What Is Rape Culture?
“Rape culture is a sociological concept for a setting in which rape is pervasive and normalized due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality.” Rape-culture attitudes/behaviors include victim-blaming, slut-shaming, sexual objectification of women, trivialization of sexual assault, denial of widespread rape, and dismissal of the devastating impact of sexual violence. (Jewell, 2022).
Sexual assault myths, or common beliefs, are widespread throughout the United States. These myths reinforce the rape culture that exists within America by faulting the victim, downplaying the assault, and reducing women to sexual objects.
Myth 1: She did something; It must have been her fault.
Too often victims of sexual violence are told that they could have prevented their assault. They are told that they were too drunk, that their clothing was too revealing, or that they should not have put themselves in the situation. Many sexual assault perpetrators will claim that the victim leads them on.
However, these claims, these mistruths, place the burden of responsibility and the blame on the victim rather than the perpetrator. Under no circumstance is sexual assault the fault of the victim. We should feel comfortable enough operating in society without having to fear that someone will take advantage of us or take something from us without our consent.
If a burglar broke into my home while I was away at work, would it be my fault because I did not have an expensive security system in place? Of course not. There are laws meant to prevent theft and breaking and entering. When someone chooses to break those laws, that is their decision and the fault is with them.
If a woman is raped in a parking garage after leaving the office, is it her fault because she was wearing an office dress and happened to be alone in a secluded location? Should she have been wearing slacks instead or parked on the street? Definitely not. She should be able to go to work and drive safely home. Again, there are laws in place to protect us from physical and sexual assault. If the sexual perpetrator chooses to break those laws, why do we, as a society, attempt to blame the victim?
Myth 2: If it was rape, Why didn’t you fight back?
Another mistruth that we spread in America is that it is not rape if the victim did not clearly tell the perpetrator, ‘No.’ In addition to this, rape victims are told that they should have fought back, that they should have shoved the offender off, or physically injured in some way.
The truth is that we all respond to trauma, terror, and danger differently. As a general rule of thumb, every human responds to conflict in one of four ways; Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn. Our brain automatically responds by utilizing one of these defense mechanisms when confronted with a dangerous situation.
A ‘fight’ response may prompt the victim to physically protest their assailant and a ‘flight’ response would prompt the victim to escape the situation. If the assailant is larger, stronger, or more powerful than the victim, fighting back would not only be unsuccessful but potentially more dangerous and escape may seem or be impossible.
When women are the victim of rape, the ‘fight’ and ‘flight’ responses are usually unsuccessful as the male perpetrator is often larger and physically stronger. Due to this, most sexual assault victims succumb to the ‘freeze’ or ‘fawn’ response. When the brain triggers the ‘freeze’ response, our bodies essentially become immobile. If the brain activates the ‘fawn’ response, the sexual assault victim may attempt to appease their attacker to prevent further injury.
Myth 3: You can’t just change your mind.
Another common myth spread across western cultures is that men are sexual beings and women are the cause of these lustful desires. Therefore, if a woman is leading a man on, flirting, or showing interest, she is indicating consent. If the perpetrator was the victim’s husband or boyfriend, she must have provided non-verbal consent for sexual activity. Or- If the victim began engaging in sexual activity, but withdrew her consent, it was not the responsibility of the man to stop as he was already aroused. In other words; Women can not just change their minds once a man has perceived consent was given.
In actuality, no individual is obligated to fulfill the desires of another individual regardless of the relationship or situation. Flirting, dating, and fooling around do not indicate consent for further sexual activities. Consent can be withdrawn at any given time and we are responsible for respecting each other’s bodies and boundaries.
The Foundations of Rape Culture
The term, ‘rape culture,’ was coined by the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States. Throughout the 60s and 70s, the term was utilized to describe the sexual violence perpetrated against women and the attitudes and beliefs that shaped westerners’ response to rape. In 2022, the term is used to describe a culture that fosters sexual violence. This includes sexual violence perpetrated against men, specifically incarcerated men.
What Creates a ‘Rape Culture’?
In western societies, including the United States, rape culture is shaped by popular culture, gender stereotypes, common beliefs, standard rules, and media influence. From a very young age, American children are exposed to jokes, song lyrics, symbols, and television programs that ingrain ‘rape culture’ ideas and beliefs into their developing minds, (A.Joel, 2021).
“No means no! Right?!? Unless- you are a celebrity that individuals across the country admire, look up to, and aspire to be like. Popular culture in western society promotes the sexualization of women and often implies that the word, ‘No’ is a challenge rather than a response.
Music videos are filled with scantily dressed women dancing provocatively and draping themselves across high-profile celebrities. Song lyrics such as those found in songs like; Blurred Lines, Blame It, Baby, It’s Cold Outside, and so many more portray the following ideas which support a rape culture society.
- Women will eventually give in; if you continue to push the issue.
