**This essay was originally submitted for ‘SOC210: Genders and Sexualities’ in May 2014 at The University of Wollongong**
Rape culture is the culture of normalising rape and sexual violence to the extent that it is tolerated, excused and even condoned. It goes hand in hand with victim blaming, sexual objectification and the trivialising of rape and sexual violence. Rape culture is prevalent in our society, through constructions of gender in social norms and practices, peer and organisational cultures and gender roles in communities. These social constructions are shaped through history, culture and institutions.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) found in 2012 that 17% (1, 494, 000) of women aged 18 years and over had experienced sexual assault. Of this 17%, ABS estimated that 15% of these women had been sexually assaulted by a known person, while 3.8% were assaulted by a stranger (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012). Another ABS study of sexual assault victims found that almost a third (30%) of victims of sexual assault had reported their most recent incident they experienced to the police (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011-2012). These statistics of sexual assault and underreporting reflect an ongoing rape culture in our society, which has been shaped by our culture and institutions.
The notion that men are naturally aggressive has become an entrenched characteristic of masculinity, used to justify gender inequalities through biology. Essentialists argue that men are naturally sexually aggressive while women are sexually passive (Rahman & Jackson, 2010). This apparent biological difference has then become socialised along gendered roles, where sexuality and sex are determined around men’s pleasure. Sex is seen as something men do to women. Contradictory to women’s perceived passiveness, women’s bodies are seen as temptations causing the fall of men (Filipovic, 2008). These two perceptions of women as passive and tempting serve to justify sexual assault and maintain rape culture. Sexual violence and the objectification of women’s bodies is part of cultural and institutional patriarchy that is based on the ideologies of constructions of dominant masculinities and subordinate femininities (Rahman & Jackson, 2010). The socialisation of these essentialist ideologies of males as dominant to females has created sexual scripts where men push for sexual engagements and women resist (Filipovic, 2008). In short, there is a gendered expectation that men are meant to pursue women and women are meant to resist. This has lead to a cultural confusion around these embedded practices where the line between seduction and coercion is blurred (Carmody, 2009).
Despite essentialist arguments towards natural male aggressiveness, links between masculinity and violence towards women is in fact a socially learned characteristic. Rape culture highlights rape and sexual assault as something done by extreme individuals, like ‘psychopaths’. This ignores the aspect of rape culture that involves the coercive controlling violence within domestic situations. Sexual assault is not limited to certain individuals; it is instead a socialised characteristic that is formed through gender relations, social norms and power (Flood, 2014). These factors have a role in the normalisation and toleration of rape in our culture.
Historically in our culture, a married woman was to lawfully provide sex for a man in return for financial security. This arrangement revolved around men’s assumed power over women. Despite feminist movement actions towards equality, the idea of a woman as the property of a man is persisting today through institutions like the organised religious right and the media. The organised religious rights view women’s bodies as public property and have caused debate over abortion rights, contraception and sexuality for women. This has also been infused in institutions such as public education, where sexual education in schools are telling girls their bodies are objects of ‘purity’. Through these notions of women’s bodies as the property of others, the organised religious right may not condone rape, but they certainly enable rape culture (Filipovic, 2008).
Representations of rape, sexual violence and the objectification of women in the media further consolidate the institutionalised state of rape culture in our society. Women are placed as objects of desire for male sexual pleasure in advertisements, sometimes in fragments of body parts, removing their human identity (Carr et al, 2011). Prime time crime based television shows commonly depict rape myths, which use victim blaming to explain sexual assault and focus heavily on stranger-rape narratives, perpetuating a culture of fear (Kahlor, Morrison, 2007).
When it comes to prevention of sexual assault, the focus is on the potential victims as opposed to the perpetrators. This focus is a cultural system of placing responsibility of sexual assault on the victims and instilling fear into women that rape is something they need to be prepared for (Filipovic, 2008, Jewkes, 2012). Women are told how to avoid sexual assault by controlling where they go, how they present themselves, what they consume and whom they are with. This notion of preventing sexual assault places responsibility on those who are assaulted. By sending a false message to women that they are able to prevent being raped, when an assault occurs, women are then questioned over their decisions leading to the assault, which is essentially victim blaming. This positioning of blame on the victim sends a message that women who are sexually assaulted have themselves to blame. This also sends a broader message that women are vulnerable to being sexually assaulted. This broader message creates a culture of fear that a stranger, as perpetuated by institutions that depict stranger-rape narratives and the culture of attitudes that surrounds this narrative, will violently sexually assault women. While in fact 73% of women are sexually assaulted by someone they know, this stranger-rape narrative instils a sense of fear in women to be in the public domain while also diminishing the seriousness of domestic sexual assault. Though men are also vulnerable to being sexually assaulted, they are left out of this culture of fear as it is used as a form of social control over women. By instilling fear in women, the hierarchy of gender allows males to remain dominant to females as they have more freedom to move in public space. This culture of fear also neglects the reality of domestic sexual assault, causing the sincerity of cases to be doubted and victims underreporting (Filipovic, 2008). The perpetrator of stranger-rape narratives is labelled as an extreme individual and separated from other masculine identities while ‘normal’ males who sexually assault women have their actions justified through culture and institutions, reinforcing a rape culture in our society.
