There are many excellent introductory descriptions of rape culture available on the internet. For example: Wikipedia, Shakesville, Yes Means Yes, and Finally, a Feminism 101 blog all have good descriptions (note: the Shakesville post begins with a quote that addresses what I intend to explain in this post, but does not go into detail). They provide an introductory level understanding of rape culture. This post is not introductory; instead of rehashing the basics, I engage some of the different kinds of assumptions that lie behind descriptions of rape culture.
In each of the descriptions of rape culture that I link above, there are rich examples of “rape culture in action.” But each example also contains an implicit shared assumption that is not made explicit, and understanding this assumption is essential to understanding what feminists mean by rape culture.
The assumption that is shared among these descriptions is that rape is systemic, or in other words, rape is akin to terrorism or hate crimes. This understanding contrasts with the understanding of rape as a crime that one individual commits against another.
Note: If this entry is to long, you can just read the summary in part 3.
1. Rape as Individual vs. Rape as Systemic (Akin to Terrorism)
The main difference between those who can perceive rape culture and those who cannot is how they understand rape and the place that rape occupies in a given culture.
Rape as Individual: For those who cannot see rape culture, rapes are individual crimes committed by individual assailants. They have no further significance beyond the individual crime and the impact of that crime on the victims of the crime (alone).
In crimes that are individual, the criminal does not have any intentions beyond the (perceived) benefit of committing the crime. For example, if I need money, I might decide to rob a bank. If I were to do so, I might simply pick the bank on the basis of lax security, ease of transportation, and so on. I only want the money, and I do not really care about how the robbery affects other people or the particular details of the robbery beyond the chances of its success. My goal is money; I choose the target based on the ease of getting the money, and everything else is incidental.
Rape as Systemic: In contrast, for those who see rape culture, rape is not an individual crime committed by one individual against another. Instead, rape is more akin to terrorism or hate crimes.
For example, if I wanted to send a message to a particular group by robbing a bank, I might decide which bank to rob based on different criteria. Suppose I am anti-Tar Sands development. In that case, I might target the Royal Bank of Canada because I know they have ties to the Tar Sands developments in Alberta. I might decide to target Royal Banks even if I knew it would be easier to target some other bank down the street (because the other bank has less security or more money in the vault, for example). But, if I was opposed to the Tar Sands, and this was my motive, I might go to some lengths to make it known that I am targeting Royal Banks and other Royal Banks should then be weary that I might strike them next. The purpose is not so much to get money; instead my purpose is to get Royal Bank to stop their support of Tar Sands development. I would then rob a Royal Bank even if there were easier banks (with less security or with higher average deposits) in the same area. This second example of bank robbery is a form of terrorism; while the first crime is simply an individual crime.
There are a number of ways to understand rape as akin to terrorism (for more examples see here and here); but I am going to discuss Claudia Card’s combined “Group Target” and “Coercion” models of terrorism that focus on the targets and the terrorists respectively (from her article “Recognizing Terrorism,” which is unfortunately behind a pay-wall). Card says the “Group Target Model” of terrorism is described in Michael Walzer’s chapter on terrorism in Just and Unjust Wars. Card writes:
[The Group Target model understands] terrorism as ‘‘the systematic terrorizing of whole populations’’ in order ‘‘to destroy the morale of a nation or a class’’ [Walzer 1997, p. 197] Again there is a primary target, often less obvious than the immediate (direct) targets. The primary target here is a group, a ‘‘class,’’ which presumably might be racial, ethnic, or religious, not only national. Immediate targets appear (at least, to members of the target group) to be randomly chosen members of the group, vulnerable not for their conduct (in that sense ‘‘innocent’’) but simply on account of their identity as members of the group. Immediate targets could also be persons or property presumed to be of value to the group, targeted for that reason. The apparent objective is to hurt the group (demoralization, as Walzer puts it); harm to immediate targets is part of or a means to that end. Terrorism so understood fits what have come to be (long since Walzer’s book appeared) common definitions of hate crime, according to which victims are selected at least partly on the basis of their membership in an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group. (pg. 6)
A shortcoming of the group target model is that it does not encourage inquiry into why assailants wish to harm the group. Perhaps the assumption is that it does not matter: people should not be harmed on the basis of their identity as members of such groups, whatever the reason. But failure to look for a rationale can mislead us about who the primary target is. (pg. 7)
Card supplements the “Group Target Model” of terrorism with the “Coercion Model,” which instructs us to look at the motives of the terrorist.
