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.

Taking implications of mutual exclusivity a step further, American Enterprise Institute researcher Caroline Kitchens wrote in Time last week, in the wincingly-headlined “It’s Time to End ‘Rape Culture’ Hysteria”: “To even suggest that false accusations occur, according to activists, is to engage in ‘victim blaming.’ … College leaders, women’s groups, and the White House have a choice. They can side with the thought police of the feminist blogosphere who are declaring war on Robin Thicke, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, male statues, and Barbie. Or, they can listen to the sane counsel of RAINN.”

Presenting binary choices like these is not helpful, and Kitchens’ dismissive tone is unfortunately representative of the discussion on both sides. Writers arguing against the appropriateness of the term rape culture uniformly put it in quotes, as opposed to accepting even its linguistic existence, or that there could be some valid, moderate interpretation of it. Detractors also refer to this “theory” of “rape culture” as the handiwork of a hardened radical feminist blogger fringe. Tonality is loaded and divisive. Writers argue semantics. Technically to be a "culture," a phenomenon must be accepted as the norm.

I earnestly asked Twitter if anyone has written a cogent argument against the existence of rape culture. Writer Christina Hoff Sommers replied, “You suggest there are no cogent arguments against idea that the US is a ‘rape culture.’ R u serious?” My answers would be no and yes, respectively. Hoff Sommers included a link to Young’s article warning against the persecution of men. Then a man who I do not know chimed in, “Sadly, he probably is [serious]. But then, he's gotta keep punching that agenda of victimology.”

One tweet and I had been ascribed an agenda. Incendiary as reactions on the topic can be, though, at least some of the polarization is media spectacle. Ultimately everyone wants the same thing: no rape. Positing choices between prosecuting rapists or fixing systems and realigning expectations, between the rights of one gender or the other, thwarts progress. Many writers who say rape culture does not exist seem to argue with a hyperbolic definition—that of a world of misandry so pervasive that women must live in fear of inevitable rape and men of inevitable blame. The number of people who actually advocate that interpretation of rape culture is small and probably unproductive to address.

The degree to which rape is normalized in society, and whether rape culture is helpful as a term for that, are not beyond debate. Mac Donald was not the person to make a thoughtful case. The serious structural problems that most conceptions of rape culture describe—under-persecution of rapists, limited education and understanding with regard to what constitutes consent, lacking resources for victims, male entitlement, female objectification, social power dynamics, misinformation among both men and women about what constitutes rape, traditions of looking the other way, etc.—are productive to address. When the media makes an effort to “present both sides” and one of the sides involves denying the importance of these factors in sexual assault, it undermines productive discourse. It’s false equivalence. I could find someone who believes that the earth is the center of our solar system, sit them across from a professor of astrophysics, and host an engaging debate on the veracity of heliocentricity.

A thoughtful objection might read like that of Miles Groth, a professor of psychology at Wagner College. “The term ‘rape culture’ is unnecessarily hyperbolic,” Groth said after the RAINN statement. “It’s meant to arouse strong feelings in people. It does a disservice to the issue of sexual aggression on campus as a whole.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 18 percent of American women report having experienced rape. (As do 1 percent of men, though this discussion is limited to rape of women, specifically by men.) Most instances of the violent crime are perpetrated by people known to the victim—friends, exes, spouses who leverage proximity and power in ways condoned or ingrained by hierarchy—and do not align with the archaic “perfect victim” narrative of a knife-bearing stranger in the bushes. That insidious nature is what has made sexual assault so difficult to eliminate. Sometimes in the name of awareness and prevention of pervasive injustice, hyperbole may be warranted.

Worthwhile debate remains to be had about how to think about those cultural factors in a way that’s empowering and preventive. Continuing that discussion does not preclude, as RAINN suggests, "focus[ing] on individuals who choose to commit sexual assault."

To address risk and the need for societal focus on awareness and prevention through education and proper prosecution—without victim-blaming and shaming—requires an expert hand. Given the deeply ingrained sexism that informs the dynamics of the crime, every aspect of this discussion is delicate. Without implying that things like the right to self-induced incapacity by alcohol should not be equally available to all adults, there is a place for addressing things like the role of binge-drinking culture in sexual assault.

Last fall, Slate’s relationship columnist Emily Yoffe took one approach. Somewhat more nuanced than its headline, her post “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk” said essentially that and went very viral. To many readers it was a rallying cry, and to many others it was a hate read. The post was predicated on the true-but-fraught fact that some rape takes place in drunkenness that wouldn’t have taken place in sobriety, in that more than 80 percent of sexual assaults on campuses involve alcohol. There was immediate, widespread backlash to the post. Yoffe’s writing was described in Feministing as “a rape denialism manifesto” and distilled in Daily Mail to banal victim-blaming: “Don’t drink if you don’t want to get raped.” Yoffe’s colleague at Slate Amanda Hess criticized Yoffe's charge to women as inviting shame, not empowering. Her response, “To Prevent Rape on Campuses, Focus on Rapists Not the Victims,” drew on personal experience with sexual assault, arguing the importance of never putting victims in a hole of blame, no matter how many drinks they had. Hess also noted that rape has declined in the United States since 1979, even as female binge drinking has risen.

Rape is a violent crime whether or not it involves alcohol. No one ever deserves to be a victim of sexual assault. Rehabilitating the culture of binge drinking is a priority for many reasons beyond that it might decrease cases of rape. As a tertiary or quaternary sidebar to the absolutely central mission of stopping people from committing acts of sexual aggression, plausible preventive measures will involve cultural factors and empowering potential victims without inviting shame. Dismissiveness, indignation, anger, and righteousness are commonplace in discussions on how to do that, at times with good reason. Arguments like Mac Donald's incur the wrath of the Internet. Productive conversation on preventing sexual assault must be possible, though. Ghomeshi's show failed but ultimately resulted in awareness. Media can't shy from the topic. Suggesting solutions requires strength to endure criticism, enormous tact of expertise and willingness to rethink, and always a concerted focus on the problem rather than the ideological adversary. But done well, it is vital.