This focus on blame is arguably due to ‘cultural scaffolding’. Cultural scaffolding refers to the cultural normalisation of aggressive male sexuality and passive female sexuality, which in turn sets a script for coercive sexuality and a way of rationalizing rape (Gavey, p72). Another factor of cultural scaffolding is gender hierarchy, which defines the social placement of men as dominant to women (Filipovic, 2008). Cultural ideals of masculinity are another factor in producing rape culture as normative masculinity is culturally identified through power and dominance. Social expectations are laid on males to maintain their “manhood” through this perceived masculinity (Jewkes, 2002). This involves the social norm that males are always in need of sex, which can be reinforced through organised cultures, such as sport groups. Another problematic area is the social practices around alcohol consumption. Alcohol consumption leads to increased interpersonal violence, particularly between intimate partners. This relationship with alcohol and violence is a socially learned normative characteristic (Jewkes, 2002). It is socially learned that alcohol can play a role in excusing sexual aggressiveness. The consumption of alcohol also tends to be a shared activity, a way of bonding. With these two factors of alcohol consumption combined, a social culture can arise that leads to sexual assault cases like Sarah’s, who shared her experience through a forum on Insight SBS.
In 2009, Sarah was raped by five to six males who were all teammates for a football club. She was intoxicated, in and out of consciousness and did not report the rape. Sarah said she didn’t feel safe reporting the rape as it was her word against six men and she felt she would be held responsible for the incident as she agreed to go to their house and she was heavily intoxicated. She also stated that the males talked about her and acted around her as though she was an object to pursue, rather than an equal human being to share a sexual experience with. In the group, some males were actively assaulting her and others were peer pressured to do so. When Sarah shared her account of being raped, she received criticism from members in the forum about her choices that lead to the incident, particularly her consumption of alcohol and lack of assertiveness in avoiding the rape.
This case study reflects the embedded rape culture within our society. The perpetrators of the rape were part of an organised culture where the men were expected to take part in the sexual assault. Dr Clifton Evers, who was previously part of a surf culture similar to football culture in regards to dominant masculinities and peer pressure, explained that the actions of these males was a result of a masculine culture where women are expected to police their own consent. This means that if there is a miscommunication about consent, responsibility for the miscommunication lies with the women and never with the men involved (Evers, 2009).
In regards to Sarah’s alcohol consumption, she was told she needed to be in control of her alcohol intake and be cautious of her surroundings. In regards to her sexual assault, several males and females in the forum told her that had she been more assertive, she would not have been assaulted. This response is a clear example of the rape narrative constructed to place women in a culture of fear. The questioning of Sarah’s choices is also a reflection of the normative position of victim blaming. The actions of the perpetrators, those active and those pressured to take part in or witness the rape, is seemingly a characteristic of heterosexualised male bonding. Evers explains that the males involved took their actions as a way of male bonding as a team. Fans of football players further generate these attitudes into the community through victim blaming and placing the guilt on the victim, reinforcing the assumption of men as superior to women (Nurka, 2013). It was this socially constructed environment that prevented Sarah from reporting her rape and lead to victim blaming.
There have been feminist movements against rape culture in our society that have changed laws around rape convictions and patriarchal ideas of gender hierarchy have been challenged (Filipovic, 2008). Most notably, there has been a shift in attitudes around rape whereby those assaulted are able to have a voice and go to rape crisis centres where they are treated as survivors as opposed to victims. Despite the vast achievements of feminist movements, sexual violence is still largely underreported and difficult to convict due to a lack of prosecutions, leaving this violence largely unpunished (Rahman & Jackson).
Another crucial element in moving towards the end of rape culture is the direction of education. Men need to be taught not to rape as opposed to teaching women how to avoid being raped. Our culture needs to be informed on the realities of sexual assault beyond the stranger-rape narrative in order to educate boys and men on their practices and provide further support for interpersonal violence survivors. This can be done through educating boys and men that rape is the turning of a pleasurable act between two consenting individuals into an act of violence. Sexual assault is not only a crime of power but also entitlement. Redefining masculinity culturally so men do not feel they are entitled to controlling women’s bodies is another way movements are directing to ensure equality and ending the rape culture we currently live in (Filipovic, 2008).
Rape culture is embedded in our society through essentialist ideas of men as sexually aggressive, women as sexually passive and the idea of men as dominant to women. The socialisation of these essentialist ideas has maintained a gender equality gap, where sexual narratives are based around the pleasure of men and the responsibility of women to police. Despite the changes feminist movements have created towards gender equality, until we live in an egalitarian society, our culture will always be saturated by rape culture.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (2012) DEMOGRAPHICS OF THOSE WHO HAVE EXPERIENCED SEXUAL ASSAULT, Available at: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4906.0Chapter5002012
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