Last week, political analyst and writer Zerlina Maxwell began tweeting with the hashtag, #RapeCultureIsWhen in response to claims made by TIME Magazine and the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) that rape culture is “over hyped.” Over the next two hours, #RapeCultureIsWhen proceeded to become a trending topic in the United States. The tweets expressed frustrations and thoughts that rape culture cannot be devalued.
#Rapecultureiswhen people question the survivors’ actions but not the rapists’ actions.
— Zerlina Maxwell (@ZerlinaMaxwell) March 25, 2014
#RapeCultureiswhen CNN bemoans lost football careers of bright young felons with nary a word for what victims suffer.
— the smitten word (@suzannahpaul) March 25, 2014
While all can agree that rape is a despicable crime, last month RAINN argued that rape doesn’t occur because our society is affected by rape culture, but rather “by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.”
Caroline Kitchens affirms this critique of rape culture in her TIME magazine post by highlighting that the majority of men have absorbed enough rape prevention messages throughout their lives to conclude that rape is horrific. Basically, society doesn’t need to keep teaching men and boys not to rape, because we’ve already done a pretty good job. She claims that instead of causing the small percentage of offenders to stop, the rape culture campaign vilifies men undeservedly. Kitchens purports:
“By blaming so-called rape culture, we implicate all men in a social atrocity, trivialize the experiences of survivors, and deflect blame from the rapists truly responsible for sexual violence.”
There is truth here. The majority of men in our society grow up realizing rape is bad and should not happen. There is agreement that survivors shouldn’t be trivialized, but empowered to respond. We understand that the law promotes the ability to consent. We can’t blame culture because we know that yes is yes, and no is no.
Or do we?
The greatest concern I have about devaluing rape culture is not that men and boys still do not get the fact rape is wrong. The paramount worry is the lack of knowledge about what rape, or consent for that matter, actually looks like.
The notion that rapists only make up a “small percentage of the community” may feed the myth that offenders are shadowy strangers looming among us that our parents taught us not to talk to. I have found that most individuals I know who have found themselves subject to rape and sexual violence knew their assaulters well. Undoubtedly, these offenders heard the same rape prevention messages and knew that rape is a malicious act. However, if you asked the assaulters if they had ever raped, their answer would be no. In most of these cases, this is because there was never a perceived decline of consent. In fact, several of the survivors had difficulty coming to terms with the fact that they had been assaulted in the first place because they didn’t provide a “no” either.
Was this because they were never properly educated on rape culture?
I would argue that often in circumstances, rape occurs because a definition of what consent looks like is never established. Recently, I watched a brilliant video by Dr. Lindsey Doe, whose expertise specializes in sexual health. She provides an extremely accessible answer to the important question:
What is consent?
I appreciate the succinctness of her response:
“Consent is not the absence of a no, but the presence of a yes.” -Dr. Lindsey Doe
Not only does it appropriately address that rape culture exists, but it provides a practical way to move forward. Not “moral panic” as Kitchens accuses of rape culture activists.
That being said, I can’t help but add to Maxwell’s efforts. #RapeCultureIsWhen the response of silence to sexual advances is determined as consent. #RapeCultureIsWhen assaulters rape while their victim is intoxicated and cannot provide consent. #RapeCultureIsWhen someone blames themselves because their fear was greater than the ability to vocalize “no.”
The reason why rape culture cannot be devalued and is not being “overhyped” is because while there is a mutual understanding that rape is wrong, there is still a lack of discernment of consent, as well as a flimsy definition of consent. We cannot ignore that rape culture exists. We can help one another to call it when we see it.