Rape Culture: Is it the problem and what can we do about it?

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With sexual assault awareness on the rise, there has been a lot of talk that we live in a “rape culture” – a culture that considers sexual violence the norm. One where the focus is on telling women what they should do differently in order to avoid rape, rather than telling the rapists not to rape in the first place. Rape culture is said to exist because of our cultural beliefs – we have a hard time believing that ordinary men (rather than the psycho hiding in the alley) can commit rape, we believe that romance involves an element of “the chase”, we victim-blame and slut-shame, we allow men to think it’s okay to cat-call, grope and otherwise sexually harass women, and we believe jokes about rape are funny and acceptable.

There is no doubt that these beliefs do exist in our society and that they are a pervasive and unacceptable problem. And there is also no doubt that in many aspects of our media and popular culture, women are objectified – think porn, beer commercials, video games, mainstream movies, hyper-sexualized celebrities, and the rise of regular girls sexualizing themselves on social media – and that this has a deleterious effect on what some men and boys (or even some girls and women) come to believe is an acceptable way to treat females.

However, the problem with generalizing upon an entire society is that it makes it very difficult for those who don’t experience rape culture as their norm (as well as those who don’t perpetrate or perpetuate it) to either take it seriously or know what they can do to affect change.

How many boys and men around us are actually willing to coerce or force a person to have sex with them? How many boys and men are solely concerned with their own needs and pleasure fulfillment and care nothing about how the girl feels or what she wants? How many boys and men live in a social vacuum without countervailing examples of women – confident and smart mothers, sisters and classmates, or even strong female role models in books and media?

And how many of us – male or female – actually buy into the rape culture or consciously victim-blame? I think that, intuitively at least, the majority of us do not believe that a girl or woman deserves to be raped because she drank too much, led a guy on or wore revealing clothing. And I don’t think the majority of us believe that a man’s behaviour is excusable because he was drunk or because he simply could not control his urges.

Perhaps what is thought of as this widespread epidemic of victim-blaming and rape-apologizing has more to do with the continuing confusion that exists between our cultural norms and the myriad factors that come into play during sexual exchanges between two people, especially when they are drunk. And if this is the case, we may need to refocus our efforts in trying to affect cultural change.

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Was a man taking advantage of a woman who said no when she was tipsy, but yes when she got drunk? Or was the woman ambivalent to the man when tipsy and then changed her mind, propelled forward by alcohol-induced attraction? Alcohol lowers inhibitions for both males and females and allows them to become comfortable doing what they would not have had the courage or desire to do while sober. And alcohol also impairs judgment. So it is inevitable that the lines may become blurred between when persuasion becomes coercion and ambivalence becomes willingness.

And what about the equally pervasive cultural norms that create confusion amongst both males and females? For instance, we tell everyone that “no means no” and “yes means yes”, but girls and women continue to be socialized to enjoy at least a degree of persuasion and pursuit in their romantic encounters. This is undeniable when you look at the Twilight and Fifty Shades phenomena, or story lines from time immemorial where unlikeable men become the object of true love (Beauty and the Beast, Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones). And apart from the thrilling nature of these pursuits, there is also the antiquated but persistent belief that women should put up some superficial resistance lest she come across as too desperate, willing, or slutty.

Another problematic aspect of our culture is that girls are socialized to be nice and polite, and assertiveness is often judged as “bitchy” and aggressive. When the statistics tell us that many, if not most, sexual assaults are perpetrated by friends or acquaintances, it is no wonder things have gotten so muddy. I have trouble saying no to unknown and faceless telemarketers on the phone, even when they have become intrusive and aggressive. My face gets flushed, I start stammering, I get uncomfortable, and it is very difficult for me to be “rude” and tell them to get lost. I cannot even imagine how difficult it can be in sexual situations with someone you care about, look up to, or are interested in (a situation where even in consensual encounters communication is difficult). Intentions may be unclear, you may not want to hurt feelings, you may be too shy to assert yourself or freeze out of fear, you may not want to be viewed as “uncool”, or you may be afraid to lose your job. And to make matters worse, your judgment and wits regarding how to safely extricate yourself from the situation may be impaired by alcohol or drugs.  It is any wonder that girls and women may blame themselves and be afraid to speak out when they are assaulted?  Or that others who were not there may ignorantly question why you didn’t just say no, fight back or why you would continue a relationship with the assailant?

