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Five Ways We Contribute to Rape Culture Without Realizing It

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Just yesterday (Dec. 14th, 2013), six school officials at Steubenville High School plead not guilty to charges that basically amounted to creating a path of least resistance for rape culture to thrive: "allowing underage drinking," "contributing to delinquency of a minor," "obstructing justice," and "failure to report child abuse or neglect" are just some of the few. Given the turned heads, and even the encouragement of adults, young male athletes that represented the pride of their town were given free reign to drink their inhibitions away and engage in date rape.

It is easy to see how this contributes to rape culture, but what are some everyday things that other bystanders did to contribute? Should we hold the school officials accountable without wondering if our own local heroes are doing the same thing, and we are, by our attitudes, actions, and even inaction to our sisters, daughters, and mothers, contributing to a climate where a girl blames herself or would not want to disclose she had been raped? Serena Williams wondered aloud about the Steubenville girl's lack of responsibility for "putting themselves in that situation." Does that sound like you? What does that have to do with contributing to rape culture?

“Rape culture” is often a term associated with specific subcultures of America, such as fraternities, athletic teams, and one that has gotten a lot of news coverage lately, the armed forces. This serves a purpose, but can also serve to mask the fact that America itself is a rape culture.

How could that be? Nobody is pro-rape. You do not sit around in front of the evening news with a foam finger and leap up to celebrate every time a rape is mentioned; in fact, the truth is likely to be quite the opposite. Most men surveyed in a study believe that rape should be met with severe punishment.

Yet the conviction rate for rape is between two and four percent [1]. And this is coming from the FBI, where the "F" does not stand for “Feminist.” Victims of sexual assault are the least likely to get a conviction out of all victims of violence, and it has nothing to do with women lying, but everything to do with our beliefs about the world.

1. You Want Rapists to Look a Certain Way

This appallingly low conviction rate is partly explained by the fact men believe the rape myth that “real rape” is a man jumping out of the bushes and forcefully raping a stranger, a belief which persists despite the fact that most rapists are acquainted with their victims. If rape is evil and should be punished, but most rapists know their victim, and, according to the Department of Justice, rape happens every two minutes, then there is a large amount of friends, boyfriends, husbands, peers and co-workers out there who are evil and should be put away for a long time.

But they are not, and that is the fault of ignorant and fearful men who do not believe that most men accused of rape fit the profile of a rapist. Police officers were asked in a study to take a survey called the “victim credibility scale,” and just about 20% said they were unlikely to believe a married woman who claims she has been raped by her husband [2]. Most men fear being unjustly accused or sending people like them to prison if there is a chance they were wrongly accused, causing a discrepancy between societal attitudes and actions on rape likened to a “sexual schizophrenia.” Thus, there is enough cognitive dissonance, or contradictions, between our beliefs and actions as a society about rape to keep a modern-day Socrates busy for the rest of his life.

2. You Believe That Women Lie About Rape

FOX News and law firms which defend alleged rapists have argued that a discussion of alleged-Rape Culture needs to be balanced out by noting the rate of false accusations of rape. These instigating attention whores are vindictive, they might argue, and while a man might ruin a woman’s inner life by raping her, a woman can ruin a man’s inner and outer life (social life/career) merely by accusing a man of rape, forever tarring his image.

In other words, they argue "Those feminist apologists for such slander are wrong! They are hiding from the fact that the FBI crime index counts 8% of rapes as unfounded, compared to just 2% of other crimes that turn out to be unfounded."

Thank you for being so fair and balanced! This is big news!

Even scholarly reviews of the literature on false rape allegations note that most studies average out to a count of between 2 and 8%. FOX News called the differences between the conclusions of the different studies in literature reviews irreconcilable and said because of this, we cannot learn anything from them. So, time to wipe off our hands and walk away from irrelevant feminism while saying that the idea of Rape Culture is questionable at best.

Lauren Nelson, an author on rape culture, criticized this perception and proceeded to lay the smackdown. Essentially saying, “Okay let’s go with the conservative estimate of 8% false rape accusations and go from there,” she proceeded to remind us how many flaws there are with using this number. [3] For instance, it does not take into account the fact that 8% of *reported* rapes are false accusations, not 8% of *all* rapes.

The FBI says that rape is seriously underreported. Nelson takes a conservative FBI estimate of reported rapes at 37 percent of the real number, and then computes that into the equation of unfounded rape reports. This shows that 3% of rapists are actually falsely accused, more in line with the average of other falsely reported crimes listed in the FBI crime index.

Not finished, she then went further and looked at how most rapists get freed before a conviction is made [4], and also how some police departments who are giving the FBI their data use unrealistic standards for rape victims. For example, given the fact that some police documented a rape report as "false" if the victim did not appear disheveled [5], this is not unwarranted. Nelson concluded that 1.5% of all rapes, then, are false reports.

