Rape culture

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File:(A) Rape rates per 100000 population 2010-2012, world.jpg
Rape rates (police reported) per 100,000 population 2010-2012.

In feminist theory, rape culture is a setting in which rape is pervasive and normalized due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality.[1][2] The sociology of rape culture is studied academically by feminists. There is disagreement over what defines a rape culture and as to whether any given societies meet the criteria to be considered a rape culture.[3]

Behaviors commonly associated with rape culture include victim blaming, sexual objectification, trivializing rape, denial of widespread rape, refusing to acknowledge the harm caused by some forms of sexual violence, or some combination of these.[4] The notion of rape culture has been used to describe and explain behavior within social groups, including prison rape, and in conflict areas where war rape is used as psychological warfare. Entire societies have been alleged to be rape cultures.[3][5][6][7][8]

Evidence suggests that rape culture is correlated with other social factors and behaviors. Rape myths, victim blaming, and trivialization of rape have been found to be positively correlated with racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, classism, religious intolerance, and other forms of discrimination.[9][10]

Origins and usage

The term "rape culture" was first coined in the 1970s in the United States by second wave feminists, and was applied to contemporary American culture as a whole.[11] During the 1970s, second-wave feminists had begun to engage in consciousness-raising efforts designed to educate the public about the prevalence of rape. Previously, according to Canadian psychology professor Alexandra Rutherford, most Americans assumed that rape, incest, and wife-beating rarely happened.[12] The concept of rape culture posited that rape was common and normal in American culture, and that it was one extreme manifestation of pervasive societal misogyny and sexism.

The first published use of the term appears to have been in 1974 in Rape: The First Sourcebook for Women, edited by Noreen Connell and Cassandra Wilson for the New York Radical Feminists.[13] In the book, the group stated that "our ultimate goal is to eliminate rape and that goal cannot be achieved without a revolutionary transformation of our society."[14] This book, along with Susan Brownmiller's 1975 Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, was among the earliest to include first-person accounts of rape. Their authors intended to demonstrate that rape was a much more common crime than previously believed.[15] Brownmiller, a member of the New York Radical Feminists, argued that both academia and the general public ignored the incidents of rape.[16] Her book, Against Our Will, is considered a landmark work on feminism and sexual violence, and it is one of the pillars of modern rape studies.[17][18]

Sociology professor Joyce E. Williams traces the origin and first usage of the term "rape culture"[19] to the 1975 documentary film Rape Culture, produced and directed by Margaret Lazarus and Renner Wunderlich for Cambridge Documentary Films. She said that the film "takes credit for first defining the concept."[19] The film discussed rape of both men and women in the context of a larger cultural normalization of rape.[20][21] The film featured the work of the DC Rape Crisis Center in co-operation with Prisoners Against Rape, Inc.[22] It included interviews with rapists and victims, as well as with prominent anti-rape activists such as feminist philosopher and theologian Mary Daly and author and artist Emily Culpepper. The film explored how mass media and popular culture have perpetuated attitudes towards rape.[21]

In a 1992 Journal of Social Issues paper entitled "A Feminist Redefinition of Rape and Sexual Assault: Historical Foundations and Change," Patricia Donat and John D'Emilio suggested that the term originated as "rape-supportive culture" in Brownmiller's Against Our Will.[23] By the mid-1970s, the phrase began to be used more widely in multiple forms of media.


Michael Parenti believes that rape culture manifests through the acceptance of rapes as an everyday occurrence, and even a male prerogative. It can be exacerbated by police apathy in handling rape cases, as well as victim blaming, reluctance by authorities to go against patriarchial cultural norms, as well as fears of stigmatization suffered by rape victims and their families.[24] Other sociologists posit that rape culture links non-consensual sex to the cultural fabric of a society, where patriarchial worldviews, laced with misogyny and gender inequality, are passed from generation to generation, leading to widespread social and institutional acceptance of rape.

