Lukewarm Politics: Rape Culture, Revolution, and RAINN

[content note: rape]

Recently, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network – one of the largest if not the largest support network for victims of sexual violence – issued a report on campus rape for the White House’s new initiative’s in combating the epidemic of rape on college campuses. In the statement, RAINN said the following:

In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming 'rape culture' for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses. While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.

Numerous feminist blogs have already latched onto and provided commentary about the gall of RAINN referring to the discussion on rape culture as an “unfortunate trend.” I’m hoping not to rehash that particular issue here but rather to examine the larger problems at play – the problems that divide activist thinking from centrist moderate politics and how the conflict between the two ends up, often, causing further problems.

I believe that RAINN’s point here was deliberately made to separate themselves from the “extremist” politics of that characterize the current state of feminism. I put “extremist” in quotes because, as one of those feminists, I think extreme is often a dog whistle for “political realities we don’t want to actually think about.” RAINN’s separation from current feminist work through this deliberately chosen statement exemplifies a desire to move away from notions of extremism, to disengage from current feminist discussion, and to appeal to a wider, likely more moderate, donor and political base. In order to appease the more skeptical in the audience, the organization rejects what is perceived as the outlying view – that rape culture exists and that a culture which tacitly condones and even celebrates rape makes it easier for rape to occur.

This tension here is evidence of the larger myopia in the way American politics works. In order to make a short term goal of funding, good press, and maybe bringing more people into the discussion, organizations, politicians, and players on the political scene often temper their views, pulling back or rejecting the views that require new frameworks and a re-engineering of our socially conditioned perspectives. Instead of dismantling the state, we try to work within it. We hide the views that may cause the more powerful among our readers to reject our activism.

I know this moderation and temperance well. For years, I tried to maintain an identity as an evangelical, insisting on my orthodoxy as a reason to reform the church from within.* I clambered for a seat at the table, taking what crumbs of justice I could get along the way. Calling people to equality meant giving their misogynistic opinions legitimacy by treating my personhood that is debateable. In attempting to reform the church from within orthodoxy, I found myself frustrated again and again at the ways in which sexual, gender, and racial minorities were consistently being told to “wait their turn.” We’ll get ordination; then we can work on other injustices. We’ll get X movement forward; then we can talk about dismantling the culture.

This linear myopia, this wait-your-turn form of activism is possibly the grandest lie of the patriarchy.

We buy into the idea that justice can be achieved in baby steps, that trying, fumbling along, is good enough. Don’t be too extreme, we tell ourselves, because then no one will want to listen. Don’t scare them off with your anger, we say, because then the message fails. Don’t buy into the idea that we ourselves are complicit in the epidemic of sexual violence – they might not like being asked to actually change. It is a great lie that we must comfort the patriarchy in order to achieve justice.

Justice will never be achieved by coddling the patriarchy.

In this way, RAINN’s rejection of the rape culture discussion is a message to feminists to abandon our message of dismantling systems of injustice by pushing back against cultural forces that condone sexual violence. “Bring it back down to earth, where real and practical things, like putting rapists in jail, is our goal," it says. Such a view allows harmful misogyny to flourish – it plucks the weed without pulling up the root.

Moderation is a virtue in many things. But moderation on the political scene is a myth, an insidious idea that encourages continued adherence to the patriarchy and to the system of injustice which oppresses all. I refuse to be moderate, because such moderation benefits the powerful, not the powerless.


*I still consider myself a part of the church, but I don't bother any more with appealing to an orthodoxy established by a tradition of white male scholars.