Australians march in a Slutwalk rally in Sydney, June 13, 2011. (Reuters/Tim Wimborne) 

Americans are very confused about rape. In the last few months—in the midst of high-profile cases and bumbling politicians’ gaffes—the national conversation about sexual assault is front-and-center. But instead of inspiring a proactive discourse on how to stop rape culture, much of the response has been centered around trying to “understand” rapists, or explain away why rape happens with such disconcerting frequency in the United States. We dismiss it as the actions of sociopaths, or insist that it’s just the result of miscommunication in an oversexed world.

Rape is a standard result of a culture mired in misogyny, but for whatever reason—denial, self-preservation, sexism—Americans bend over backwards to make excuses for male violence. This refusal to place responsibility with the perpetrator means we need to place it somewhere else—most often, with the victim. And while victim-blaming is nothing new, its pervasiveness serves as a stark reminder of women’s second class status—where we’re not actual people, just catalysts for men’s actions.

For example, while the public response to the widely covered Steubenville case has largely been supportive of the victim—thanks in part to pictures distributed online by partygoers that show the girl clearly unconscious—there has also been the standard victim-blaming. Accusations that the girl was known to be sexual (the horror!) have come out—as have comments that she shouldn’t have gotten so intoxicated, or that we shouldn’t “rush to judgement” against the accused.

Similarly, when hundreds of anti-rape marches called SlutWalks were launched after a Toronto police officer commented that if women want to avoid rape they shouldn’t “dress like sluts,” hostile responses to the protests were commonplace. (Some sample comments from CNN: “I mean we prosecute thieves but we also tell people to lock their doors when they go out.” “Yes you can blame the man who cannot control himself but if he is found guilty you should also be found guilty of being so inviting.”) 

But putting the onus on women to mitigate men’s sexual “desire” doesn’t just happen in rape cases. In Iowa, a dental assistant who was sexually harassed by her boss and eventually fired lost her discrimination case when the all-male state Supreme Court ruled that an employer can fire a woman for being “irresistible.” And a controversy around the dress code in NYC’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School was similarly motivated. Principal Stanley Teitel told a reporter, “Many young ladies wear denim skirts which are very tight and are short to begin with, and when they sit down, they only rise up, because there’s nowhere else to go.… The bottom line is, some things are a distraction, and we don’t need to distract students from what is supposed to be going on here, which is learning.” 

Even abstinence-only education classes get in on the fun. Girls are taught to “watch what you wear”: “If you aim to please, don’t aim to tease.” Another curriculum teaches that “Girls need to be aware they may be able to tell when a kiss is leading to something else. The girl may need to put the brakes on first in order to help the boy.”  

This widespread cultural message could not be clearer: Men’s sexual urges are uncontrollable and therefore not their responsibility. It’s a fairly insulting view of male morality and sexuality, but it’s also one that allows the culture to put the blame for men’s bad (and criminal) behavior on women’s shoulders. 

But making women responsible for men’s sexuality isn’t just about excusing rape and sexual harassment. It’s a cultural rule that enforces the idea that this is a man’s world—women just live in it.

When Stuyvesant says that women’s dress and bodies are distraction in a learning environment, for example, what they’re really saying is that they’re distracting to male students. The default student we are concerned about—the student whose learning we want to ensure is protected—is male. Never mind how “distracting” it is to be pulled from class, humiliated, and made to change outfits—publicly degrading young women is small price to pay to make sure that a boy doesn’t have to suffer through the momentary distraction of glancing at a girl’s legs. When this dentist in Iowa can fire his assistant for turning him on—even though she’s done absolutely nothing wrong—the message again is that it’s men’s ability to work that’s important.

And when rape victims are blamed for the crime committed against them, the message is the same: This is something that happened to the perpetrator, who was driven to assault by a skirt, or a date, or the oh-so-sexy invitation of being passed out drunk. Women have infringed on their right to exist without being turned on. (Ta-Nehisi Coates describes this centering of male sexual vulnerability quite well.) Our very presence is a disruption of the male status quo.

There’s a lot of work to be done to dismantle rape culture—but a simple first step is to stop focusing on making the world more comfortable for men, and instead make it safer for women.

For more on the contradictions of American sexism, read Dave Zirin's take-down of the big men of Notre Dame.