- An unclear response is equivalent to consent.
- Drugs and alcohol are valid excuses for questionable sexual behavior and unwanted advances.
In addition to music, television, and movies support the rape culture we find ourselves currently living in. Producers and creators portray, dress, and use actresses to enhance the sexual appeal of movies and television shows. The leading actresses’ primary role in most movies is to support the leading male or act as their male counterparts’ love interest.
‘Sex sells,’ so advertisers use sexual appeal to interest consumers and increase sales. Alcohol advertisements display beautiful women dressed and behaving provocatively. Clothing brands sexualize models and promote a body image that represents less than 1% of the population. This use of ‘sex’ to promote products reinforces the perspective that women are sexual objects.
Gender Stereotypes and Common Beliefs
Stereotypes are assumptions that are widely discussed and believed pertaining to a specific group of people. Gender stereotypes greatly influence the rape culture in America. Take a look at some common gender stereotypes regarding women below.
- Women should appear in a certain way to appeal to men.
- Women are naturally weaker than men.
- Women are natural caretakers, that’s why they are primarily responsible for fulfilling the needs of others.
- Women should support their husbands/male counterparts because their significant other supports them financially and cares for them physically.
- Women are too emotional and dramatic.
- Women uninterested in dating, sex, and children are lesbians.
So many of these gender stereotypes are rooted in the expectation that women are dependent on men to take care of them and help them make decisions. This expectation creates an imbalance of power between men and women. It indicates that women ‘owe’ men something for everything that they do for them. Which begs the question- What do these stereotypical women owe them?
If women can’t make decisions, earn the same income, remain emotionally stable, or physically protect themselves, what could they possibly give men? If a woman’s primary purpose is to take care of her home and children, she must first have children. The stereotypical woman provides for her male counterpart through the making of a happy home. But, to do this, she must first provide him with children through sex. Simply speaking; The stereotypical woman owes men sex so that she can repay men for all of their ‘manly deeds.’
There are rules throughout society that unfairly single out girls and women. Let’s take a look at some standard gender rules that exist across the United States.
- The education system commonly enforces a dress code against girls in the classroom. These dress codes’ primary purpose is to prevent distractions in the classroom. (For young boys)
- The illegality of abortion and emergency contraception across various states prevent women from making important decisions that affect their bodies.
Unwritten Rules and Beliefs
In addition to the defined written rules that exist in American culture, countless unwritten rules indicate it is a woman’s job to prevent her rape.
- Women should not be out walking late at night.
- Decent women do not expose their bodies, it’s indecent.
- Women should avoid alleys, parking garages, empty buildings/office spaces, and other dark, enclosed, or scarce places.
- Women should be careful how much they drink, where they drink, and who they drink with.
If a woman refuses to subscribe to these sexist beliefs does that mean she was ‘asking for it’? Did she not do enough to prevent her illegal assault?
News coverage generally supports rape culture. When sexual assault is reported on the news, New coverage often discredits the victim, victim-blames, and sympathizes with the offender. News stations work to televise information that will attract viewers. Thus, their stance and presentation are created to appease the viewers they are trying to attract, (J. Wadley).
In so many cases, we see news coverage that outlines all of the positive attributes and accomplishments of the offender. The coverage focuses on what caused the rape, rather than who committed the crime. To determine what caused the crime to occur, the media will outline where the woman was, what she was doing before it happened, and when possible share an image of the victim. This scrutiny prevents women from coming forward with incidences of rape and emphasizes the idea that ‘It wasn’t his fault.’
Sexual Violence in America
While this article focuses primarily on the sexual assault of women; girls and women between the ages of 12 and 34 have the greatest chance of experiencing sexual violence. However, it is important to note that they are not the only demographic that experiences sexual assault. Sexual violence is common in domestic violence situations and prison settings. Young boys, inmates, and non-gender conforming individuals are also at a heightened risk of experiencing sexual violence.
Prevalence in Society
According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), an instance of sexual assault occurs in America every 68 seconds. That equates to a little more than 1,000 occurrences each day. According to the Uniform Crime Report from the FBI, there were 139,380 reported rapes or attempted rapes in 2018, (Jewell, 2022).
In a 2015 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey the following findings were discovered pertaining to the prevalence of sexual violence in the United States, (Jewell, 2022).
- 43.6% of American Women have Experienced Sexual Violence
- 1 in 5 Women has been the Victim of Attempted or Completed Rape
- Each year, there are 5.6 million New Victims of Sexual Violence in the United States
- 81.3% of Female Victims of Sexual Violence, Experienced it before the Age of 25
In another Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct by the Association of American Universities, (AAU), the following findings were noted, (Jewell, 2022).
- While Enrolled in College, 1 in 4 Women were Victims of Sexual Assault, (compared to 6.8% of undergraduate men).
- After Enrollment, 41.8% of Students Experienced Sexual Harassment.