Feminists and gender activists conceptualize rape cultures that encourage gender violence, as well as perpetuate "rape myths", ranging from treating rape as merely "rough sex," to blaming the victim for inviting rape. Such "rape myths" are social messages that command women to assume predefined gender roles concerning sexual behavior.[25] A 2015 meta-analysis found that overall men perceived rape victims more negatively than women did and this sex difference was moderated by the acceptance of rape myths.[26] This "rape myth" idea is also reflected in spousal rape. Rape culture perpetuates particular rape myths that are codified into law. Rape myths had suppressed the incidence of such events now known as 'intimate partner rape'[27] or 'marital rape;' at one time, the view was that women could never claim to be raped by a spouse. Rape cases in which both parties previously knew one another has been coined "acquaintance rape," a term first coined by Robin Warshaw in 1988, and subsequently used by prominent academics such as Mary P. Koss.[28] In addition, rape culture can manifest when third parties separate the sexual violence of select individuals and cast them off as deviant perverts. Highly influential scholars and feminists, such as J. Ann Tickner, have stressed the importance of understanding that because individuals are a part of broader society, they cannot be explained apart from society. By focusing only on deviant individuals who commit sexual violence, researchers and observers can overlook or forget that society influences and reinforces the mindset of such individuals.[29]

Chris O'Sullivan teaches that acts of sexism are commonly employed to validate and rationalize normative misogynistic practices. For instance, sexist jokes may be told to foster disrespect for women and an accompanying disregard for their well-being, or a rape victim might be blamed for being raped because of how she dressed or acted. O'Sullivan examines rape culture and fraternities, identifying the socialization and social roles that contribute to sexual aggression, and looks at "frat life" and brotherhood ideals of competition and camaraderie. In these groups, sex is viewed by young men as a tool of gaining acceptance and bonding with fellow "brothers," as they engage in contests over sex with women.[30] In O'Sullivan's article, sexualized violence towards women is regarded as part of a continuum in a society that regards women's bodies as sexually available by default.[31]

To some, the root cause of rape culture is the "domination and objectification of women".[32] However, academic theory holds that rape culture does not necessarily have a single cause, and causes may be localized based on other social aspects of culture. Rape culture is a fluid and always-changing entity that is socially produced and socially legitimated, so throughout time and place its definitions will change. Reasoning about rape and rape culture is also influenced by gender and heterosexuality norms, and therefore is also changing through time and place.[33][34] For example, in South Africa the overriding "war culture," which emphasized masculinity and violence, led to a culture in which rape was normalized.[32][35] A University of California Davis public document alleged that major causes of rape were the enforcement of women having to follow social rules and the conditioning of gender roles.[36] Others say in a rape culture women are conditioned to assume responsibility for male sexuality, and gender roles are socially constructed and enforced on women through fear.[37]

Since the late 20th century, researchers and activists have repeatedly returned to the issue of rape culture on university campuses, especially in the United States, Canada, and the U.K. Rape culture is easier to pinpoint and identify on campuses, as opposed to studying general society, because they are public institutions where many young people live, work, and study. In a study of date rape, gender-based miscommunications were held to be a major factor supporting a campus rape culture.[38] The general unwillingness of police and district attorneys to prosecute rapes when force was not involved, or when the victim had some sort of relationship with the aggressor, is also cited as encouraging date rape and campus rape.[34] Often, victims are dissuaded from reporting sexual assaults because of university and college ambivalent reactions to rape reports and desire to suppress bad news. Victims may not want to risk stigmatization and scrutiny in their lives, especially in campus society.[39] Victim-hood is a social creation, and is associated with stigma. Definitions of what counts as "rape" and who is treated as a "genuine victim" are constructed in discourse and practices that reflect the social, political, and cultural conditions of society. For instance, rape victims may not be considered as such if it appears they did not struggle or put up a fight. Their emotional responses are observed and reported during investigations to aid in deciding if the victim is lying or not.[40] In addition, college administration officials have sometimes questioned accounts of victims, further complicating documentation and policing of student assaults, despite such preventive legislation as the Clery Act, which requires colleges to report on crimes.[41][42]

Rape culture is closely related to slut-shaming and victim blaming, in which rape victims are considered at fault for being raped. Scholars argue that this connection is made due to a culture that shames all female sexuality that is not for the purpose of reproduction in a hetero-normative married household.[34] That some victims do not report rapes to the police due to fear of not being believed is often cited as a symptom of a rape culture.[34][43] 6% of women who did not report rape said it was because of fear of not being believed by police.[44]

