Starting with its painful real-time narration via social media, the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case has been public every step of the way. To prevent another horrific incident, the nationwide outrage for Steubenville must recognize that the conditions that contributed to this case are not exclusive to Ohio — they persist everywhere.
But when people hear the words “rape culture” to describe our societal framework that breeds tolerance for sexual assault, it is all too easy to write the label off as an overzealous feminist buzzword. Associating our culture — an intimate description of who we are as a people — with such an ugly word is unmanageable. Accepting that a rape culture exists means conceding that we all live within and contribute to a society capable of condoning a hateful act, and we do not want to admit any personal role in tolerating such atrocity. The word “rape” stirs images of the crazy, masked, violent rapist lurking in a dark alley or hiding in the bushes; naturally, we want to refute any notion that implies we would permit or excuse this type of cruelty. Out of defensiveness, fear and denial, we vehemently renounce the possibility that we could propagate a rape culture.
Because sexual assault discourse conjures the “As Seen On TV” attacker, we are able to distance ourselves from the concept of rape. Men and boys who see themselves as very different from the prototypical perpetrators of “Law and Order” episodes and the like feel impossibly far from the term “rapist,” believing such an extreme, hostile word could never apply to them or anyone they know. Women and girls, too, are bombarded with these one-dimensional images that do not accurately account for the potential scope of violation, opening the door for confusion and self-blame.
The myths of what constitute a rape and a rapist become ingrained in all of our minds, and as we saw in the Steubenville trial, the result of these deep-seated, erroneous beliefs is devastating: a society that permits and justifies sexual crimes. Evan Westlake testified to witnessing Trent Mays smacking the unconscious victim’s hip with his penis and to seeing Ma’lik Richmond insert two of his fingers into the victim’s vagina. But when asked why he did not intervene, Westlake replied: “It wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I always pictured it as forcing yourself on someone.”
His words encapsulate the confusion that plagues society and contributes to the epidemic of violence against women. The rapist is not the stranger at the comfortable distance we create in order to feel safe. Statistically, the majority of victims and survivors know their rapist. But the myths we rely on placate us enough to ignore or justify rape, as outsiders and in our own lives. In a study of 2,000 college males, researcher David Lisak found 1 in 16 men proudly admitted to forcing sex — as long as the “r-word” was never used.
We cling to the belief that because we pass laws criminalizing rape, we could not possibly support it. We shudder at the word and condemn the theoretical idea of a rapist. But while it’s easy — and comforting — to presume we’re anti-rape and that’s that, it never plays out in such a matter-of-fact way. Instead, we grasp for explanations that allow us to feel safe. Rape is excused by the clothes a woman is wearing, the way she is acting, her past experiences and, like we saw in Steubenville, the amount of alcohol she has consumed. We overlook the painful, common realities of rape as a widespread cultural problem and focus on the unique details of particular cases, identifying errors in individual responsibility. We make exceptions, placing the onus on women to “protect” themselves by doing or avoiding certain things to prevent being raped. And it is this very behavior that constitutes the essence of our alive-and-well rape culture.
Many wonderful, brave advocates like Zerlina Maxwell have recently emphasized the importance of teaching our boys to not rape as a way to shatter rape culture. This idea is of utmost necessity, but there is more to the story. All genders contribute to the upholding of rape culture. The two girls recently arrested for making threats at the Steubenville victim exemplify how rape culture is, by no means, just a male problem. Females often participate in the hierarchical arrangement of girls and women that condemns so-called “sluts” to a lesser-than category, identifying them as somehow more deserving of sexual assault. We comfort ourselves by blaming other women for being too flirtatious or easy or drunk, and in doing so we create a false sense of control. We do it because it is too painful to feel like we could become a victim of rape. Or we need to feel we are “good” by labeling others as “bad” or because male attention is consistently portrayed to us as not only the ultimate prize in life but something for which we need to compete with other girls. Whatever the motivation, we are, as a gender, not innocent.
Together, we must stop playing into the notion that rape happens because someone was doing something wrong and not taking enough precautions. We are all socialized into an environment of misogyny, complete with media that model victim-blaming and sexist narratives that have formed our understanding of sexual violence. People of all genders need to understand what rape truly is and learn to resist the harmful societal messages that promote sexual violence. Teaching consent does not mean assuming the default setting of every boy as “rapist.” Not every teenager is going to get behind the wheel drunk, but we still teach them all not to.
Rape culture creates a setting in which “no” is too often followed up with “Come on,” “Why not?” or “I thought you liked me.” A culture fervidly opposed to rape would inform us to look for an active “yes” rather than listen for a “no.” But only once we admit that our society enables rape culture can we go about combating it.