Rape culture is a phrase used to describe a society in which rape is common and in which acts that might contribute to rape go unchallenged. This doesn’t mean that if you asked around, people would approve of rape, or go around saying, “Yay rape!” Rather, it means that attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, or even encourage sexual violence. In a “rape culture,” women’s bodies are seen as sexually available, and that’s just part of business-as-usual. It also means that boys are brought up to feel entitled to have access to girls’ bodies and to believe that they have a right to cross boundaries they shouldn’t. This can have an impact on how seriously women are taken when they say no, and even influence their feelings about their right to say no.*
* Although we are discussing rape as a man forcing a woman to have sex, it is important to note that same-sex rape also occurs.
Discussion: Rape Myths
Some of the attitudes that support rape culture can be seen in rape myths, which were introduced to you in Lesson 4 on Coercion. Rape myths are beliefs that are widely held but are untrue. They tend to blame the victim and excuse the perpetrator. Let’s look more closely at some of these myths.
PLF refers to Payne, D. L., Lonsway, K. A., & Fitzgerald, L. F. (1999). Rape myth acceptance: Exploration of its structure and its measurement using the Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale. Journal of Research in Personality, 33, 27‐68.
Burt refers to Burt, M. R. (1980). Cultural myths and supports for rape. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38(2), 217-230.
Choose five of the myths below that you would like to discuss in class.
- How does each one of these statements contribute to rape culture?
- Is it more harmful to see rape as a trivial event or a deviant event? What makes you think that?
Myth Category #1: She Asked For It
- If a woman is raped while she is drunk, she is at least somewhat responsible for letting things get out of control. (PLF)
- When women go around wearing low‐cut tops or short skirts, they’re just asking for trouble. (PLF)
- If a woman goes home with a man she doesn’t know, it is her own fault if she is raped. (PLF)
- When a woman is a sexual tease, eventually she is going to get in trouble. (PLF)
- When women are raped, it’s often because the way they said ‘no’ was ambiguous. (PLF)
- A woman who goes to the home or apartment of a man on the first date is implying that she wants to have sex. (PLF)
- Women who get raped while hitchhiking get what they deserve. (Burt)
- A woman who is stuck‐up and thinks she is too good to talk to guys on the street deserves to be taught a lesson. (Burt)
- If a woman gets drunk at party and has intercourse with a man she’s just met there, she should be considered ‘fair game’ to other males at the party who want to have sex with her too, whether she wants to or not. (Burt)
Myth Category #2: It Wasn’t Really Rape
- If a woman doesn’t physically fight back, you can’t really say it was rape. (PLF)
- If the rapist doesn’t have a weapon, you really can’t call it rape. (PLF)
- If a woman doesn’t physically resist sex—even when protesting verbally—it really can’t be considered rape. (PLF)
- If a woman claims to have been raped but has no bruises or scrapes, she probably shouldn’t be taken too seriously. (PLF)
- A healthy woman can resist the rapist if she really wants to. (Burt)
Myth Category #3: He Didn’t Mean To
- When men rape, it is because of their strong desire for sex. (PLF)
- Rapists are usually sexually frustrated individuals. (PLF)
- When a man is very sexually aroused, he may not even realize that the woman is resisting. (PLF)
- Men don’t usually intend to force sex on a woman, but sometimes they get too sexually carried away. (PLF)
- Rape happens when a man’s sex drive gets out of control. (PLF)
Myth Category #4: She Wanted It
- Although most women wouldn’t admit it, they generally find being physically forced into sex a real ‘turn on’. (PLF)
- Many women secretly desire to be raped. (PLF)
- Some women prefer to have sex forced on them so they don’t have to feel guilty about it. (PLF)
- Many women actually enjoy sex after the guy uses a little force. (PLF)
- Many women have an unconscious wish to be raped, and may unconsciously set up a situation in which they are likely to be attacked. (Burt)
Myth Category #5: She Lied
- Many so called rape victims are actually women who had sex and ‘changed their minds’ afterwards. (PLF)
- Rape accusations are often used as a way of getting back at men. (PLF)
- A lot of women lead a man on and then they cry rape. (PLF)
- A lot of times, women who claim they were raped just have emotional problems. (PLF)
Myth Category #6: Rape is a Trivial Event
- If a woman is willing to “make out” with a guy, then it’s no big deal if he goes a little further and has sex. (PLF)
- Rape isn’t as big a problem as some feminists would like people to think. (PLF)
- Being raped isn’t as bad as being mugged and beaten. (PLF)
- Women tend to exaggerate how much rape affects them. (PLF)
- If a woman isn’t a virgin, then it shouldn’t be a big deal if her date forces her to have sex. (PLF)
Myth Category #7: Rape is a Deviant Event
- Rape mainly occurs on the ‘bad’ side of town. (PLF)
- Men from nice middle class homes almost never rape. (PLF)
- It is usually only women who dress suggestively that are raped. (PLF)
- Rape is unlikely to happen in the woman’s own familiar neighborhood. (PLF)
- In reality, women are almost never raped by their boyfriends. (PLF)
- Rape almost never happens in the woman’s own home. (PLF)
- Any female can get raped. (Burt)
- In the majority of rapes, the victim is promiscuous or has a bad reputation. (Burt)
Discussion: Rape, Rape Rape, Gray Rape, Not Rape
Researchers have shown that many of us have a “rape script” in our heads. A script is an impression of how an event typically takes place. Here is a rape script that many people hold: a man jumps out from behind the bushes and forces an innocent woman to have sex with him at gun or knifepoint. Usually the rapist is pictured as ugly and brutish, while the victim is pictured as young, pretty, and white.