The reality is that because most rape victims are acquainted with their attacker, the attacker can rely more on psychological control, such as intimidation, rather than force. If a victim knows their attacker, they might be unaware of the fact it was rape, have very complex emotions to process, and very complex decisions to make about getting out of their attacker’s lives before they tell on them due to fear of retaliation. The lack of physical evidence of force and the fact that a woman waited a long time to disclose and report the rape might damn her in the face of family, friends, police, prosecutors, judges, and juries who are afraid to convict an innocent man.

3. You Believe that the World is Predictable and Just

One of the first things a person might do when someone tells them about rape is feel confused and want to make sense of it, or/as well as horrified and want to stop thinking about it because it is too heavy.

But be careful- when someone discloses a rape to you, do not minimize, downplay, deny, or imply that the women did something to provoke it. This is not the time to play Devil’s Advocate or pseudo-marriage counselor, suggesting “I think you both made a mistake.” This is not the time to think about the sanctity of marriage or your family’s reputation if this ends in divorce. But chances are, you might end up thinking “This would have never happened to me, I did the right things to avoid a situation like this.”

We take for granted certain things about the world: random acts of violence do not just happen, and good things happen to good people. Researchers call this “Just World Theory,” and attribute belief in it to explain much of the victim-blaming that goes on in cases of rape [6].

So rape victims break some kind of predictable rule of safety in order to get raped. Yet a vast amount of women would all have to have been acting like “bad people” if that were the case- remember, one woman is raped every two minutes. The notion that these women were acting out of some bounds is likely easier for men (and women) to believe than the notion that bad things could happen to anyone at any time, outside of our control. Yet the comfort people get from this core belief happens at the expense of the women whose reputations are put on trial when they charge their attackers with rape.

Studies have reported that men believe rape myths at higher rates than women [7], though some women who have disclosed rape to their own mothers have been told to “stop being such a nag” and “be a better wife to your husband” [8]. It is hard enough for women to press charges against men, knowing chances of getting a conviction are slim and that their character will likely be questioned. Family and friends should not make things worse by interrogating or criticizing the victim.

Recently, there has been controversy in the media about Serena Williams’ comment on the Steubenville Rape Case [9]. She had implied that the rape had been a mix of boys acting stupid, bad parenting and girls who should have known better.
Even though she said the bulk of the blame should go to the men, she spent some time chastising the rape victims for putting themselves in a vulnerable position. This is something which women are who are sexually assaulted are often familiar with: a counterfactual thought.

Counterfactual thoughts routinely begin with “If only I…” and end with “…this event wouldn’t have happened.” Women who go this route with their thoughts after a rape tend to blame themselves, and this often leads to depression. The problem with these kinds of thoughts is that rape is assumed to be a predictable and unchanging part of the background of everyday life, while women’s actions are seen as changeable (especially in hindsight). [10]

But what Serena and others downplay is the fact that both men and women’s actions are mutable. There is no threshold of sexual arousal beyond which men cannot control themselves. Both genders are capable of change, and yet women are forced to do all the work. One third of women in a study reported that fear of being raped was ever-present, and another third reported altering their lives to take precautions [11]. In essence, the big double standard of our Rape Culture is that women are asked to accommodate for rapists, while men feel little to no push to organize against rape.

4. You Believe that Rape is a Woman’s Issue

Rape is part of everyday background, and women must accommodate rapists. Everyday men have no responsibility. These are typical assumptions that play out in places like college campuses. Even though 25% of college women have reported surviving a rape or attempted rape, and 99% of incidents at college are involve men raping women, sexual assault prevention has typically focused on ways for women to prevent rape [12]. Has any university really asked why sexual assault prevention has focused on women instead of men? Even asking the question of why women are the targets of rape in most cases, as opposed to men being the targets, asks the question of what many men must be thinking about women. If our actions are the results of our thoughts, then rape is the product of men’s mental content.

Why is rape a woman’s issue, then? If attacks on the United States lead to the United States sending soldiers and spies into the Middle East to fight terrorists, then why are attacks on women seen as the victim’s issue, with all the resources devoted to educating and training women rather then sending resources to the battlefield of men’s minds? And what little resources women get at best: violence against women is prosecuted at the lowest rate compared to other forms of violence, and rape is prosecuted at a rate of 2 to 4 percent.

Terrorism works by making people afraid to go out and participate in daily activities of society. Rape is sexual terrorism. Women worry about being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the essence of sexual (or any) terrorism is that you never know when that is. [13]

Rape is sexual terrorism because women are left feeling less free than men to do the same exact things that men do, such as do things alone at night. And some of these women have internalized notions that rape is not random but happens to certain kinds of women. Rape myths like this, and myths that good things happen to good people so if women get raped they must have done something wrong, create a path of resistance toward women who try and come forward after having been raped. The path of least resistance becomes to “know her place,” and accept the inevitability of rape or some “failure” on her part to prevent it, and so in resignation women silence themselves before their family, friends, and the court system get a chance to silence them.

