Women at a SlutWalk protest in Berlin. The walk was held in response to a Toronto police officer who said women shouldn't dress like "sluts" if they want to avoid being raped. (Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Rape culture exists because we don't believe it does. From tacit acceptance of misogyny in everything from casual conversations with our peers to the media we consume, we accept the degradation of women and posit uncontrollable hyper-sexuality of men as the norm. But rape is endemic to our culture because there's no widely accepted cultural definition of what it actually is. As Nation contributor and co-editor of the anthology Yes Means Yes Jessica Valenti explains, “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.” But recent headline-grabbing instances of sexual assault, from Steubenville, Ohio, to Delhi, India, are prodding Americans to become self-aware about the role we play in propagating a culture that not only allows but justifies sexual violence against women. Activists Eesha Pandit, Jaclyn Friedman, filmmaker Nuala Cabral and The Nation’s Valenti believe that we can end rape culture. They’ve suggested the following "Ten Things" to end our collective tolerance for violence against women and create an environment that empowers both men and women to change the status quo.
1. Name the real problems: Violent masculinity and victim-blaming. These are the cornerstones of rape culture and they go hand in hand. When an instance of sexual assault makes the news and the first questions the media asks are about the victim’s sobriety, or clothes, or sexuality, we should all be prepared to pivot to ask, instead, what messages the perpetrators received over their lifetime about rape and about “being a man.” Here’s a tip: the right question is not, “What was she doing/wearing/saying when she was raped?” The right question is, “What made him think this is acceptable?” Sexual violence is a pervasive problem that cannot be solved by analyzing an individual situation. Learn 50 key facts about domestic violence. Here’s one: the likelihood that a woman will die a violent death increases 270% once a gun is present in the home Remember, a violent act is not a tragic event done by an individual or a group of crazies. Violence functions in society as" a means of asserting and securing power."
2. Re-examine and re-imagine masculinity: Once we name violent masculinity as a root cause of violence against women, we have to ask: Is masculinity inherently violent? How can you be a man/masculine without being violent? Understand that rape is not a normal or natural masculine urge. Join organizations working to redefine masculinity and participate in the national conversations on the topic.
3. Get enthusiastic about enthusiastic consent. Rape culture relies on our collective inclination to blame the victim and find excuses for the rapist. Enthusiastic consent — the idea that we're all responsible to make sure that our partners are actively into whatever's going down between us sexually — takes a lot of those excuses away. Rather than looking for a “no,” make sure there’s an active “yes.” If you adopt enthusiastic consent yourself, and then teach it to those around you, it can soon become a community value. Then, if someone is raped, the question won't be, well, what was she doing there, or did she really say no clearly enough? It will be: what did you do to make sure she was really into it? Check out this Tumblr page on enthusiastic consent.
4. Speak up for what you really really want. Because so much victim-blaming relies on outdated ideas about women and men's sexuality, taking the time to figure out what you actually want from sex for yourself and learning how to speak up about it can be a revolutionary act, and inspire others to follow suit. Bonus: it will almost always improve your sex life, too! Jaclyn Friedman wrote a whole book on the topic.
5. Get media literate. Media, like everything else we consume, is a product; someone imagined, created and implemented it. Ask the right questions about who creates media that profits off the objectification of women, especially women of color. Feed your mind and heart with media that portrays women as full human beings with the right to bodily autonomy. Go to FAAN Mail to learn how to "Talk Back" to media creators and browse their Facebook page for alternative artists. You'll not only be healthier yourself, but you'll be simultaneously calling into being a media ecosystem that will be healthier for everyone.
6. Globalize your awareness of rape culture. Yes, different societies have particularities when it comes to gender based violence, but it is counterproductive to essentialize entire nations/cultures/races. Look to global strategies—like creating momentum for the US to ratify the global Convention on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and participate in addressing the phenomenon of rape as a tool of war. Also, let’s reauthorize Violence Against Women Act before we cast aspersions on the misogyny of other cultures, shall we?
7. Know your history: For those of us who live here in the US, we must acknowledge and learn from the US’s long history of state sanctioned violence. Consider the genocide of Native and First Nations people, the ever-present legacy of slavery, the lackadaisical relationship we have with due process (i.e. Japanese internment, Guantanamo) and the gendered nature of all this. There are no quick links for this one: you’ll have to read some big books.
8. Take an intersectional approach. The numbers tell us most but not all of what we need to know. What the numbers can elide is the lived reality of women, LGBTQ people and others of us whose stories don’t make it to the headlines. Don’t forget that sex and gender are different and there are more genders than two. People who are gender-non-conforming, gender queer, trans and/or those who complicate the gender binary experience violence at disproportionate rates. Think about how a person’s income, race, sexuality, and citizenship and immigration status would impact their ability to use the criminal justice system as recourse, and come up with strategies that address those challenges. Move the most vulnerable from the margin to the center to develop effective solutions.
9. Practice real politics. You may be crystal clear about your own rejection of rape culture, but when someone you know calls a woman a slut, approach him/her from a place of empathy. Try telling them that you know they probably meant no harm, but that you're concerned that they may be doing some anyhow. And then explain why. And be patient: very few of us change our views in an instant. It may take time and repetition for it to start to sink in.
10. Lobby your community. Rape culture thrives in passive acceptance of female degradation, victim-blaming and hyper-masculinity in our communities, both physical and digital. Report abuse on Facebook. Lobby college administrators for more safe spaces to discuss sexual assault on campus. One in five women are assaulted during their college years, yet many colleges don't have a competent system for reporting incidences and punishing perpetrators. Go here to learn what to do about rape on your campus.
Two More Ways to Fight Rape Culture
Don't laugh at rape. Most people aren't rapists. But most rapists believe that everyone does it. What's more, you can't tell if you're in the presence of a rapist. They don't look any different from the rest of us, and may be perfectly good company. So while it might seem harmless to you to laugh at a joke that makes light of rape, your laughter could be telling an unknown rapist in your midst that you think rape is hilarious. And what's worse: letting go of a laugh once in a while, or accidentally enabling a rapist? Your call.
Tell your story. Every political issue has a personal narrative that helps form connections to the issue and bolster support for present and future victims. Read Akiba Solomon's account of the how she bridged the personal and the political in the struggle over reproductive justice. If your personal account is not ready for an audience, start by telling your story to yourself.
It is not enough to bring individual perpetrators of rape and sexual violence to justice. Since the problem lies in a culture that is entertained by degrading acts and images of women, the solution is to look at the individual acts as a symptom of rape culture and solve it holistically. We all have a part to play in allowing rape culture to exist—so, we can all do something to eradicate it.
Conceived by Walter Moseley and co-edited by Rae Gomes.
"Ten Things" is a monthly feature. Readers who wish to submit additions to recent Ten Things or tell us their own Ten Things ideas should use this form.
Trying to understand what rape culture means? Read Jessica Valenti on America's Rape Problem: We Refuse to Admit We Have One.