How Not to Talk About the Culture of Sexual Assault

Nearly one in five American women reported experiencing rape at some time in their lives. Recent clashes about the term rape culture highlight the roles of systems, attitudes, and resources in preventing the crime and undoing the criminal.
Steubenville, Ohio, 2013 (Jefferson County Sheriff Department/AP)

"I don’t think we’ve ever done this on this program before," Jian Ghomeshi began his show on Tuesday. His daily radio hour, Q, airs in Canada on CBC, and also reaches an international audience in syndication and as a popular podcast. “It has been quite a 24 hours of an outpouring of reactions to our program yesterday … There has been a lot of anger directed toward this show,” Ghomeshi said. He began reading some of those reactions.

I grabbed my phone and downloaded Monday’s show. There’s probably no better advertisement than a solemn apologia.

On Monday, Ghomeshi had moderated a tense debate about the appropriateness of the term rape culture, the usage of which has become increasingly common since its emergence in the 1970s, dramatically so in recent years. Broadly, rape culture denotes attitudes and behaviors that normalize sexual assault, and systems that don’t provide proper help to victims and proper prosecution of aggressors. The stated intent of Ghomeshi’s segment was to explore whether the term is accurate and helpful, radical and alarmist, or something in between. Squared against one another were guests Lise Gotell, chair of women’s and gender studies at the University of Alberta, and Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank.

The segment swelled out of the amiable host’s control, into what listeners deemed to be rape apology and victim blaming on the part of Mac Donald. The Yale-, Cambridge-, and Stanford-educated quinquagenarian lawyer-turned-public-intellectual made statements about “real rape” involving strangers in dark alleys, media blowing the problem of sexual assault out of proportion, some redeeming reality in which rape is rare and easily avoided, and the astringent notion that if women did not “drink themselves blotto” (adj. informal, extremely drunk) at parties, rape would virtually disappear. Mac Donald essentially regurgitated the ideas to which the term rape culture is a reaction.

Listeners responded in droves, many questioning why Ghomeshi would give air time to Mac Donald’s message, which they argued was regressive and, as one listener called it, “extreme and dangerous.”

“I was sure I’d been transported back 30 years when listening to Mac Donald,” another person wrote. “If we follow her submission that women should be taught to avoid situations of danger and blame women for being sexually assaulted, then should we not teach everyone to avoid being hit by drunk drivers? … We could learn how to drive up on sidewalks, take a different route, or drive off the road to avoid the perpetrators.”

“I tuned in to hear two reasoned perspectives on some of the issues surrounding this term,” wrote another listener. “Unfortunately, that is not what Ms. Mac Donald brought to the debate.”

Maybe the most poignant was a note from a woman in Edmonton, Alberta:

The views of Ms. Mac Donald are widely held, and they are one of the fundamental things that stand in the way of combating rape culture. When I was sexually assaulted, I had been out with good friends and had been drinking. In the end, one of those good friends was the one who perpetrated my assault. Afterwards, though some people were sympathetic, many more told me it was my fault. That boys will be boys. That I shouldn’t have drank, shouldn’t have trusted my male friend, shouldn’t have been wearing that dress, those shoes, that makeup. It wasn’t until a year later, when I began to research rape for my own writing project, that I began to realize that this wasn’t my fault. The societal problem of the ideas that it’s okay to sleep with drunk girls, that girls who dress provocatively deserve to be treated as objects, that it’s irresponsible for ladies to drink—that was at fault for both the situation and how I ended up feeling about it.

Her story is, unnervingly, unoriginal. So are Mac Donald’s comments, which are similar to writing this month by Barbara Kay in National Post (“'Rape Culture’ Fanatics Don’t Know What a Culture Is”) and Cathy Young in Real Clear Politics (“Is America a Rape Culture?”). She says no, reminding readers that men must have rights:

The women’s movement has made invaluable progress in lifting the stigma of rape and reforming sexist laws—ones that, as recently as the 1970s, required women to fight back to prove rape and instructed jurors that an accuser’s unchaste morals could detract from her credibility. The fact that today, a rape case can be successfully prosecuted even when the victim was drunk and flirtatious, or engaged in consensual intimacies before the attack, is a victory for justice as well as women’s rights. Yet the fact remains that charges of sexual assault involving people who know each other in a “he said/she said” situation are very difficult to prove in court—not because of “rape culture,” but because of the presumption of innocence.  

Gender equality requires equal concern for the rights of accused men. Let us, by all means, confront ugly, sexist, victim-blaming attitudes when we see them. But this can be done without promoting sexist attitudes in feminist clothing: that a woman’s word automatically deserves more weight than a man’s; that all men bear responsibility for rape and “normal” men need to be taught not to rape; or that a woman who is inebriated but fully conscious is not responsible for her actions while an equally inebriated man is.

This whole discussion resurfaced in reaction to a February 28 statement in which one of the most influential sexual assault prevention groups in the U.S., the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), advised the White House against focusing prevention efforts too heavily on a rape culture framework. “In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming ‘rape culture’ for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses,” RAINN wrote in recommendations to a government task force on campus rape. The statement encouraged federal officials to focus on individuals who choose to commit sexual assault, as opposed to a culture that condones or facilitates it.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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