The Steubenville rape case and CNN’s disturbing response to the conviction of the two football players illustrate the pervasiveness of rape culture in American society. As Blogger Lauren Nelson highlighted in her piece, “So you’re tired of hearing about rape culture,” politicians, news pundits, athletes, teenagers, men, and women have displayed some or all the characteristics of rape culture recently—victim-blaming, shaming, and (online) bullying, objectifying women, demonizing sexually active women, perpetuating the notion that (young) men, especially athletes, are entitled to act upon women’s bodies without their legal consent, and sympathizing with those judged guilty.
Rape culture has a long history in the United States. Many of us may be familiar with slaveholders’ use, or the threat, of rape as a tool of domination—a way to maintain slave populations and to control female and male slaves. Of course, rape existed before American slavery. But rape culture does boast a legacy of helping to fuse race, gender, and sex into American social, political, and economic relations, as well as our understandings of femininity and masculinity, power and privilege.
Of course, rape culture has changed over time. It often manifests itself in a puritanical collective shaming and blaming of the victim. Rape is not a matter of social justice, or of individual liberty, but a matter of individual responsibility “not to get raped.” Thus, many often presume that the woman is the one who is denying responsibility for her conduct, projecting the blame to particular men who assumed that the woman “wanted” sex. We eschew male personal responsibility, collective responsibility and action, public policy, and mass education for individualized, and sometimes obnoxious, solutions, some in which are grounded in a sexist, puritanical view of women’s sexuality and a myopic view of rape: women should not dress like “sluts,” women should not drink too much, women should not change their mind leading up to having sex, women should walk in pairs at all times, women should carry guns for their protection, not to mention GLBTQ victims who “participate in a deviant culture.” We must live in a rape culture if writer and rape survivor Zerlina Maxwell’s call to teach men not to rape seems outlandish to some.
This legacy and its argument—that women are often to blame for rape—has shaped the politics, culture, and larger background of the Steubenville case. Activist-writers Nelson, Jessica Valenti, and Zerlina Maxwell have established this context well. Republican Todd Akin’s coinage of “legitimate rape,” other male Republicans’ opposition to renewing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and Republicans pushing for post-rape transvaginal ultrasounds in Virginia, Wisconsin, and Michigan—an explicit form of structural violence—illustrate the political context. (And let’s not forget the numerous cases of women having to purchase their own rape kits.) Considering how the Steubenville case revolved around a couple of its football players, there is little surprise that sportscaster Brent Musberger’s creepy comments about Katherine Webb during the Bowl Championship Series football game put certain aspects of rape culture that manifests itself in male-dominated sports in full display. You know, if you are a guy, you are entitled to date attractive women, as long as you can toss a football. Nelson’s examples of how messages that taking advantage of inebriated women is reproduced and disseminated in alcohol advertisements points to the way that rape culture has infiltrated the market.
So how does one go about confronting rape culture? While we should infuse values of anti-sexism into our institutions, it is important that many of us men who have not contributed our voices and bodies to speaking out about rape do so. Just like many blacks told whites to organize their own communities during the late 1960s, we would become useful allies if we take the initiative to educate ourselves, talk about rape openly, and hold each other accountable. Maxwell’s suggestions of how men can stop rape are vital. We can still be great athletes, entertainers, businessmen, politicians, scholars, and men without tying our masculinity to the control of women’s bodies.
Also, note that I am not advocating for updated notions of male protection and vigilantism. Such calls are paternalistic and misguided because they reinforce puritanical notions of womanhood and male privilege. Defining the boundaries of womanhood would ultimately remain in our hands if we took such an approach. These forms of “rape prevention” also tend to rely on punitive violence.
We should not settle for individual responses, we need social and institutional responses. We need mass education on the subject. This educational effort should extend beyond the usual advocacy organizations and seminars on sexual harassment and violence that one may find in colleges and universities. Liquor and beer companies tell their consumers to consume moderately and not to drink and drive, why not tell their consumers that one should not take advantage of an inebriated person? Due to their influence and access to large networks of young men, sports leagues and organization such as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), Major League Baseball (MLB), National Hockey League (NHL), and even ESPN should devote resources to educate young men about rape as well.
Ultimately, this is more about considering what it would take to construct a world without rape could look like. What values will we choose to institutionalize? Sexual assault is a matter of social justice, individual liberty, and bodily integrity. It is also an opportunity for us men to reconsider harmful notions of masculinity that aid and abet sexual assault. Mass education is a must, though, precisely because most are not even aware that they perpetuate such harmful notions about rape. Also, like many instances of domestic violence, not all of the men who have committed sexual assault are “evil” men who stalk the alleys at night, many victims already know the accused.
I am aware of the fact that we would not prevent every instance of sexual assault if we tried to pursue all of the solutions that activists such as Maxwell have prescribed. However, the fact that we cannot be perfect should not deter those of us who have not gotten involved from trying to eradicate rape culture. I do not want to ridicule any one person from taking whatever precautions to remain safe. Yet, these types of individual solutions subject women to a puritanism that is itself oppressive and they do nothing to get at the source of the problem. I know I focused much of my attention on men raping women and not sexual assault of children and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, and queers. I would argue about other forms of violence, it is part of the same system.