It occurred to me this morning, for the first time ever, that there are no women in my life that haven’t suffered some form of sexual assault or rape. It’s not that long a list—it turns out I don’t really know that many people—but it’s long enough to mean something: my wife, my brother’s wife, my sister, my wife’s sister, my mom, even my grandmother. They have each been subjected to sexual violence by men, at least once.
Their stories are all terrifying. One of them was held underwater at a neighborhood pool by an older kid while he molested her, and then threatened with physical violence if she told anyone. One of them was drugged by a group of boys at a party and then raped by an unknown number of them when she was only 15 years old. She only found out about it when one of them went around bragging about it at her school. One of them was assaulted and raped over a period of years by an older brother.
I’ve known all of their stories for at least five years. Some of them I’ve known for two decades or more. Astonishingly, and to my eternal shame, it took being all the way on the wrong side of an argument for me to even begin to wrap my mind around the very real existence of an American rape culture. This realization happened in the last four years. Despite living with and being raised by and marrying women who’ve been raped by men, it took me 90 percent of my life to even begin to comprehend the real shape and real ramifications of a culture that puts women at risk of sexual violence.
The gravity of all of this struck me this morning when I read the first paragraph of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Report on Rolling Stone’s story of rape on the campus of the University of Virginia. In it, the reporter and author of the now-debunked piece is quoted from her notes: she was hoping to find a case that would show “what it’s like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture.”
By now, everyone is pretty well acquainted with the story of “A Rape on Campus,” the piece in question, and so learning the specifics of the author’s intent should not be a surprise. But here’s what happened when I read that quote: I winced. For just a moment, cast against her journalistic failures—depicted as evidently born out of conviction bordering on zealotry—that her quarry was something as huge and amorphous as a supposed culture struck me as fanatical. I flinched when I read it.
First I flinched, and then I thought about the women in my life and their stories, and my slow-ass brain, struggling uphill against my own practiced lethargy and dug-in privilege, began to place all those stories in the context of a rape culture. It took a few seconds before I was appropriately amazed and disappointed at how unreal I still allow that concept to be, such that I will come within a second or two of rolling my eyes at its mention.
As progressive as I am, I know that plenty of other men have grasped the concept and learned to identify rape culture a hell of a lot easier than I did. After all, it was just a few years ago that I came within seconds of publishing a rebuttal to Lindy West’s call for an end to a certain kind of rape joke. I was writing a stupid fucking blog about jokes, and it was easy enough for me to see the whole world through the lens of joke-making and comedic freedom and all that other shit that, obviously, ought to be nowhere near as important to anyone as whether our culture places women at risk of sexual violence.
I also know, on the other hand, that there are still places and groups and whole communities where the concept of rape culture is still being vetted, if not dismissed outright. Last year, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network made 16 pages worth of recommendations to the Obama Administration for overhauling the way colleges deal with sexual violence, and, among a comprehensive list of practical measures, took aim at an “unfortunate trend” of blaming rape culture for instances of sexual violence (later, in the same report, RAINN lamented a system that allows universities to adjudicate rape cases where they would certainly never be allowed to adjudicate cases of murder).
Armed with the RAINN report, Caroline Kitchens published an opinion piece in Time magazine in which she called for an end to “‘rape culture’ hysteria.” She argues that, because known rapists are “despised” and there’s no evidence that rape is “considered a cultural norm,” highlighting a so-called “rape culture” does little for rape victims while doing “immense” harm to innocent males. Kitchens also concludes that, because men grow up being told that rape is bad, energy and resources spent educating men on the nature of consent are wasted.
To me, it seems these criticisms of rape culture theory fundamentally misunderstand what is meant by “rape culture” in the first place. The RAINN report notes that “[r]ape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime,” as if the two phenomena—a culture that creates a threat of sexual violence for all women and the conscious decisions of actual rapists—are mutually exclusive. Their argument also supposes that rape is a strictly defined act and is the only noteworthy outcome of what is referred to as rape culture.