Victim blaming is part of a phenomenon known as 'Rape Myth Acceptance,' a term coined by researcher Martha Burt in the 1980s. It is defined as prejudicial, stereotyped or false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists which can range from trivializing rape, denial of widespread rape, labeling an accuser as a liar, stating that most rape accusations are false, refusing to acknowledge the harm caused by some forms of sexual violence, or accepting that the victim "deserved it" because she was defined as a slut.[45]

Pornography has been commonly targeted as a contributor to rape culture because of adding to larger patterns of oppression. Feminists frequently link rape culture to the widespread distribution of pornography, which is seen as an expression of a culture that objectifies women, reducing the female body to a commodity.[46] Accounts of rapists often feature fusion of several pornographic motifs.[47]

Rape culture can be perpetuated via language used in everyday conversations, as well as through overt violence. The frequency of rape jokes on the internet has been cited as an example of the belittling of rape that characterizes rape culture.[48] Prison rape is a topic about which jokes are abundant. Linda McFarlane, director of Just Detention International, states "Humor is part of the cultural attitude that (prison) is the one place where rape is okay."[49]


Countries that have been described as having "rape cultures" include, but are not limited to, Pakistan,[50] India,[51][52][53] the United States,[54] the United Kingdom,[55] Canada,[56] Australia[57] and South Africa.[58]

In September 2015, a study done by the American Association of Universities, consisting a response size of 80,000 students, found that 26 percent of women reported forced sexual contact on college campuses while 7 percent reported full penetrative rape. 7 percent of men reported forced sexual contact on college campuses while 2 percent reported full penetrative rape.[59]

According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, it is believed that only 15.8 to 35% of all rapes are ever reported to the police in the United States.[60]

Press reports of a 2013 rape scandal in England and a 2015 sexual assault scandal in Germany said that differences between European and immigrant cultures were partly to blame.[61][62]


Rape culture has been described as detrimental to both women and men. Some writers and speakers, such as Jackson Katz, Michael Kimmel, and Don McPherson, have said that it is intrinsically linked to gender roles that limit male self-expression and cause psychological harm to men.[63]

According to political scientist Iris Marion Young, victims in rape cultures live in fear of random acts of oppressive sexual violence that are intended to damage or humiliate the victim.[64] Others link rape culture to modernisation and industrialisation, arguing that pre-industrial societies tend to be "rape free" cultures, since the lower status of women in these societies give them some immunity from sexual violence. In industrial rape cultures, women emerge from their homebound roles and become visible in the workplace and other areas traditionally dominated by men, increasing male insecurities that result in their using rape to suppress women.[47][65] Others also link rape culture to environmental insecurities, where men objectify women as part of their struggle to control their immediate environment. It is also linked to gender segregation, and the belief that rape proves masculinity.[66] Other manifestations of rape culture include denial of widespread rape,[67] institutional apathy toward the problem of rape,[68] minimization of rape cases by government officials,[67][68][69] and excusing rapists as social anomalies.[67][68]

One concern is that the rape culture in the United States can influence juror decision-making in sexual assault trials. The result is that men who have committed sexual assault crimes may receive little to no punishment, which serves to strengthen the rape culture in the American judicial system and American society as a whole.[70]

Effects on men

The term used to define what men undergo in a rape culture is "toxic masculinity". This is a gender stereotype burdening the men in society, depicting men as sexually driven, violent beings.[71]

A consequence of toxic masculinity is that most male rape victims would not come forward to the police or in a survey, out of feelings of shame. The male gender stereotype suggests that men should be tough enough to avoid rape, if raped by a man, or sexually driven enough to enjoy it, if raped by a woman.[citation needed]

To dismantle rape culture would require the undoing of more than just the normalization and tolerance of sexual assault and rape. It would require addressing gender stereotypes in a patriarchal (male-dominated) society and relieving both genders from their pressures.[72] In a patriarchal society, men are expected to be dominant: strong, violent, sexual, and controlling. Women are expected to be submissive: weak, passive, decorative, and controllable. Emma Watson, the UN Goodwill Ambassador for Women, said at the launch of HeForShe that enabling women to take control and be strong will allow men to relieve themselves of that responsibility, imposed on them by the toxic masculinity in a rape culture.[73]

This expectation is often traced back to cultural values of masculinity.[74] In the United States, for example, traditional concepts of masculinity are valued in men, considered to be based in the western frontier culture, as in America's ideal cowboy who uses violence and a tough persona to achieve respect. Jason Katz explores this concept in the widely acclaimed documentary "Tough Guise 2."[75] It analyzes the factors contributing to and the effects of gender violence. Part of American culture teaches boys that in order to be men, they must conform to this "box of masculinity," which perpetuates mantras such as: be tough, don't be emotional, don't be disrespected, be sexually aggressive, or take a hit. If a boy steps out of this box, especially in the tender years of puberty, he is shamed by peers as soft or weak, which teaches him that being feminine is wrong.

