A Complete Misunderstanding of the Term “Rape Culture”

A Complete Misunderstanding of the Term “Rape Culture” March 25, 2014

The nation’s largest and most influential anti-sexual-violence organization is rejecting the idea that culture — as opposed to the actions of individuals — is responsible for rape.

This is the first sentence of Caroline Kitchens’ recent opinion piece in Time Magazine, It’s Time To End the ‘Rape Culture’ Hysteria. Kitchens is a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute. And yet, with that one sentence, Kitchens makes it clear that she does not understand what is meant by the term “rape culture.”

Those feminist academics and bloggers who discuss rape culture, including myself, tend to be the same feminists who argue for PSA campaigns that target potential rapists and make it clear that the actions of individuals cause rape. Those who discuss rape culture do not excuse rapists. But then, Kitchens wouldn’t know this, because she clearly has no idea what rape culture actually is.

“Rape is as American as apple pie,” says blogger Jessica Valenti. She and her sisters-in-arms describe our society as a “rape culture” where violence against women is so normal, it’s almost invisible. Films, magazines, fashion, books, music, humor, even Barbie — according to the activists — cooperate in conveying the message that women are there to be used, abused, and exploited. Recently, rape culture theory has migrated from the lonely corners of the feminist blogosphere into the mainstream. In January, the White House asserted that we need to combat campus rape by “[changing] a culture of passivity and tolerance in this country, which too often allows this type of violence to persist.”

Tolerance for rape? Rape is a horrific crime and rapists are despised. We have strict laws that Americans want to see enforced. Though rape is certainly a serious problem, there’s no evidence that it’s considered a cultural norm.

Ah, but here’s the problem. Kitchens says that rape is a horrific crime and that rapists are despised . . . but how is she defining rape? A stranger in a dark alley raping a sober married or non sexually active woman who walks by for legitimate reasons and is wearing non-slutty clothing is indeed treated as a horrific crime. But did you notice how many qualifiers I had to put there? If the woman is drunk, if the man is someone she knows, if she’s dressed in slutty clothing, if she’s sexually active and sleeps around, if she’s alone late at night . . . if any of these things is the case, our culture generally engages in victim blaming. Why was she there anyway? Why was she dressed like that? Why did she drink so much? What was she thinking being alone with that guy? This is rape culture.

In fact, I would argue that abhorring rape as a horrific crime is a cornerstone of rape culture. It lets people engage in rampant victim blaming without having to come face to face with what they’re really doing. They claim to abhor rape, but in reality they abhor only legitimate rape.

There are other aspects of rape culture too, such as the idea that woman are supposed to say “no” to sex at first, and that men are to view them as conquests and take their “no” as an opening salvo. Even the idea that masculinity is active while femininity is passive contributes to a sexual atmosphere where sexual aggression can be normalized. Understanding these problems with the way we as a society approach sexuality isn’t an indictment of any one gender but rather a call to do better and move toward cultural norms based on consent and sexual equality. Those who discuss rape culture take aim at toxic cultural patterns, patterns Kitchens seems never to have even thought about.

Twenty-first century America does not have a rape culture; what we have is an out-of-control lobby leading the public and our educational and political leaders down the wrong path. Rape culture theory is doing little to help victims, but its power to poison the minds of young women and lead to hostile environments for innocent males is immense.

Rape culture theory points out and challenges victim blaming, including the ways victims can blame themselves for what happened. Rape culture theory helps victims understand that it was not their clothes that were to blame, or the fact that they flirted. They are not to blame for their own rape. This is a way that understanding rape culture not only helps victims but also benefits young women in general, but I suppose Kitchens couldn’t be bothered to see this.

As for the innocent male, it’s worth pointing out that rape culture is not an indictment of men specifically. Rather, it is an indictment of societal norms more generally. Women, too, engage in victim blaming, both against themselves and against other women. Discussion of rape culture is a call for reexamining our own preconceptions and they way we understand sexuality and respond to charges of rape or sexual harassment. Do we shame sexually active women as “sluts”? That contributes to rape culture. Do we push men to “score”? That, too, contributes to rape culture. Do we automatically fixate on what rape victims were wearing, or their sexual history? Rape culture. This isn’t about man versus women. This is about jettisoning toxic cultural patterns to make society healthier for everyone, both male and female.

