Why does rape happen?
Because a rapist chooses to rape someone. Because someone felt so entitled to sex, they didn’t care whether their selected partner was able or willing to consent. No one is disagreeing there. But why does that choice happen? Where does that sense of entitlement come from?
If you ask RAINN or TIME magazine, they wouldn’t be able to give you an answer. Or, perhaps, they would say it doesn’t matter why. Earlier this month, RAINN—the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization—wrote recommendations for a White House task force on sexual assault that included a line about how in recent years, there has been an “unfortunate trend towards blaming ‘rape culture’" for sexual violence on college campuses. “While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime,” read the recommendations. TIME followed up with an article announcing, “It’s time to end ‘rape culture’ hysteria.”
If you ask me though, or many people working to end sexual violence, we’d tell you that the choice to commit rape happens because we live in a world that supports and condones non-consensual sex in many ways every day. We live in a culture that makes sex a zero-sum game—something women are expected to perform, and then protect. Something men are expected to relentlessly desire, and then take.
The theory of rape culture gives us a way to understand why sexual violence happens. It tasks us not with pointing fingers at false problems, but with working together to change our society.
We may very well live in a culture where almost everyone—outwardly, at least—agrees that rape is wrong. But we also live in a culture that doesn’t understand, on a very basic level, what rape really is. And apparently, one of the best-known anti-sexual violence organizations doesn’t have the ability to understand the nuance of why that’s true.
What RAINN gets wrong in their assertion is the idea that rape culture provides distraction from the real goal of holding rapists accountable. No one I have ever met who understands rape culture disagrees that rapists need to be held responsible more often. While one in four men globally say they’ve forced a woman to have sex against her will, only 23 percent have been punished. When we talk about rape culture, we are talking about holding rapists accountable. We're talking about the reasons that rapists are so frequently exonerated, the reasons rapists feel comfortable committing more crimes, the reasons that rape goes unreported, and the ways that victims are blamed for the choices made by rapists. When we talk about rape culture, we’re talking about the “why” and we're saying that every one of us is responsible for holding rapists accountable.
Rapists are primarily at fault for rape, but we all have a role in changing the reasons and ways rape is allowed, excused, and misunderstood.
My disappointment with RAINN’s recommendations isn’t that they want to focus more intensively on holding rapists accountable. I, too, wish the criminal justice system, campus administrations, and all systems that impact survivors had a clearer understanding of sexual violence and were better at holding rapists accountable. I wish there were better systems for dealing with rape than just telling survivors to go to the police and putting rapists in jail. We know that those institutions often fail at accountability and fail survivors. The theory of rape culture helps us understand why that is. Talking about rape culture is not hysterical. It gives us a frame for dismantling the ways our society supports rapists, and it tasks us all with changing them.
Hopefully, the White House will hear that loud and clear.
Photo Credit: Chase Carter via Creative Commons.