Defining Rape Culture

Content note: This post contains a discussion of rape culture. Although I am not drawing on specific incidents or providing explicit examples, it does talk about rape.

Rape culture. It’s a phrase that we throw around a lot; there’s even a tag for it on this very website, and you can find the same tag on a lot of feminist websites. It’s a codeword, a piece of slang or argot that many of us use without thinking about it. It’s assumed that everyone knows what rape culture is, and thus that it does not need to be defined or explained. If you press people on what rape culture is, sometimes they struggle to formulate a response. It feels so visceral and obvious that it seems a bit hard to articulate. People can cite specific examples. How many posts have I seen with the title ‘this is what rape culture looks like’? But it’s harder to nail down the meaning of this term.

What do we talk about when we talk about rape culture? Before delving into the meaning of this term, it’s worth explicitly defining rape and sexual assault, so that we can all be assured that we are talking on the same page. One might think that these things do not need to be defined, but one might be surprised.

Rape is sexual intercourse perpetrated without someone’s consent. A rapist can be someone of any gender or nongender, using both body parts and foreign objects. Rape is not limited to penetration, let alone penis in vagina intercourse.

Sexual assault is nonconsensual sexual contact. Sexual assault can include a wide variety of acts. It is possible for someone to be both raped and sexually assaulted. Again, someone of any gender or nongender can be a perpetrator or a victim.

The key to both terms is the lack of consent. Force is not required to commit rape or sexual assault.

Rape culture is a set of social attitudes and cultural values that contribute to the continued acceptance of rape and sexual assault. While a society can officially condemn rape—many forms of rape are, after all, illegal in many regions of the world—it may not follow through on that official condemnation with the creation of a culture that actively resists and prevents rape.

This culture is highly internalised.

Rape culture has a number of facets. The assumption that rape is about sex, rather than about power and control, is an important element of rape culture. The belief that only certain types of rape and sexual assault ‘count’ is another aspect. Marital rape, for example, is often not treated as ‘real’ rape. Likewise, sexual assaults like groping on a train car are treated as lesser crimes, rather than what they are, which is violations of bodily autonomy.

Rape culture also promotes beliefs about certain kinds of bodies and people. Certain bodies are sexually desirable, so much so that people cannot be expected to ‘control themselves’ around those bodies, especially if those bodies are clad in ‘revealing’ garments. Sexual assault and rape are ‘compliments’ to people in undesirable bodies; for example, people with disabilities are assumed to be sexually repulsive, and thus sexual attention in the form of rape is ‘flattering.’

Control and the denial of autonomy are a key part of rape culture. Things that do not directly relate to sexuality contribute to this culture. Every time people are policed for dressing a certain way, denied access on the basis of certain traits, controlled ‘for their own good,’ told that they cannot make decisions for or speak for themselves, this sets the wheels of rape culture in motion. The stretch from ‘women need to be controlled because they do not know their own minds’ to ‘women never really know if they want it so if they say ‘no’ it’s ok to keep going’ is actually a lot shorter than you think.

Rape culture is the common belief that certain types of bodies are public property, available for consumption at all times. It is the assumption that certain people are not capable of making decisions, exercising choice, and controlling their own bodies and environments. It starts early, with the routine denial of bodily autonomy to children, the insistence that there are classes of people who can and should be controlled for their own good because otherwise they might be in danger.

Rape culture is hypersexualisation, paired with slut shaming and prudishness. Even as sexuality blares from radios and television screens, people are condemned for being sexual, and these trends fall out along familiar lines. Young, nondisabled bodies are objectified while the display of other bodies is condemned and mocked. People who control their bodies and who choose to control their sexuality are shamed because they are stepping outside the paradigm and insisting that they have the right to their own sexuality.

Paternalising attitudes about ‘chivalry’ and how certain classes of people need to be ‘protected’ contribute to the reinforcement of rape culture. These attitudes suggest, again, that people cannot control their bodies, cannot protect themselves, cannot exercise their freedom of choice to make decisions about their lives. It doesn’t seem like it, but a man opening a door for a woman really is a loaded act. It’s not about humourless feminists, it’s about the implications behind that action.

And, of course, heavily entangled with rape culture is the idea that it is legitimate and appropriate to deny lived experiences. The fact that many people are not believed because they are the ‘wrong’ people contributes to rape culture because these social attitudes alert rapists to the fact that certain people are socially acceptable targets for rape and sexual assault. The devaluation of lived experiences and insistence on refusing to allow people to name the acts that they have experienced ensures that people who don’t fit ‘the profile’ are ignored and actively silenced when they are raped. Sex workers, transgender people, people with mental illness, people of colour, are all routinely told that they haven’t been raped, even when they say, loudly and clearly, that what happened to them was rape.

Every time you deny lived experience, every time you assume you know what’s good for someone, every time you participate in slut shaming, every time you blame a victim, every time you sexualise and objectify someone, you, too, are contributing to rape culture. Rape culture is something we built, and it is something we continue to prop up. None of us are outside the system.