape culture is the idea that it isn’t really “rape” if it doesn’t fall under the lines of the stranger attack described above or isn’t violent. This completely ignores sexual coercion (c’mon baby you don’t love me if you won’t do this please please, please), unwanted sexual contact (the guy in class who always ‘accidentally’ touches your butt when you try to sit down), and unwanted noncontact sexual experiences. When these violations are reported, they are often disbelieved and demeaned by authorities and society at large. Both of the scenarios I described would probably be considered “normal” by most people and “things women just have to deal with” because after all, “boys will be boys!” This leads to the dangerous and harmful idea that women are accountable for their own sexual assaults and rapes.
A dangerous idea that can lead to this type of blame is that women are expected to be sexually available for the consumption of men at all times. Men are allowed to enter female spaces and comment on the “sexiness” of women’s dress, appearance, and behavior. Women are expected to take in this criticism and become “the perfect woman,” but are subsequently punished for their own sexuality and dress. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people ask “Well, what was she wearing? Was she drinking? Why did she go to that party if she didn’t want this to happen?” This style of thinking blames the victim for her assault based on her behavior and acquits her attacker. What society must understand is that women have a fundamental right to not be assaulted. This may seem like a “well, duh” statement, but a surprising number of people make comments that directly contradict this.
It doesn’t matter what she was wearing. It doesn’t matter if she was drinking or using drugs. It is not the victim’s responsibility if someone chooses to violate that right.
Opponents of rape culture say that it isn’t real because it’s impossible to define and there are no real world examples of it. As a woman, I can, with utter conviction, disprove that line of thinking because I live rape culture every day. I am expected to be attractive and sexually available, but not of my own motivation, otherwise I’m a slut. I walk to my car from work at night with keys between my knuckles. For those who demand more proof, here are some examples:
Rape culture is my mother telling me before I went to college to never put my drink down and to always leave a party with a friend and never feeling the need to tell my brother the same.
Rape culture is one of my best friends getting raped the first week of the semester and being told by the college chaplain that she didn’t believe that her attacker “did anything wrong.” My friend honestly believed the rape was her fault because she didn’t run away before he locked the door.
Rape culture is the fact that I’ve taken more self-defense classes than all of my male friends combined.
Rape culture is the reality that people are more likely to help if you yell “Fire!” than if you tell “Rape!”
You may be asking me, “Well Emily, if nothing I do will make a difference, then just how do I try to stop rape culture?” Well you’ve already made the first step, which is realizing that those boogey man rapes that your mom warned you about aren’t the biggest problem. The second is to observe the media you are consuming and the ideas about sexual assault and rape that this media conveys. Third, change the language you use concerning sex and sexually offensive behaviors and urge others to do the same. Watch, learn, and most of all, speak up. All people deserve sexual safety.