Filmmaker Thomas Keith explained his thoughts on this with the his film The Bro Code: How Contemporary Culture Creates Sexist Men. Keith focuses on the sexual objectification of women that has occurred in America for decades. He states the American male culture teaches boys and men to dehumanize and disrespect women. Keith addresses several different forms of contemporary media, mainly focusing on movies and music videos that show womanizing as positive and acceptable behavior, pornography that glamorizes the brutalization of women, comedians who make jokes about rape and other forms of sexual assault, and a plethora of men's magazines, books, TV shows that portray their own archaic view of American masculinity and manhood. Keith posits that men's level of violence towards women has reached epidemic levels, and the media coverage and advertising suggest that it is not only normal, but it's cool, for boys and men to control and humiliate women.[76]

Victim blaming and slut shaming

Victim blaming is the phenomenon in which a victim of a crime is partially or entirely attributed as responsible for the transgressions committed against them.[77] For instance, a victim of a crime (in this case rape or sexual assault), is asked questions by the police, in an emergency room, or in a court room, that suggest that the victim was doing something, acting a certain way, or wearing clothes that may have provoked the perpetrator, therefore making the transgressions against the victim her or his own fault.[78][79]

Victim blaming may also occur among a victim's peers, and college students have reported being ostracized if they report a rape against them, particularly if the alleged perpetrator is a popular figure or noted athlete.[80][81] Also, while there is generally not much general discussion of rape facilitated in the home, schools, or government agencies, such conversations may perpetuate rape culture by focusing on techniques of "how not to be raped" (as if it were provoked), vs "how not to rape."[82][83] This is problematic due to the stigma created and transgressed against the already victimized individuals rather than stigmatizing the aggressive actions of rape and the rapists.[83] It is also commonly viewed that prisoners in prison deserve to be raped and is a reasonable form of punishment for the crimes they committed.[citation needed]

Slut shaming is a variant on victim blaming, to do with the shaming of sexual behaviour. It describes the way people are made to feel guilty or inferior for certain sexual behaviors or desires that deviate from traditional or orthodox gender expectations.[citation needed] A study of college women from sociologists at the University of Michigan and the University of California found that slut-shaming had more to do with a woman's social class than it did with their activity.[84] The SlutWalk movement aims to challenge victim blaming, slut shaming and rape culture.[85]


The first SlutWalk in Toronto, Ontario, April 3, 2011

SlutWalk is a feminist organization that formed in response to a public statement made by Toronto police officer Michael Sanguinetti on January 24, 2011.[86] While addressing the issue of campus rape at a York University safety forum, Sanguinetti said that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized."[87]

The SlutWalk and Besharmi Morcha movements are credited with popularizing the term via mass media reports about the protesters in the English-speaking Western media.[88] The rallies aim to raise awareness of rape culture—which they define as a culture in which "sexual violence is both made to be invisible and inevitable"—and to end slut-shaming and victim blaming.[35][89] One primary goal of this organization is to deconstruct the stigma that often comes with being a victim of rape or sexual-assault. Cities that have hosted SlutWalks in the United States include Seattle, Boston, Chicago, Spokane, Austin, and Philadelphia.[citation needed] The SlutWalk of Philadelphia was rebranded as The March to End Rape Culture. The idea behind the name change is so the walk can be more inclusive and promotes more diversity in its participants, volunteers, and sponsors.[90] The original SlutWalk took place in the city of Toronto, Ontario.[86]