5. You Get Defensive for Your Tribe

It may be especially hard to identify yourself as part of Rape Culture if you are in a historically oppressed group. Jewel Woods, a black feminist, writes that when he engages people in conversation about items on the Male Privilege Checklist (see part 1 of 3 in this blog series), he encountered the most resistance from black and brown men. Indeed, he says, some items on the Male Privilege Checklist did not apply to men of color. He created the Black Male Privilege Checklist, which is here:

Note number 75: “I do not have to worry about being considered a traitor to my race if I call the police on a member of the opposite sex,” and number 1: “I don’t have to choose my race over my sex in political matters.”

Whether you are black, brown, LGBT, Muslim, or Jewish, you might know and respect the person a woman is accusing of rape- maybe he is even a community leader or a “symbol of strength” and you don’t get how they could rape anyone. Maybe you are a black or brown person who figures that the criminal justice will do so much worse to the accused rapist than they deserve, so you don’t want to involve white people “in our business.” Maybe you do not wish for her to “air our dirty laundry,” and reinforce negative stereotypes because many white people simply attribute a tendency to rape to a person’s race or ethnicity. But Male Privilege and Sexism wins every time a woman is silenced because she feels as though she has to choose her minority group over her sex.

The straight white Christian majority is in on this, too, and have the media as a powerful psychological tool. Nearly everyone loves athletes and soldiers, which is why so many people are quick to defend them, and may be why rape is so extraordinarily prevalent in college sports fraternities, school and professional sports teams, and the armed forces: no one wants to believe anything bad about their tribal heroes, whether that tribe is Duke University, Steubenville High School, or America itself.

At the outbreak of the Kobe Bryant alleged-rape case, a team of researchers at Aurora University in Illinois counted the number of online articles from ESPN and CNN to local and regional newspapers (156 in total) and counted how many articles presented rape myths without challenging them, and how many presented them and then challenged them. The alleged victim in this case might have guessed it: the majority of the articles (102) contained at least one unchallenged myth-endorsing statement. The researchers also counted that the media made more positive comments about the athlete ("the boy next-door") than about the victim, and more negative comments about the victim than about the athlete. Kobe Bryant got out of hot water when his alleged victim dropped the charges. The alleged victim's attorneys said "that she believed she could not get a fair trial after all of the leaks and errors in this case." [14] This influential media bias is the kind of resistance we give to people who go after our favorite athletes, our symbols of strength and hope.


Whoever we are, internalized myths and male privilege push as along the path of least resistance that keeps the Monopoly game of sexism operating. In essence, by assuming women are lying, or by trying to explain away their rapes as something that could have been prevented if they had done something differently, we are acting as gender police who keep women as a group down below men in society’s hierarchy. This is because you are discouraging women from blaming the attacker and pursuing charges against him, maintaining the status quo of 97% of rapists not going to jail.

You do not need a law to dictate how women should dress to still pressure women to conform. All you need are the unwritten laws of the game of Male Privilege to create resistance. All you need is the smug thought "I never would have put myself in that position," and for that attitude to show and be read loud and clear.

For the final part in my series, I will be posting about how every man and women are police officers in this game who have the choice to enforce its sexist rules or not, and how you can make it easier for people to break the rules. It will discuss how to be a mirror to the police officers, allowing them to realize their badges and the power they wield (as opposed to becoming a police officer yourself, walking around and yelling at people for being sexist); in essence, to wake other people up to this invisible game. See you then.

Link to part 1- "Three Reasons Men Are Sexist Without Realizing It"

Link to part 2- "Three Reasons We Are All Gender Police"

[1] Carole Sheffield's "Sexual Terrorism"

[2] Page, A. (2008). Judging women and defining crime: Police officer’s attitudes toward women and rape. Sociological Spectrum, 28(3), pp. 389-411.
[3] Laura Nelson
[5] A literature review of false reports of rape and so-called false reports of rape
[7] Franiuk. "Prevalence and Effects of Rape Myths in Print Journalism: The Kobe Bryant Case"
[8] Beaulaurier. "External Barriers to Help Seeking for Older Women Who Experience Intimate Partner Violence"
[9] Serena William's comments
[10] Miller. "Deconstructing self-blame following sexual assault: the critical roles of cognitive content and process."
[11] Carole Sheffield's "Sexual Terrorism"

[12] Barone, R.P., Wolgemuth, J.R., & Linder, C. (2007). Preventing sexual assault through engaging college men. Journal of College Student Development, 48(5), pp. 585-594.
[13] Summary of Carole Sheffield's "Sexual Terrorism"
[14] Franiuk. "Prevalence and Effects of Rape Myths in Print Journalism: The Kobe Bryant Case"



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