On the flip side, in a culture where persuasion is encouraged, it is often difficult to gauge when lustful pursuit becomes unwanted pursuit, especially when the boy’s judgment is also impaired –where is the line between being unable to detect negative signals and ignoring them?

What it seems to come down to is a great deal of mixed messages – both between competing cultural norms and within the complex intricacies that exist in intimate encounters. It seems the only way to combat confusion, in any circumstance, is through education. However, this seemingly simple solution is conspicuously lacking when it comes to sex.

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How can we expect people, especially young people, to navigate this minefield without education? Parents are reluctant to have the difficult “talk” with their children, and schools feel it is reckless or unwise to teach young people too much about being sexual (although this is thankfully starting to change). Real talks about sex are largely avoided, leaving us to deal with this emotionally-charged topic with jokes and discomfort.

When a father fails to tell his son that real manhood involves being able to pleasure a girl and that this will make the experience better for both parties, or that it is not “manly” to take advantage of drunk girls or to use a girl who is looking for more than just sex, then will the boy not be forced to learn what it means to be a man from internet porn and popular culture?  Who else will tell our boys that it is not manly to cajole, plead, guilt, pressure or trick a girl to have sex?  Who will tell him that just because someone agrees to be his partner, it doesn’t give him licence to take what he wants when he wants?

If a mother is not willing to tell her daughter how girls derive pleasure in sex or that her body and its functions are not something to be ashamed of, is it likely she will develop the confidence to make healthy demands in a sexual encounter? And if she doesn’t have confidence and self-esteem, is it hard to believe that she may then make up for this vulnerability by shaming or judging other girls?  Or that she will be ashamed or confused when a sexual assault occurs, blaming herself?

If our schools are not teaching our children how to critically examine the multitude of influences that will inform them about sex, can we expect them to learn how to do so on their own and communicate with each other in an open and healthy way?

And when we arm our girls with knowledge and strategies to prevent sexual assault, this is not the same thing as saying it is their onus to stop sexual assault or their failure to do so is ever their fault. It is simply an acknowledgement that there are bad people out there – those willing to coerce, degrade, rape, steal and even kill. When you lock your door at night you do so because of this inevitable truth. But if you fail to lock your door, no one says you deserved to be victimized.

Perhaps most importantly, if our society continues to normalize respect for and the equal treatment of women – essentially continue the feminist fight – then perhaps girls will believe (as they are already starting to) that assertiveness is sexy, that they deserve to demand pleasure from sexual encounters, that they should never be ashamed to report sexual assault, and they don’t need to boost their self esteem by objectifying themselves. On the other hand, boys will believe that girls are not objects, that considering how the girl feels and what she wants is of utmost importance, and that it is never okay to force a girl (or anyone) to do what they don’t want to do. Perhaps then, more people will speak out against unacceptable jokes, beliefs and behaviour, and stop their consumption of degrading and harmful media. And hopefully too, mutual respect will make it less likely for those few women out there to feel it is okay to make false allegations out of vengefulness or emotional hurt.

I think I’d be hard pressed to find many people who would disagree with these ideals. So instead of framing the issue as, “Here is this insidious problem called rape culture that we all need to stop being a part of” (even though most people don’t think it applies to them) how about focusing on making cultural changes that we can all agree are positive and beneficial? With knowledge and open communication, a lot of the ambiguity involved in “victim blaming” could be reduced if not eliminated, and we can stop being distracted with questions about who to believe and focus our attention on dealign with those that are actually to blame.

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