RAINN, one of North America's leading anti-sexual violence organizations, in a report detailing recommendations to the White House on combating rape on college campuses, identifies problems with an overemphasis on the concept of rape culture as a means of preventing rape and as a cause for rape, saying, "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."[91] It is estimated that in college, 90% of rapes are committed by 3-7% of the male population,[92] though it is stipulated that RAINN does not have reliable numbers for female perpetrators. RAINN argues that rape is the product of individuals who have decided to disregard the overwhelming cultural message that rape is wrong. The report argues that the trend towards focusing on cultural factors that supposedly condone rape "has the paradoxical effect of making it harder to stop sexual violence, since it removes the focus from the individual at fault, and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions".[93]

In a 2013 interview, professor Camille Paglia[94] described concerns about rape culture as "ridiculous" and "neurotic", an artifact of bourgeois liberal ideologies that people are essentially good and that all social problems can be remedied by re-education. This rape culture concept is much to the detriment of young college-educated women, Paglia argues, because they are ill-prepared to anticipate or cope with the small minority of deeply evil people in the world who simply don't care about following laws or obeying social convention. Moreover, Paglia says, feminist proponents of rape culture tend to completely ignore male victims of sexual assault.

Caroline Kitchens, in a 2014 article in Time Magazine titled "It's Time to End 'Rape Culture' Hysteria" suggested that "Though rape is certainly a serious problem, there's no evidence that it's considered a cultural norm. ...On college campuses, obsession with eliminating 'rape culture' has led to censorship and hysteria."[95] Heather MacDonald suggested that "In a delicious historical irony, the baby boomers who dismantled the university's intellectual architecture in favor of unbridled sex and protest have now bureaucratized both."[96] According to Joyce E. Williams, "the major criticism of rape culture and the feminist theory from which it emanates is the monolithic implication that ultimately all women are victimized by all men."[97]

Christina Hoff Sommers has disputed the existence of rape culture, arguing that the common "one in four women will be raped in her lifetime" claim is based on a flawed study, but frequently cited because it leads to campus anti-rape groups receiving public funding. Sommers has also examined and criticized many other rape studies for their methodology, and states, "There are many researchers who study rape victimization, but their relatively low figures generate no headlines."[3]

Sommers and others[98] have specifically questioned Mary Koss's oft-cited 1984 study that claimed 1 in 4 college women have been victims of rape, charging it overstated rape of women and downplayed the incidence of men being the victims of unwanted sex. According to Sommers, as many as 73% of the subjects of Koss's study disagreed with her characterization that they had been raped,[99] while others have pointed out that Koss's study focused on the victimization of women, downplaying the significance of sexual victimization of men,[98] even though its own data indicated one in seven college men had been victims of unwanted sex.[100] Sommers points out that Koss had deliberately narrowed the definition of unwanted sexual encounters for men to instances where men were penetrated.[101]

Other writers, such as bell hooks, have criticized the rape culture paradigm on the grounds that it is too narrowly focused; in 1984, she wrote that it ignores rape's place in an overarching "culture of violence".[102] In 1993 she contributed a chapter to a book on rape culture, focusing on rape culture in the context of patriarchy in black culture.[103]

Barbara Kay, a Canadian journalist, has been critical of feminist Mary Koss's discussion of rape culture, describing the notion that "rape represents an extreme behavior but one that is on a continuum with normal male behavior within the culture" as "remarkably misandric".[104]

Jadaliyya, an academic initiative by the Arab Studies Institute, published another critique of the concept of rape culture, stating that orientalists had appropriated the term to promote racist stereotypes of Arab and Muslim men, as well as stereotypes of South Asians in western media and academia. The critique draws connections between media reports demonizing Middle Eastern and South Asian men as "racially prone to rape" and similar tactics employed by the British as part of a racist Indophobic propaganda campaign during the 1857 rebellion casting resistance fighters as rapists.[105]

The UN conducted its 'Multi-country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific' in 2008 in six countries across Asia. Its conclusions, published in 2013, seemed to indicate a substantial number of men in Asian countries admit to committing some form of rape.[106] The study's general conclusion about high levels of rape have been recognized as reliable; however, questions about its accuracy perpetuate the debate about how societies perceive rape and social norms. A closer look at the study's methodology reveals questions about cultural definitions of rape, the study's sample size, survey design, and linguistic accuracy, all of which highlights ongoing challenges in trying to quantify the prevalence of rape.[107]

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Further reading