In yet another 2015 study conducted by the University of Georgia, the following findings related to undergraduate men. I feel that it is important to note that if these individuals were asked directly whether they contributed to sexual violence in America, the majority would have provided a response aligning with, ‘Sexual violence is wrong.’
- 1 in 5 Collegiate Men Committed Some Form of Sexual Violence
- 1 in 10 Individuals Under the Age of 21 had Perpetuated Some Form of Sexual Violence
Due to the number of instances of sexual assault and rape that go unreported, it is impossible to determine the total economic burden caused by the rape culture we reside in. However, a 2011 survey, by the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence estimated the following numbers.
- Per each rape victim, the lifetime cost of rape is $122,461. That equates to an economic burden of more than $3.1 trillion for rape victims that report their assaults.
- Government sources pay an estimated $1 trillion (32%) of the lifetime economic burden.
Psychology of Society
As a general rule, I believe that most people are good. I do not believe that every man that perpetrates sexual violence is aggressive or cruel, (This statement does not apply to instances of aggressive and non-consensual rape in the theatrical sense or repeat offenders). I feel that the prevalence of sexual aggression and violence is largely due to the psychological phenomenon created by western society’s rape culture.
Justifying the mistreatment of women, the use of women as sexual objects in media and advertisement, and societies’ tendency to determine the reason for sexual offenses (largely due to the women’s behavior) desensitize men regarding sexual violence. If the men in the survey above, had been directly asked whether they committed an act of sexual violence, they would have responded ‘no.’ However, the large number of men who have committed these violent sexual acts did not perceive their behavior as violent or aggressive. This is due to the way society in general perceives and defines rape.
Mental Health Related to Sexual Violence
Each sexual violence victim reacts uniquely. The reactions are largely dependent on the support received after the incident, the reaction of loved ones when informed of the incident, and the amount of internalization the victim relates to the assault. RAINN reports an increased risk of rape victims developing the following mental health symptoms, (Increased risk represented in percentages), (Jewell, 2022).
- PTSD symptoms during the two weeks following an incident of sexual violence (94%)
- Suicide ideation and contemplation (33%)
- Attempting suicide (13%)
- Illicit drug use (30%)
- Issues at work or school (38%)
- Relationship issues with family and friends (37%)
A Proposed Solution
To diminish the prevalence of sexual violence in America and other western cultures, we need to reflect on our reactions to these incidences as a society and analyze the foundations of these perceptions.
- Enforce mandates on advertising to diminish the sexual objectification of women and subtle instances of sexual violence in advertising.
- Hold news stations responsible for victim blaming and defending the perpetrators of these sexually violent stories.
- Increase the number of workshops, seminars, and educational opportunities available to teach individuals more about sexual violence, its prevalence, and its outcome. Clearly define examples of sexual violence and consent.
- In environments where sexual violence is more prevalent, such as; prisons and universities, we should mandate courses and educational seminars to retrain individuals on sexual violence and consent.
3 components of rape culture and what you can do to fight back. Psychology Benefits Society. (2014, February 18). Retrieved November 6, 2022, from https://psychologybenefits.org/2014/02/18/3-components-of-rape-culture-and-what-you-can-do-to-fight-back/
Aqel, F. (2020, September 7). The Psychology of a Rapist. dw.com. Retrieved November 6, 2022, from https://www.dw.com/en/the-psychology-of-a-rapist/a-54814540
Jewell, C. (2022, January 13). Rape culture explained: The role of toxic blame. Mind Remake Project. Retrieved November 6, 2022, from https://mindremakeproject.org/2021/03/19/rape-culture-in-america/
Joel, A. (2021, February 2). Rape culture: America’s biggest plague. VOX ATL. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from https://voxatl.org/rape-culture-americas-biggest-plague/
Ullman, S. E. (2010). Challenging the rape culture: Recommendations for change. In S. E. Ullman, Talking about sexual assault: Society’s response to survivors (pp. 145–165). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/12083-007Wadley, J. (2018, October 3). Biased local news coverage contributes to rape culture. Phys.org. Retrieved February 21, 2023, from https://phys.org/news/2018-10-biased-local-news-coverage-contributes.html
3 thoughts on “Rape Culture: A Psychological Phenomenon”
I’m a guy. And I was molested as a kid. At the time, I had no clue as to what to do… it’s such an awkward situation! And especially because it was family that did it.
I am so sorry to hear that you had to go through that. I think the most important thing to remember is that it was not your fault, you did not ask for it, and you did nothing to deserve it. The person that did that to you had their own set of issues, but I am so proud of you for doing your research and finding articles like this to help you build awareness and work through your trauma! Let me know if there is any information I can help you with.
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I just feel like a victim of pure selfishness.
It helps when someone just listens. It’s not a fun thing to talk about and I know it’s not interesting.. but just listening is better than therapy for me.