When a sample of college students were asked if anyone had ever forced them to have sex, 57% of those who said yes did not call it rape (Kahn et al., 2003). Why wouldn’t a woman call forced sex rape? There may have been drinking; she may have been familiar with the man; she didn’t fight him; there were no weapons; he paid for dinner; she thought it wasn’t rape because they had other kinds of sex besides vaginal intercourse; she invited him to stay the night. All of these are aspects of rape that make women take some, if not all, of the responsibility for incidents of rape.
Activity: Readings and Discussion
Within rape culture, sexism perpetuates the idea that men have power over women and women are sexual objects. For instance, sexist jokes can foster disrespect for women and show disregard for their well-being. Another example is a female rape victim being blamed for her rape because of how she dressed or acted. By portraying the victim as a slut, men come across as less worthy of blame for their actions. These rape scripts encourage the idea that men cannot control their sexuality and that exerting control over women is acceptable. Can you see any of these beliefs playing out in the two articles below?
ARTICLE 1: Philly Judge Criticized for Rape Decision
In 2007, a Philadelphia municipal court judge Teresa Carr Deni made a controversial decision to dismiss rape and sexual assault charges against a man who raped a prostitute at gunpoint. In her decision she explained that the case was not a rape, but rather an armed robbery and a theft of services.
- Do you agree with the judge that this is robbery?
- Is any rape robbery of a kind? What is stolen?
- Why would someone think a prostitute can’t be raped? Do you agree that rape is worse than robbery? What makes it worse?
Another example of rape culture in the media is the statement made by Whoopi Goldberg when defending director Roman Polanski charged with sexual assault of a 13 year old female. She stated that it wasn’t “rape rape.”
- What did Whoopi mean by ‘rape-rape’?
- How does her statement contribute to rape culture?
- What are the key elements in this story that suggest to you that this was a rape?
Readings and Discussion: The Second Victimization
A rape culture not only excuses rape but also makes it hard for victims to be believed and to get the services and empathy they deserve. Studies show that victims are terribly harmed by negative reactions. When others doubt or blame them, they experience a second victimization. Researcher Linda Williams goes so far as to say that when they blame the victim, “society and community also become offenders” (1984, p. 79, as cited in Anderson & Doherty, 2008, p. 10). Anderson and Doherty (2008) write, “The notion of a ‘rape-supportive culture’ usefully captures the hostile nature of the social environment that many rape survivors experience in the aftermath of rape” (p. 10).
- Why are people so ready to blame victims?
- Why are people motivated to let offenders off the hook?
Consider these questions as you read the following news stories. In the first, the New York Times journalist describes the rape of a 12-year-old girl by 18 boys in a problematic way. Can you spot the ways he downplays the harm done to the victim and uses language that attempts to make us sympathize with the perpetrators? See the response to this article also!
Now read this response.
Reading and Discussion:
In Lesson 4, you learned about sexual harassment and Title IX. Read the following news story about how sexual harassment went too far on one college campus, and consider sexual harassment in the context of rape culture. Then discuss the questions below.
- Who do you think should pay in this story? That is, who do you think should be held accountable? Why?
- Some of these men could be future presidents. How might this behavior help rather than hurt their chances?
- Clearly some women support the government’s involvement in the incidents of harassment on Yale’s campus. Why do you think some women would be against it?
- Does our discussion of rape culture make you think differently about whether or not is appropriate for the government to get involved in this case?
Anderson, I., & Doherty, K. (2008). Accounting for rape: Psychology, feminism, and discourse analysis in the study of sexual violence. New York, NY: Routledge.
Burt, M. R. (1980). Cultural myths and supports for rape. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38(2), 217-230.
Kahn, A. S., Jackson, J., Kully, C., Badger, K., Halvorsen, J. (2003). Calling it rape: Differences in experiences of women who do or do not label their sexual assault as rape. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 27(3), 233-242.
Payne, D. L., Lonsway, K. A., & Fitzgerald, L. F. (1999). Rape myth acceptance: Exploration of its structure and its measurement using the Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale. Journal of Research in Personality, 33, 27‐68.