Rape culture: It’s all around us

Rape culture: It’s all around us

Pearson, Alyn

Rape Culture: It’s all around us.

Last semester, I filled my undergraduate science requirement with a class called “The Biology of Infectious Diseases.” Although all biologically caused, many of the diseases we studied were closely tied to social conditions. For example, in the United States and Europe in the early 1900s, typhoid thrived among rural and urban poor. Typhoid is a disease of the intestines caused by bacteria which result from contamination from sewage or feces. In poor urban and rural areas, water sanitation was poor, so often the septic system and the water supply were intermingled, allowing the bacteria to pass to people. These days, with improved sanitation, typhoid in the United States is relatively scarce, but in countries with poor water sanitation, typhoid is still endemic.

Endemic means “part of the natural flora of a place.” In nations with poor water and health care, diseases like typhoid are part of the environment. An endemic disease is not a good thing, but people somehow get used to it and deal accordingly. (An epidemic, on the other hand, is an outbreak, often sudden, of a disease that strikes many people severely.) Endemic diseases, ones that are chronic like rainy weather in the Pacific Northwest, tend to spawn folklore explanations as to their etiology. For example, there is a lot of folklore about the common cold. It is common lore that if we get caught in the rain we are apt to “catch cold,” that if we are out too long in the freezing weather, we might “get a chill,” and that if we go out in cold weather with wet hair we might “catch a cold.”

Rape as disease

Rape is the common cold of society. Although rape is much more serious than the common cold, the systems are the same. We have assimilated rape into our everyday culture much as we have the cold. Like the folklore surrounding the common cold, there is folklore about rape, like the notion that if a woman wears revealing clothing or goes to a bar alone, she is likely to “get raped.” But in fact a woman is no more likely to be raped from these activities than from simply dating a man or being home alone.

The rape culture

There is a silence surrounding the recognition that we live in a cultural environment where rape is endemic, but it is true. The rape culture is much like the poor sanitation conditions which led to typhoid–it provides an environment in which acts of rape are fostered. Look through any supposed women’s publication and notice the ads that display women at the mercy of a man or at the mercy of the male gaze. Notice the articles that emphasize dependence and passivity and avoid portraying independence and strength in women. Watch TV shows that display precocious models of sexually manipulated teen-aged women. Walk into any bar and watch the women primp and the men pounce, and watch, too, as the number of unreported rapes turns into the number of women socialized into accepting this sort of sexual behavior as standard–not even recognizing rape when it occurs. Rape is part of the natural flora of our society and our world.

I go to Bard College, a secluded little haven in New York State. BRAVE, Bard’s Response to Rape and Associated Violence Education, is the group on my campus that deals with rape, incest, sexual assault and harassment, domestic abuse, and gender-related violence issues that arise in our small community and, often, in the community-at-large. The group is not the most popular on campus, in fact, many of the Bard College students refer to us, not-so-lovingly, as Nazis with no sense of humor. Before attending college, I, like much of my generation, tended to not see rape as violence against women, but rather as a removed sort of problem that was often misused by women looking for sympathy. I was seduced by the post-modern rejection of feminism, believing instead in the inclusion of every opposite. I was socialized not to see the discrepancies, but to accept them. I joined BRAVE to use it as a feminist-resume padder, unabashedly using my admittance as a notch on my activist belt. I thought maybe I could write a cynical article or two after college on the subject of rape and be done with the whole mess.

Sex, rape, and oranges

Before joining BRAVE, I had this incredibly twisted and formed view of rape: specifically, that I was never a victim and I never could be. I was also convinced that women often lied about rape. Why did I think this way? Because social training, media propaganda, and backlash had me as a dedicated pupil. Fortunately, I was not too far gone in my hipster cynicism to grasp the facts of the matter. Rape, I learned, is not a removed, unrestricted, free flowing sort of problem that randomly strikes unfortunate women in dark parking lots or in frat houses.

This past January, I was trained to be a peer rape counselor. The training was my version of medical school–I can now identify the symptoms of rape everywhere, see the disease in everyone, and take the steps to cure it. An icebreaker activity that I participated in during BRAVE training broadened my perspective–one team had oranges and the other had to try to get these oranges. The setting was a party. I got my orange, by struggling with the woman who had it until I got it. Other members of my team coerced their victims with sweet words and were able to get the orange. Some women managed to hold onto their orange until the end of the game, but they were visibly harassed. The analogy is fairly simple–the orange is sex and the persuaders had to initiate violent and harassing contact to get the orange/sex. It was all fun and games, and usually is, until someone gets hurt.

The orange situation is common at parties everywhere. Women have what men want and men are socialized to get it, just as women are socialized to give it up to the game of coercion. The orange game brought out how things often play out between men and women: this is the structure of heterosexual dating paradigms. As a woman, I would never go up to a man and try to persuade him to come home with me, to give me his love. It would never occur to me nor would I even want to engage in the particular activity. But men are trained to interact this way. Men are trained to be aggressive until they get what they want and women are trained to be passive and eventually give in to men’s power and demands.

Rape as symptomlogy

A study of the rape culture done by the University of California at Davis found: “the high incidence of rape in this country is a result of the power imbalance between men and women. Women are expected to assume a subordinate relationship to men. Consequently rape can be seen as a logical extension of the typical interactions between men and women.”

