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Rape Culture

What does the term “Rape Culture” mean? Is it just another buzz word, or is there real meaning, or even danger behind these words? Do we live in a Rape Culture here in the U.S. in 2011? Where does it come from? How does it evolve and why does it persist?

First let’s look at what this loaded term actually means.

There are many definitions of Rape Culture found everywhere from Wikipedia to Sociology text books. Most of them center around the same basic ideas which I think are presented well in this definition offered by the Women’s Center at Marshall University: “Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.  Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.”

A recent example…

Several weeks ago there was an article published in the New York Times about the gang rape of an 11-year old girl by 18 men and teenaged boys  in a small, east Texas town. One might assume that any account of such a horrific attack would be focused on the recovery of the victim and how her assailants would be brought to justice. Not so, in this case. The Times article included the following remarks:

“The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?

“’It’s just destroyed our community,” said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”

“Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.”

Huh. So a young girl is gang-raped and the community concern is over how her rapists will recover? Interesting. And she “dressed older than her age…” Sooo…what? She asked for it? She wanted it? She deserved it? Wow…I sure hope those rapists are all OK…

After enormous public outcry, the New York Times public editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, issued a statement saying that the outrage was “understandable” and that the piece conveyed “an impression of concern for the perpetrators and an impression of a provocative victim” that “led many readers to interpret the subtext of the story to be: she had it coming.”

While this apology is important, particularly coming from a source such as the New York Times, the fact that the article was researched, written, reviewed, edited and printed in the first place leaves me astounded. All of those people had input. All of those people had an opportunity to react, reflect, and interpret those words. And yet none of them put a stop to it. Why? We can only speculate. But the fact is, we live in a culture where the mindset about rape allowed all of those people to actively take part in the publication of an article that perfectly illustrates what Rape Culture is all about.

Sex sells.

Good Morning America recently aired a story on marketing “sexy” to young girls and the effects of such provocative marketing to such young age groups. The piece focused on the clothing industry’s role in this nationwide problem. How young is too young? How sexy is too sexy? They featured Abercrombie and Fitch’s “push-up triangle bikini, ” a padded, skimpy bikini designed for girls as young as 7-years old!

So what are we telling our young girls? You need to look older? You need to be sexy? You need to get ahead of your biology if you want to be pretty? But wait…if you do…don’t come crying when you get raped because you asked for it!

Abercrombie has since renamed the suit the “triangle bikini” though the style (padding included) has not been changed. Girls are internalizing these messages and as a result, we see low self esteem, increased numbers of girls and women with eating disorders, distorted body images, desperate attempts to live up to impossible standards, little girls who are trying to look like little women, and families and a culture that encourages it…that is, until one of them gets raped. Then the critical eye opens.

While Abercrombie and Fitch is certainly a high profile example of the messages our society is sending young girls, the rest of the media should not be forgotten. A quick glance at the nearest magazine stand is all it takes to see that it’s not just Abercrombie and Fitch selling sex, nearly every magazine on the shelves is doing it. Try watching a music video, watching a television show, or the latest movie or video game……the same messages over and over again where ever you look. And in response, not only are parents and kids buying it…literally, but the messages are like viruses. The ideas about what “beautiful” and “sexy” are pervade the mindsets of our country’s women and girls.

Is this really us?

What does all this have to do Rape Culture? Let’s go back to the definition we started with. Is rape prevalent in our society? Absolutely. According to the Coalition Educating About Sexual Endangerment, one out of every three women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. I’d say that qualifies as prevalent.

“Sexual violence is normalized and excused in the media.” One needn’t look farther than a stack of video games or a nightly line-up on TV to see how true this has become in our culture.

Heard any misogynistic language lately? Slut. Whore. Feminazi. Bitch. Sound familiar? If not, tell me where you’re living and I’ll send every woman I know.

Objectification of women’s bodies? Well we’re right back to Abercrombie, MTV and the magazine isle aren’t we?

Glamorization of sexual violence? No? You don’t think so? Again, the media (and mainstream America’s  support of it) glamorize violence, and sexual violence in particular, to a remarkable degree. Video games, television, movies, music…it’s difficult to find an area of popular culture that isn’t pervaded by these messages.

Media messages are filtered and internalized by men and women (and boys and girls) in different ways. Female members of our society are expected to look beautiful and sexy, but are chastised for having sexual relationships. They “give it up” suggesting that they have been beaten. Males, by contrast, are supposed to be strong, powerful, in control and are championed for their “sexual conquests.” They are congratulated when they “hit that, pound it, nail it,” etc. The use of such violent rhetoric in describing sex is particularly harmful when taken in the broader context of a society overrun by the elements of Rape Culture. These factors compound one another and ultimately leave an 11-year old rape victim to be blamed for her attack while her community worries about how her 18 male attackers will be able live with what they have done.

Rape Culture will not be defeated quickly or easily. But the battle will have to begin in our homes. It will begin with every individual, and every family. Like all great movements in our history, it will swell from the ground up.

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