On college campuses, obsession with eliminating “rape culture” has led to censorship and hysteria. At Boston University, student activists launched a petition demanding the cancellation of a Robin Thicke concert, because the lyrics of his hit song “Blurred Lines” allegedly celebrate “systemic patriarchy and sexual oppression.”

Kitchens may want to do some more reading on the song if she honestly doesn’t see what’s so troubling about the lyrics. If she doesn’t understand why trivializing consent and speaking of blurred lines, If she can’t understand the problem with a song that trivializes consent and boundaries, a song where “I know you want it” is repeated again and again, she knows nothing about either the dynamics of rape or the concerns that motivate those who speak of rape culture.

(The lyrics may not exactly be pleasant to many women, but song lyrics don’t turn men into rapists. Yet, ludicrously, the song has already been banned at more than 20 British universities.)


First of all, it is worth ensuring that public spaces are spaces where individuals feel comfortable and not threatened. This is why some universities ban songs with racist or sexist lyrics, and other entities such as malls or gyms should follow suit. Last summer I was in a store in a mall when I noticed the lyrics of the song that was playing. I don’t remember what the name of the song was, but it was a celebratory song about the seduction and rape of underage girls, and it wasn’t exactly what you would call covert. Needless to say, I felt incredibly uncomfortable. I can’t even imagine how overhearing a song like this would make a rape victim hear. Kitchens is incredibly callous to this.

Second, the lyrics of an individual song may not turn an individual man into a rapist, but such lyrics do contribute to a culture where rape is more likely to occur. Would Kitchens seriously suggest that popular songs glamorizing cheating on tests wouldn’t serve to encourage some individuals to cheat who would not otherwise do so? Yes, some students will cheat with or without such songs, and some rapists will rape regardless of what songs are popular. But there are always those on the margins. People do not make decisions within a vacuum. They make decisions and carry out actions within a given cultural context, and understanding and changing that cultural context matters a great deal if you want to find a way to cut down on certain harmful actions.

Activists at Wellesley recently demanded that administrators remove a statue of a sleepwalking man: The image of a nearly naked male could “trigger” memories of sexual assault for victims. Meanwhile, a growing number of young men find themselves charged with rape, named publicly, and brought before campus judicial panels informed by rape culture theory. In such courts, due process is practically non-existent: Guilty because accused.

I get the feeling Kitchens has no idea how rape is actually prosecuted, because no, this is not how it works.

Rape culture theorists dismiss critics who bring up examples of hysteria and false accusations as “rape denialists” and “rape apologists.” To even suggest that false accusations occur, according to activists, is to engage in “victim blaming.”

Suggesting that there are false accusations is not victim blaming. Asking what a woman was wearing or whether she was sexually active at the time is victim blaming. Kitchens really needs to show me these mythical individuals who deny that there are ever false accusations. I don’t know any feminists who claim there are no false accusations. The issue I’ve seen debated is how common or how rare false accusations are, not whether they occur.

Kitchens goes on to write about recent recommendations RAINN, the country’s most prominent anti-sexual violence organization, offered to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. I’m not going to write in detail about about RAINN’s recommendations, because other bloggers have done so already. Suffice it to say, RAINN operates under some misunderstandings regarding what activists mean by rape culture, misunderstandings that are similar to those held by Kitchens. I also suspect that RAINN is staking out the position it is in an effort to make itself appear moderate and thus reasonable. This is unfortunate, but not the focus of this post.

From the way Kitchens writes about rape culture, it’s clear that she would not agree with everything in RAINN’s recommendations if she read the full thing. This is particularly true of their recommendations that more victims should report and that colleges should believe victims when they come forward, and their lack of discussion of the false accusation issue Kitchens is so concerned about. But then, it’s convenient for Kitchens to leave this out, because what she’s actually doing is using the position RAINN has staked out to back up her own position, which is far from identical. Her interest is solely in touting RAINN’s critiques of rape culture activists. In other words, she’s using the disagreement between RAINN and other activists to score political points.

This is perhaps most evident from the fact that Kitchens could write her entire article without actually understanding what is meant by rape culture. Given the huge amount of information about rape culture out there in easy grasp in the feminist blogosphere, this is remarkably sloppy. But again, understanding rape culture doesn’t seem to be Kitchens’ goal. Her goal is not to understand but to misrepresent and thus discredit. 

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