Dissecting rape culture
We’ve witnessed the cycle before: Rape incident. PR stunt. Repeat. Acts of violence against women are met with lip service and hollow catch phrases, until the news cycle moves on. And despite the ribbons, the press conferences and even the #campaigns, absolutely nothing changes.
It’s because we are not addressing the real issue.
If we want change, we have to look at the epidemic of rape soberly and critically. We have to ask ourselves: What is rape, fundamentally? Where does it come from, and what is its function in society?
Rape is not a random, deranged act committed by insane delinquents. Rape is a natural part of a cycle of violence, and rapists are actors within a normalized structure. And it’s this structure that is the underlying issue politicians and school administrators fail to address. Instead, they treat rape as unrelated incidents.
But we don’t live in a world of isolated incidents. A man attacking a woman isn’t a freak accident. It’s part of a calculated structure in which men attack women.
Academics call this structure the heteronormative patriarchy (HNP). Simply, it is the web of norms that are deemed vital to a healthy, functioning society. We are taught they are natural and inherently true. And we internalize these norms to such an extent that it seems absurd to question them.
The HNP maintains heterosexuality as a social norm and asserts that society should be governed by men. The HNP’s ideology asserts a so-called natural order of hypermasculine subjects (usually men) and submissive, feminine objects (usually women). In this system, the masculine is inherently valuable. The feminine is valuable only when it serves masculinity.
The HNP is perpetuated by the government, the workplace, sports, organized religion, Greek life, the bureaucratized educational system and even the family. Though these norms are praised and upheld as essential underpinnings of our society, it is crucial we deem them both unnatural and unnecessary and thus dispensable. After all, the HNP is a dictatorship like any other: puritanical, unflinching, stale, arrogant and, most of all, illegitimate.
But how does it relate to rape? First, under the HNP, violence is normal and necessary. In America we are raised with the notion that the violence of the military upholds our freedom. We are taught that the brutality of police maintains order and domestic tranquility. All the while the media glorifies this destructive violence, teaching us to respect it.
Inevitably, we become desensitized to violence. We accept it. Our tolerance, and even support, increases.
The measure of humanity, according to the HNP, is not compassion or solidarity with others, but brute force and conflict. “Right is might.”
With this mindset, it’s not hard to justify rape. After all, even if we don’t recognize it, violence is part of our everyday lives. Consider some verbs commonly used to describe sexual acts: rail, nail, pound, bang, plow, tear it up, get it, etc.
Sex has been hijacked by triumphalist, barbaric masculinity. And in our speech we perpetuate a way of thinking that emphasizes domination and objectification of women, who are often dehumanized with epithets like “slut” and “bitch.”
This is only part of the problem. Within the structure that makes rape possible, there is an undercurrent of thought that makes rape permissible. We can’t focus on one without the other.
The campaigns bragging about how 96 percent of male students get consent, the nail polish, the self-defense classes, the flippant dads, the silent moms — they are all part of the problem.
These tactics are a Band-Aid on a huge, festering wound. They normalize rape and encourage us to ignore the real issues. And nothing is more egregious than the claim that victims of rape are somehow complicit in the crimes inflicted upon them.
These pseudo-solutions only allow the HNP to continue unimpeded. And it does. Every two minutes an American is sexually assaulted, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. That comes out to about 237,868 annual violations of human rights. A quarter million instances of trauma that will haunt people for the rest of their lives. Without socially shameful consequences for rapists, these numbers won’t change. Rape will still be permissible.
And the longer we sit idly and simply get frustrated, the longer the system supplants common sense and decency with bellicose masculinity.
The ideas of Paulo Freire, Brazilian thinker and educator, are helpful here: Oppression is so total that even the oppressors are victims of the system, because they advance a social mechanism that is inherently destructive and duplicitous.
Freire maintained that the oppressors are almost too consumed by their wrongdoings to relinquish self-control and regain their humanity. In that sense they are victims. They are afforded no escape from homogeneity, no outlet for exploring their individuality, no means of authentically becoming more fully human.
The oppressed themselves must look the oppressors straight in the eyes and ask, “Why?”
But until rape is treated by society and the legal system as an offensive criminal act for which the perpetrators will suffer, nothing will change.
Until society places more shame on raping than being raped, we have failed.
Resigning ourselves to the status quo is surrender.
Those who stand idly by as their peers are abused are complicit in that abuse. We must be critical of the structure, rejecting clever PR and the words of the powerful.
The status quo is no standard to accept; let us instead aim for the dignity of all human beings.