A disease is merely a set of symptoms combined into a neat medically identified package and labeled for the public. The germs are everywhere. The disease of rape is simply the set of symptoms of a socially oppressive system that allows men all the power and leaves women with all the shame. In fact, rape is quite pervasive and rigidly fixed into our social system. Everything from TV commercials for dish soap to the exchanges between men and women in supermarkets are symptoms of the rape culture. It is part of the natural flora, the way things are. Men are trained to rape and women to take it. Rape is taught and learned through these patterns and paradigms without the word rape ever being uttered.

The rape environment

My back tenses, my voice gets higher and lighter. I smile excessively, all the while feeling ridiculous. There is a boy in the room. A boy with no particularly alluring energy, but every woman in the room is riveted. We all want him. Something has entered my consciousness and those are social germs of gender construction. If I stop to think about it (which women rarely do) I don’t want him at all, but years of social training push a button in my spine that turns on Super Girl when there is a male presence. Super Girl is a combination of a bunch of different behaviors relegated to women. And this is what is engendered through the training program of prime-time romantic dramas and reinforced by real life interactions between men and women.

Unless we constantly struggle against social pressures, women are brainwashed into thinking that we HAVE to do certain things to be accepted. Women smile more than men, we take up less space, we defer to men as they interrupt our conversations, we apologize before stating an opinion, and we strive day in and day out to perfect our bodies for the male gaze. This is the rape culture. When men decide that they want, we give. When we say no, we apologize. Our no’s are interrupted by their yes’s. And we sexualize our bodies for the world of men and not for ourselves; therefore we don’t love them enough to protect them. These small-seeming social actions translate into sexual assault as they reach the bedroom.

Young women and the rape culture

Because of feminism’s many successes, women have been seduced into submission once again. In the beginning of the 21st century, many more women than not are convinced that we have reached equality with men. This is a dangerous conviction, primarily because it is not true. The reason the rape culture is endemic to American women is because we have the illusion that we exist in a safe space, where rape only happens to women who jog late at night in central park. The term “date rape” is often mocked among my peers as a creation by sexually insecure women. And feminism is a dirty word, as those of us with vocal feminist views know all too well.

The advertisements and music videos depict women in skimpy clothing with beckoning looks on their faces. Women with small and impossible bodies are what we aspire to because that is what men are attracted to. And women are first and foremost supposed to be attractive to men. But women, particularly women in college, are also told that we are smart, liberated, equal to men, and have some inner goddess strength. These contradictory messages can be confusing and keep us enthralled by the rape culture if we let the belief that we have social equality blind us to the subliminal messages embedded in the media.

To be a young woman today means to live with the rape culture in all its subtleties. It means to act in accordance with the roles that keep men forever in power. I may be a smart, educated, self-confident woman of the modern day, but any man who wants to can rape me because he is stronger. Not only physically stronger, but psychologically stronger because he was taught by the system to be aggressive and take what he feels he deserves. To be a young woman often means to buy Glamour and Vogue and take the advice that pleases men. It means to fluctuate body weight to please the day’s fashion archetype. Being a young woman today means to be unhappy if men don’t like the way you look. I have cried many a night because of my big shoulders and my skinny, white legs, and I still struggle to find my own definition of what is sexy.

Cultural cures for rape

The media do not recognize rape as a cultural disease. When magazines or news programs do examine the subject, it is often under the guise of stranger rape or rape in severely abusive relationships. Or it is identified as a potentially passing epidemic or the actions of some psychopathic man. And the solution suggested by this same media is avoidance. Avoid dark streets (obviously), avoid bad situations (well, to most of us, a bar in general is a bad situation), avoid going out alone, walking alone, drinking too much, dressing too revealingly, being too aggressive, smiling too profusely, or acting too insecure. Basically the solution is to walk on tiptoes around men, and to take back the night by staying inside and watching a good movie. The solution to rape as it stands now is to let men continue to do this until women are too scared to leave their homes alone or in groups, or even to live alone because men hold the ultimate power of decision. Men hold in their big hands the power over of women’s sexual safety. That is simply not good enough.

Rape is endemic because it pervades every aspect of our complex social structure. In order to vaccinate against it, we would have to change many parts of society that people are fully comfortable with and accepting of. Patriarchy is still very much at work, only more subtly. There is a defiance of admitting weakness because weakness is devalued and to be raped in these fucked up days, is to be weak. Postmodern theory waxes on about inclusion and identity politics; liberals pretend equality has been achieved. And because of the code of sex-positive cool, young women accept these stances at face value and ignore the ongoing perpetuation of rape culture.

Rape is not an epidemic that spiked mysteriously in the mid-seventies when feminists called attention to it. It is not a sudden outbreak that can be cured with a single vaccine. It is an endemic social disease that pervades every walk of life imaginable. This is the rape culture–millions of small-seeming social germs translate into sexual assault as they reach the bedroom.

In rape-crisis training, I learned what makes men rape. And it is not some inbred sexual urge that is just part of man’s biology. It is power and privilege. I learned what keeps women silent. It is fear. My experience with the rape culture wasn’t the same as women who had the misfortune to be physically forced to have sex. But mine is frightening because I, like a zombie, played the cards I had been dealt and didn’t even think about how seduced I was by the mainstream suggestions for male/female behaviors.

In my biology class I learned that small pox has been virtually eradicated and only exists in isolated labs. It used to be a rampant epidemic. If science can stamp out such a pervasive disease, and if a developing economy can get rid of typhoid, then an aware and educated society with new values can eliminate the social germs of rape. We can stop rape in this new century–if we are ready to identify the aspects of our cultural environment that foster rape and eliminate them.

by alyn pearson

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Aug/Sep 2000

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