Last week saw two media flare-ups related to how we think and talk about rape. The first erupted over a statement made by Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN) to the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault. The organization urged the task force to avoid the “unfortunate trend towards blaming ‘rape culture.’ Although well-intentioned, this wording was unsophisticated, sloppy and destructive on many levels. Not the least of which was that it will now feed a strong backlash narrative for years to come. Narratives like the one at the center of the second incident in which the American Enterprise Institute, in the tried and true language of trivializing “women’s issues” as “hysterical,” announced that there is no such thing as rape culture.
The idea that we live with a culture that promotes rape is anathema to people who a)don’t want to believe it because, when you start to really think about it, it’s awful and scary and defies reason; b) live in communities filled with words used to deny, promote or camouflage sexual assault or c) are people who have power and benefit, in multiple, intersecting ways, from the status quo.
“Status” is the operative word. If you don’t like the words “rape culture” or you are uncomfortable with the idea that men rape women (and that is the vast preponderance of cases) in huge numbers, here is a different way to think about this: People with higher status are entitled to rape and abuse people with lower status in society.
Since women’s basic right to bodily integrity seems to confuse some people, let’s talk about sexual assault that involves mainly men and boys, because in those cases common rape myths fail. Decades of Catholic Church sexual abuse tragedies, the Boy Scouts, Penn State, rape in correctional facilities, sexual assault in the military, rape in war, rape in hospitals and mental institutions are all examples of entitlement to rape. These primarily involve men with high status, raping boys and men, sometimes girls and women, with lower status. Because they can. Now move on to what some people think of as “grayer” rapes, where it perhaps seems easier to conflate abuse with sex, mainly because girls and women are the tradition and stereotypically recognized victims, easier to cast as liars and complicit. A function of status and who gets to be believed. This would include rape as part of intimate partner violence, rape of children in families, rapes on college campuses and recurring episodes at high schools around the country. These tend to be assaults by boys and men with higher status, mostly of women and children with lower status. Because they can. They even feel comfortablesharing evidence of their raping. Because our culture normalizes sexual assault by portraying it as unavoidable, by shaming and blaming victims, by sympathizing with perpetrators, by failing to punish aggressors, by giving them rights, by not talking to children about healthy sexuality, and by denying we live in a rape culture.
People who don’t think we live in a rape culture refuse to look at sexual assault across a broad spectrum of institutions, preferring instead to silo issues and focus on symptoms, such as alcohol abuse on campuses — disproven time and time again as a cause of sexual violence. Haven’t seen much talk about status however. You can’t blame individual victims for cultural rank.
Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday studied more than 90 human societies and divided them into rape prone and rape free. She found that rape is rare in 45 out of 95, and common in only 17. Rape free societies were marked by several notable characteristics. First, women have high status and are held in high esteem as respected, valued members of the society who participate in governance or religious leadership. This was true even in warlike societies, such as among the Iroquois. The Nagovisi, a people living near Papua New Guinea, can’t even conceive of rape. We do not live in a culture that esteems women, girls, women’s authority or femaleness as an idea. Our language, media, institutions are sodden with expressions of femaleisolation and denigration and the glorification of violent male fraternity.
Second, boys in rape-free cultures are taught to respect girls and women. They are not taught that aggressive, violent domination of women is “natural.” They are not taught to think of rape as a source of entertainment or to think of women as trophies and prizes, products and playthings. We don’t even need to focus on gonzo porn, in which women are violently raped into submission. This eroticization of abuse isn’t outside of our mainstream culture, it the logical expression of it. It goes hand in hand with everything else. If conservatives were really interested in reducing sexual assaults then more than 23 percent would understand why having more women in public office is salient.
We are spoon-feeding children this culture by not teaching them that gender discrimination — an everything it represents, including widespread sexual abuse — is an enduring truth. I asked a group of more than one hundred 15 to 17 year olds, more than half of whom were boys, two questions recently. One, how many of you have heard a rape joke and laughed? And, two, how many of you have talked to an adult about rape, seriously? All of them raised their hands to the first question and less than five to the second. None was familiar with the reality of rape statistics. I didn’t as them how many watch violent porn regularly, but this is notable: One in 10 people between the ages of 14 and 21 in the United States has committed an act of sexual violence. Boys are more likely to be perpetrators, although the older girls get, the more likely they are to become perpetrators too. The teenagers with the highest propensity to sexually assault their peers are white kids from higher-income families, mostly boys with a higher likelihood of having watched pornography. A No Morestudy released last year revealed that 73% of parents with children under the age of 18 have never talked to them about sexual assault or domestic violence. But they’ll buy them tickets to a blockbuster movie filled with rapes and jokes about them without a thought. Doesn’t matter if you’re a causation or correlation person — the fact is we are failing to address a rape prone culture with honest conversation and are rape apologists by default.
Status, not sex, informs rape and so low status humans suffer the denial of their rights to bodily integrity as a result. We live in one of the most rape-prone societies on earth because we live in a gender imbalanced one in which boys and men, their problems and prerogatives, have higher value. In the US, the power and status difference between white men and women of color being historically, and today still, most acute. A map of rape by state in our country looks pretty much like a map of Native American communities. Nearly half of Native American women have been sexually assaulted, 60% by men identified as white. What does that tell you?
In certain circumstances, women exercise power in this way and engage in and participate in sexualized assault. When that happens, as was the case with Abu Ghraib, women are said to be acting “like men.” When boys are the victims, whether of male or female aggressors, they are “feminized.” It’s not that all women are victims and all men perpetrators, but that victims are feminized and aggressors masculinized. That’s also a function of dominance and status. There are simply not many places where women have uncontested power and use it to abuse more vulnerable people. As it stands, given the data we have, it is clear that girls and women are being raped in hugely disproportionate numbers globally — through early marriage, sexual slavery, incest, intimate partner violence, acquaintance or stranger rape — because girls and women have universally lower status and are comparatively powerless, fungible and commodified. We simply don’t know what societies would look like if we had gender balance in governance and cultural production. We do know however, that there would be less rape.
Photo Credit: Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign