Back to Basics: What is Rape Culture?

[content note: rape]

This post is part five in an ongoing series about the basics of Christian feminist thought. [part 1] [part 2] [part 3] [part 4]

The email landed in my inbox during my freshman year of college. I read through it carefully, trusting that the person who sent it knew what they were talking about – after all, it was from the head of security at my small Christian college and was directed toward women.

The email claimed to be a list from a conference the man had recently attended and contained a number of things women could do to prevent rape. The list – printed here on Snopes – contained everything from advice not to wear your hair in a ponytail to not wearing overalls because the straps can easily be cut to carrying objects with you that can be used as a weapon in a pinch.

I was only eighteen, and it was my first time away from home for an extended period of time. I was in the habit of listening to music as I walked around the neighborhood surrounding our college in the middle of the afternoon – it was one of my favorite things to do. I also had hair down to the middle of my back that I wore in a loose ponytail. For weeks after receiving this email from the head of security at my college, I covered my ponytail with a hood while I walked and moved one headphone behind my ear so I could hear anyone approaching.

I had no evidence that stranger rape was common in my area. I had no evidence that these rape prevention tips would actually work. But I knew that if I were at risk – and I’m a woman, so that naturally increased my risk – I had better do everything I could to prevent the worst from happening.

The next year, I met a young lady at a concert and became friends with her on MySpace (this was 2006). She and I became close friends and she shared with me her experience with sexual assault – an ex boyfriend had come over to pick up some of his stuff from her place and coerced her into sex. Everything she described is, I know now, typical of a sexual assault. She talked of staring at the ceiling, simply wanting things to be over, and the tremendous guilt that she felt afterward when she was convinced it was her fault.

In retrospect, I did not respond well, but as at the time, I thought it was the Christian thing. I grieved over the loss of her purity, and though I called what happened rape, my laments were more for her broken purity than for her pain as a survivor of trauma.

In my responses, I perpetuated rape culture.

Rape culture is a concept that’s arisen in the latest wave of feminism. Rape culture is the idea that the culture in which we live functions to normalize, trivialize, and dismiss rape. It takes many different forms, and like the male gaze, is often a form of media critique that has leeched out into real life discussion. Rape culture is marked by victim blaming (“things you can do to avoid rape!”); normalizing rape through attitudes toward it (“boys will be boys”); and trivializing rape through language and cultural assumptions (calling the abuse of young children a “sex scandal,” for example).

The development of the critique of rape culture is an attempt to uproot the barriers to aid for victims and to punish rapists by creating a culture in which they are shunned for their crimes.

When I first read about rape culture, I scoffed. It seemed like a broad conspiracy theory, that our culture purposefully diminishes rape as part of some deliberate intention to keep women in their place. As a person skeptical of conspiracy, I thought the concept of “rape culture” sounded like one of the worst conspiracies ever.

But then I started paying attention to the ways in which we talked about rape. I saw that rape prevention often focused on the victim’s behavior. I saw that men joked about rape in ways that seemed threatening to me as a woman. I spoke to rape survivors about the ways in which they felt isolated and shamed by a culture that saw what happened to them as trivial.

And I soon realized there might be something to this rape culture idea. After all, I’d been raised in a Christian environment that taught me to ferret out secular elements and influences throughout culture in an attempt to have a fully Christian worldview. So in a way, my Christian conservative upbringing trained me well for a career ferreting out elements of rape culture in theologies and cultural studies.

Rape culture, as a feminist theory, simply asks that we pay attention to how we function and how we talk about the crime of rape. We look at the statistics and realize that the chances that we are talking to a rape victim are high, and we develop empathy toward them. We also look at statistics and realize that we have encountered rapists in our lives and recognize that, to many of them, we have probably helped give them justification for their actions.

By normalizing rape, we help rapists to explain away their actions.

If nothing else, I do not want to be complicit in making it easier for rapists to justify themselves. I want to place victims first, and part of that means examining my own actions with how I discuss rape and how I regard incidents surrounding rape. As a Christian, this means I need to carefully examine my theology surrounding women and gender roles and purity. This means I need to be aware of how my actions create the world around me, and how they hurt others. This is of upmost importance, both as a Christian called to love my neighbor and as a human being wishing to live in a world free of rape.

I’ll be discussing the impacts of rape culture upon purity and modesty culture in my explainer post on Friday. Don’t forget to hop on over to Tumblr today for the second #AskAwayWed! This week’s theme is relationships!