A rape culture is a systematic belief system supporting sexual violence throughout a particular society. A rape culture perpetuates norms of sexual aggression while lacking an understanding of consent; violence becomes sexy. Due to the implicit nature of rape culture, most rapes in the United States go unreported and many survivors of rape are not believed. Rape myths, normative ideas of sexual violence based on rape culture, influence which survivors are deemed credible. Rape culture is often used by feminist scholars connecting gender, socialization, media, and institutions.
Rape culture is a feminist theory to explain the prevalence of rape, arguing that sexual violence in the United States is normative. This theory is in contrast to criminological theories, which view rapists as social deviants, and sociobiological theories, which argue that male sexual aggression is natural. Sociobiological theories are themselves demonstrative of rape culture in their argument that gender influences sexual violence. However, rape culture theorists argue that this influence of gender on sexual violence is not natural, but learned.
Second-wave (mostly radical) feminist activists in the 1970s challenged that rape is political. Consciousness raising groups focused on the participants’ experiences, which indicated a pattern of sexual abuse. The works of Susan Brownmiller and Diana Russell laid the groundwork for rape culture theory. They argue that dominant sexuality in the United States is focused on force and aggression through the enactment of gender roles. Sexuality outside of rape culture is envisioned as consensual acts between people sharing equal power.
Some rape culture theorists now view rape in a larger context of violence between dominator and dominated, connecting sexual violence against women with other forms of oppression and violence. Herein lies a tension in the theory between connecting sexual violence with other forms of oppression and violence and with isolating sexual violence as a phenomenon requiring focused attention.
A major rift between feminists is over the question of rape culture. Some feminist theorists critique rape culture theories for essential zing women. Rape culture theory has been deemed “victim feminism” and as being antisex by some critics.
Social Categories And Intersectionality
The manner in which sexual aggression is masculinized and sexual passivity femininized is influenced by race, class, sexuality, and age. A rape culture is more accepting of sexual violence by certain men than by others. Historically, phony charges of rape have been used against African American males as an excuse for lynching and incarceration. The myth of the Black male raping White women played a significant role in post slavery racism and continues to influence racism today.
In the United States, an upper-class White man is much less likely to be charged and convicted of rape than an lower-class African American male. White women are likely to fear Black men as potential rapists more than fearing White men as such. Although more rapes are committed by White men than by Black men, there are more Black men in prison for committing rape. In a rape culture, fear (by women and of particular minority group men) is socialized.
Social categories (race, class, sexuality, age) also affect a rape culture’s perception of women as victims. Rape is more likely to be seen as deviant when victimizing women with more power. So, for example, when a Latina teenager from a disadvantaged neighborhood is raped, she is much less likely to be believed than a White senior citizen from an upper-class neighborhood.
Rape culture requires and reinforces normative heterosexuality. Within a rape culture, normative sexuality requires an active masculine actor and a feminine individual who is acted upon. Rape culture conflates gender and sexuality. Therefore, cases of sexual violence between same-sex partners and against males are silenced and rarely prosecuted.
Silence And Toleration Of Rape
A rape culture tolerates many forms of sexual violence. Many victimized by rape are not only doubted, but also they are blamed for inciting violence against them. Certain types of clothing, consuming alcohol or drugs, and being at particular locations are some examples of “reasons” that a woman can provoke a man into raping her, according to a rape culture. A minority of cases are prosecuted so that the relatively few rapists who are convicted and sentenced to prison serve to mask the larger societal problem. In a rape culture, most occurrences of rape are hidden.
The foundation of rape culture lies in rape myths. For women, safety from sexual violence in a rape culture can only be felt when internalizing rape myths. Consequently, even though the majority of rapes are perpetrated by someone known to the survivor, women are taught to fear strangers and feel safe with men who are familiar. Even though the majority of rapes occur in a location familiar to the survivor, often in the home, women are taught to fear going out to strange places, especially in poor minority areas. This rape myth reinforces racism and classism as well.
Challenging Rape Culture
Much activism has been organized around challenging rape culture since the 1970s. Many rape crisis centers and U.S. universities and colleges created education programs to challenge rape myths. Organizations including Men Can Stop Rape, Women Against Rape, and Black Women’s Rape Action Project were established across the United States. During annual Take Back the Night events, women march the streets to protest sexual violence and rape culture. V-Day has also become an annual event globally, focused around a theatrical production, The Vagina Monologues.
- Brownmiller, S. (1975). Against our will. New York: Fawcett Columbine.
- Buchwald, E., Fletcher, P. R., & Roth M. (2005). Transforming a rape culture. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.
- Crenshaw, K. W. (1995). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. In K. W. Crenshaw, N. Gotanta, G. Peller, & K. Thomas (Eds.), Critical race theory (pp. 357–383). New York: New Press.
- Russell, D. (1974). The politics of rape. New York: Stein and Day.
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