Rape, and other acts of sexual violence (like one adolescent forcibly holding another adolescent underwater so that he can grope and molest her), arise at least in part, if not wholly, from an attitude about another person’s body that makes it a sexual object first. For the most part, everyone is familiar with the experience of seeing an attractive person and coveting sex with that person—the subject is objectified. Rape requires that that objectification be the first and ultimate consideration of the subject’s existence—that the rest of their humanity, their agency, their right of self-determination, and any consideration of their will and consent are cast totally aside.
There are any number of ways that total objectification of women can be manifested by individuals—rape is one of them, but so is pickup artistry, and so are so-called “trophy wives.” I know of a lesbian who publicly refers to her lover as “Straight Anna” over the strong objections of Anna herself (who is not straight), because Anna’s utility as an object that affirms her lover’s prowess is more important to her lover than Anna’s dignity and personhood. These are acts perpetrated by individuals, but they exist in a culture in which women, to the extent that they are represented at all in cultural messaging, are depicted by and large as sexual objects.
Where the RAINN report notes and calls for an overhaul of a system in which instances of rape and sexual assault are internally handled by university judicial boards instead of, you know, the police, rape culture theory goes a step further, and looks at that particular phenomena as not coincidentally taking place in a culture that treats female sexuality as something that exists for the pursuit and pleasure of men. If all heterosexual sex is a male conquest, there exists a broad grey area in which the particulars of a given conquest can be parsed to determine whether it was achieved fairly. A woman’s consent is, at least according to some, subject to negotiation. In fact, according to some men, “no” only means “no” unless—or until—it means “yes.”
Then there is the loophole in which a lack of explicit refusal of consent is sometimes legally indistinguishable from consent itself. If a woman didn’t actually say “no,” even if she was coerced into sex, this is seen as an insurmountable obstacle to proving that rape has taken place. Legal types and rape apologists and the rape culture at large will struggle to make heads or tails of this kind of rape, all the while missing that the act itself involved coercion, that the pressure itself is a violation, and that men feel comfortable pressuring and coercing women into having sex. That society puzzles over how to handle what is a byproduct of a culture that creates the underlying dynamic, while taking that dynamic as a biological given, only supports the notion of a rape culture.
Rape culture, by this understanding, is a culture in which men are encouraged to think of women as sexual conquests, and are therefore comfortable pressuring women into having sex. It’s a culture in which men explicitly and publicly state their intention to use alcohol and drugs to facilitate sexual opportunities with women, without consequences. A culture in which all heterosexual sex is assumed to follow upon a man negotiating consent from a woman, and, because of that dynamic, sussing out whether that consent was explicitly withheld is even more difficult than determining whether the woman actually said “no.” Because, in this culture, even “no” can mean something other than “no.”
Rape culture, by this understanding, is incredibly dangerous for women, because they exist in a world where they have to guard their sexuality at all times, lest any action or inaction be construed not just by an aggressive man but by cultural standard and by law as a form of consent. Women, in this culture, have to refrain from dressing certain ways, going to certain places, consuming certain things, dancing certain ways, saying certain things, and not saying certain other things, and not just because a man might seek to take advantage of them, but because any of those circumstances might make his advantage culturally acceptable. A man is only a rapist after he has been convicted of rape. In the absence of a conviction, our society has more interest in preserving the accused’s reputation than in expressing disapproval of nonconsensual sex. In order to forgive the act, focus shifts to the woman, and what she did or did not do to keep nonconsensual sex from being fairly labeled “rape.”
Rape culture may not make a person commit the act of rape, but it is within rape culture that all the onus is put on women to guard their sexuality, and it is within rape culture that any display of sexuality can be used for victim blaming, shifting the responsibility for male sexual aggression and domination from men themselves and onto women. The message is sent to both sides: men are allowed and expected to covet sex and female sexuality, and it is women’s responsibility to construct the boundaries.
