The Patriarchal Utility of the Threat of Rape

I would hazard a guess that many people think rape is wholly about individual men forcing individual women to have sex with them. Many people object when the phrase “rape culture” is used because, they argue, everyone knows rape is wrong. There is an inability, I think, to look at rape on a national level, or even a global level, because for many people rape is simply local and individual, a random criminal act like theft or vandalism. But to view rape in this way misses the bigger picture. You see, the threat of rape is a cultural tool used to control women.

On the one hand there is rape as an individual act, and I want to be clear that I am not saying individual men who commit rape are consciously using rape to police or control women’s behavior. No. See, on the other hand is the cultural context within which rape takes place. And it’s that cultural context that is being discussed when the phrase “rape culture” is used. For the uninitiated, a look at conditions in countries where rape culture is more extreme may help to shed light on how the threat of rape serves to control women’s actions and behavior.

By now you’ve almost certainly all heard of the December 16th gang rape of a 23 year old woman on a bus in Delhi, India, her subsequent death at a hospital in Singapore, and the massive protests that have followed. Whether they use the phrase or not, women across India are protesting India’s rampant rape culture.

India’s regressive attitude towards sexual violence came to fore as the political establishment reacted to the news of the gang rape in the national capital. “Women should not go out late at night,” Delhi Police Chief Neeraj Kumar said. The attitude of his police force was shockingly documented in April, when reporters from Tehelka magazine, working undercover, recorded their conversations with thirty Delhi police officers who blamed women for being raped, naming “everything from fashionable or revealing clothes to having boyfriends to visiting pubs to consuming alcohol to working alongside men as the main reasons for instances of rape.” The had argued, for example, that “in truth, the ones who complain are only those who have turned rape into a business.”

While the men who committed the gang rape are being prosecuted, many in India, including many of the authorities, have put the blame for the gang rape on the woman herself. Let’s step back a moment and look at the reasons women in India are blamed for their own rapes, as recounted in the above paragraph. They go out at night. They dress fashionably or sexily. They have boyfriends. They go to bars. They work alongside men.

What made those women think they could live lives of equality alongside men? 

Because that’s really what’s going on here, isn’t it? When women step outside of their “places,” these men argue, it’s only natural that they should be raped. Rape is the consequence for women deigning to think that they can be equal to men. The way to prevent rape, they argue, is for women to stay safely under their fathers’ or husbands’ authorities, dressing and behaving in a prescribed fashion and not seeking to be equal to men. As I said before, the threat of rape is a cultural tool used to control women.

And now, growing numbers of Indian women are pointing this truth out and demanding that the government – not women – do more to prevent rape. They are stepping up and demanding their rights, and refusing to be intimidated. Brava to them!

With this background to the way the threat of rape serves to control women’s actions and behavior, let’s take a look beyond India to our own country. Several months ago blogger Sarah Moon explained in detail how conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists in the United States use the threat of rape to keep the women in their flocks from stepping outside of the patriarchal gender roles they endorse:

Complementarians would say that immodest dress causes rape, therefore women should dress according to complementarian standards. They would say that women who express their sexuality are making themselves vulnerable to rape, therefore women should be passive and chaste when it comes to sex–another complementarian idea. They would say that women who spend too much time in the public world are risking rape, therefore more women should stay home, etc.

Some complementarian evangelicals go beyond this to actually blame feminism for the very existence of rape.Douglas Wilson, for instance, believes that when feminists deny men the opportunity to practice “godly” authority over women, men react by taking back the authority that they deserve using violence.

“When we quarrel with the way the world is,” Wilson says, “we find that the world has ways of getting back at us.”

Whether or not complementarians approve of rape, the fact is that many women adhere to complementarian gender roles because complementarian leaders have told these women that these women will be raped if they step outside these roles. Rape is a tool that rapists use to control women, and complementarian leaders (along with many other people in powerful positions) benefit from the fear that rapists create. In fact, they harness that fear in their books, blog posts, and sermons and use it as a tool to keep women in their place.

Complementarian evangelicals rely on rape to keep their systems of power firmly in place.

It’s an ugly, ugly truth, but a truth nonetheless.

Now if you were to read this and conclude that the threat of rape is simply used to control women in “foreign” countries like India or in overtly patriarchal subcultures like conservative evangelicalism, you would be wrong. It goes on in mainstream American culture as well. Here is an example of what I’m talking about:

[At age 14] I was also getting schooled on the full contents of the “Don’t get raped,” handbook, not that any of managed to prevent rape for me in the end. I was told not to park in parking garages, because someone could hide under my car and rape me, but also not to park on the streets, because someone could come out of the shadows and rape me. I was told not to wear my hair in a ponytail, because someone could grab it and rape me, but also not to wear my hair down, because it made me look older and could entice someone to rape me. I was told not to walk alone or with only other girls, because it would leave me vulnerable and allow someone to rape me, but also not to spend time alone with or trust guys, because they could be planning to rape me.

Don’t wear this. Don’t act that way. Don’t go to this place or that, don’t go out alone or after dark. The threat of rape serves to police women’s actions, behaviors, and lives. And women who step out of line … well, they only got what they were asking for.

Two years ago in Texas an eleven year old girl was raped by twenty teens and men. Many in her community responded by blaming the girl for bringing on her gang rape by dressing older than her age and hanging out with teenage boys. Then, after a woman was sexually abused in a bar last summer in Arizona, the judge told her that this wouldn’t have happened to her if she hadn’t gone to a bar in the first place, and suggested that she should learn from this experience. Last summer in Ohio an unconscious teenage girl was raped by a high school football team at a party. Some in her community blamed her for her rape, arguing that she had “put herself in a position to be violated.” And there are plenty of other examples.

The reality is that rape is not caused by what women wear or where they go. It is caused by rapists. As long as people continue to blame the victims of rape, asking what they did to cause it or whether they invited their rapes,  whether in the U.S. or in India or anywhere else, the threat of rape will continue to be used to control women.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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