In our culture, we do think of rape as despicable. The problem is this: we’ve constructed a male/female sexual dynamic that poisons all men with a certain concept of female sexuality, such that the difference between rape and non-rape is not the same as the difference between rape and consensual sex. The difference between rape and consensual sex is easy: explicit consent by both parties. The difference between rape and non-rape is what the man can get away with, up to and including plying a woman with alcohol until she in unable to withhold consent, or pressuring her to the point of coercion, or using her clothing choices as a form of implied consent.
This sexual dynamic, in which men are told and allowed to covet and persuade their way to sex, was never more apparent than when active consent was suggested as a solution to the perceived grey area between rape and non-rape. Active consent is a good idea—more than that, active consent should be a given in any sexual interaction—but the suggestion was received as some sort of boner-killing drag. It’s hard to see these objections as anything other than underlining the notion that all a man has to do is take a woman beyond a certain threshold, after which he is free to do with her what he pleases. If she consents to be alone with him, if she consents to enter a bedroom with him, if she consents to a certain amount of sexual contact, from that point forward she is no longer entitled to withhold further consent. This sort of comes back to the idea that female sexuality exists for the enjoyment of men, and that, by displaying any sexuality at all, a woman has granted control of it to men around her.
I’m bringing all this shit up because, within me (and I’m a liberal piece o’ shit if ever there was one), all this stuff needed decades to take hold. The idea that it’s not just certain segments of the population perpetrating rape and creating an unsafe environment for women, but an entire culture that hasn’t figured out the right way to even conceive of female sexuality, let alone heterosexual dynamics. That, when I express exasperation at a woman’s clothing choices, I’m relying upon an old, outdated, and dangerous concept of sexuality, one that makes her responsible for how men behave. That, in my ideas of what women need to do to be safe in the world, I might actually be perpetuating a culture in which they are less safe.
So much of whatever progress I have made to understand these things and make them real has been the result of women speaking up about their experiences and the culture around them, and in spite of strong pushback from the broader culture. And even then, this stuff is so tenuously in place that my instinct was to flinch away from rape culture as a cause for writing an exposé of a case of rape on a college campus. Because I’m a guy (and a bearded white one at that) who will never in his life have to worry about being sexually assaulted, this thing reverts to an abstraction in the absence of constant vigilance.
And so, what I’m afraid of is that this Rolling Stone case will be all the evidence a certain too-large group of people will need to further dismiss both rape culture and rape as a real and persistent and dangerous reality. It’s clear the author of “A Rape on Campus” fucked up in any number of ways. Some people got screwed along the way. On the other hand, “Jackie” is not the avatar of college rape victims, and the debunking of this particular story is not relevant to the overall problem of sexual violence against women and a culture that both permits and slyly encourages it. If the actual rape detailed in “A Rape on Campus” didn’t take place, certainly there are thousands and thousands of cases of virtually indistinguishable crimes out there, many of them untold but some of them very much out in the open. My sister-in-law, for example, whose story is shockingly like Jackie’s, only she was younger and still living at home when it happened.
The culture needs to change. The change will not solve rape, but the hope is that changing attitudes about consent and sex and sexual dynamics will make women safer, not just from rape, but from the consequences of coming forward in its aftermath. A worthy goal is to wipe away the grey area we commonly think exists between rape and non-rape, and recenter total responsibility for acts of nonconsensual sex on the aggressor, where it belongs. That’s the really shitty thing about this whole Rolling Stone deal: it’s not that some innocent dudes at a fraternity were briefly dragged around in the mud, it’s that it will represent another obstacle to making people aware of all the subtle ways our culture makes all rape victims and all women less safe than they ought to be. My reaction to the author’s stated goal—targeting “the pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture”—was exactly the opposite of what it ought to have been. Writing about rape without targeting its cultural underpinnings is a waste of an opportunity. My hope is this blown story doesn’t discourage other journalists from a similar undertaking.