The coercion model was persuasively developed by Carl Wellman [“On Terrorism Itself” again behind a pay wall] nearly three decades ago. It focuses on the logic of terrorism, how the terrorist thinks, what the terrorist hopes to achieve. Ultimately, it encourages inquiry into why such drastic means would be chosen to achieve those objectives. On this model, terrorism typically has two targets. One target is direct but secondary in importance. The indirect target is primary in that it is the intended recipient of a message containing the terrorist’s demands, which are sent by way of violence (or the threat of violence) to the direct target. Direct targets can be people, property, or both. An example captured by this model is bombing a public building (direct but secondary target) to pressure a government (indirect but primary target) to release prisoners or alter policies. The message, often implicit, is ‘‘accede to our demands, or there will be further bombings.’’ The building and any occupants may be treated as ‘‘throwaways.’’ Their survival may not matter to achievement of the terrorist’s objective, whereas survival of the primary target can be essential to that end. (pg. 4)
A shortcoming of the coercion model is that it restricts terrorist objectives to coercion to comply with demands. But the same basic pattern characteristic of the coercion model, namely, two targets (direct and indirect) and a message (to the indirect but primary target), is compatible with objectives other than coercion and messages other than demands. Other objectives might be, for example, those of demonstration, protest, revenge, or disruption. (pg. 4-5).
Card thinks that when we put the two models together we have a way of understanding terrorism that looks at the motives of the terrorists and why the terrorists choose these particular targets.
When rape is used as a weapon of war, it is now widely recognized as a form of terrorism. Feminists think that rape is a form of terrorism in war, but we also believe that civilian rape is akin to terrorism. As Card writes:
It is less widely appreciated that much civilian rape is also not simply a matter of rotten apples but is part of a widespread coercive practice or institution. Feminist scholars have long argued that women and girls are targeted for rape not for the most part because they are pretty, flirtatious, or teasing but because they happen to be vulnerable and female. The group target model makes sense of that claim and of the idea that rape harms all women and girls, not just those who are raped. (pg. 13-14)
Any woman or girl can become a direct target of civilian rape, if she can be made to appear afterward to have ‘‘asked for it,’’ not a difficult task. Rules of the practice make it nearly impossible to prosecute successfully ‘‘simple rape’’ (not aggravated – for example, by threats with a weapon). (pg. 15)
The Group Target model explains how rape can affect women as a group (the primary target) and not just the women who are victims of rape (the direct target).
But we need to combine the understanding provided by the “Group Target Model” with the “Coercion Model” in order to understand just what women are coerced into doing by the institutions that support rape.
So what does rape coerce women into doing? Card says that rape coerces women into curtailing our freedom and accepting our dependence on men. Card writes:
On the coercion model, civilian rape terrorism makes extremely ineligible female independence, assertiveness, or a lifestyle in which a woman’s most intimate and enduring primary attachments are to other women. Who, then, is really the primary target? The message now appears directed to lesbians and any women who might prefer not to embrace, defer to, and serve men. Perhaps the primary target really is females in general, conceived as potential lesbians or marriage resisters and other potential trouble-makers for patriarchal politics. (pg. 16)
Card amended the “Coercion” model of terrorism to include not just demands made by terrorists, but also demonstration, protest, revenge, and disruption. She thinks rape and violence against women sometimes involves these other kinds of coercion as well:
But not every threat, act of violence, or other deed that contributes to a coercive pattern need come with its own demand. Some threats and violent episodes display dominance – show who is boss or demonstrate the futility of resistance – rather than manipulate particular choices. (pg. 19)
To sum up: There are two main ways to understand rape: one thinks rape is an individual act committed by “rotten apples;” the other thinks rape is systemic and is akin to terrorism. On the first view, rapists are motivated by a desire for sex and they simply choose targets that will be most expedient for obtaining that end. On the second view, women in particular are targeted because of their group membership (men, too, are raped, but it is infrequent compared to the rape of women) and part of the function of rape is to coerce all women to curtail their own freedom or accept the protection of men in exchange for some service rendered to those men. The effect of rape is to keep women “in their place.”
2. Rape Culture
In order to perceive rape culture, one has to first believe that rape is a systemic part of our institutions, as I described above. If one accepts that view, then rape culture involves any aspect of a culture that a) makes it easier to get away with raping women, b) makes women more vulnerable to rape or denies the effects rape has on all women not only those who are actually raped, c) makes rape more effective at curtailing the freedom of rape victims, or d) makes rape more effective by curtailing the freedom of all women freedom. I am not going to give extensive examples, because the links at the beginning of this article do that already.
Group Target Aspects of Rape Culture: The aspects of rape culture that support the targeting of women involves anything that makes it easier for rapists to get away with the rape or makes women more vulnerable to being raped. Some examples:
- Discussions that think rape is inevitable and there is little we can do to make rape less acceptable. Research shows that cultural features can make rape unacceptable (behind a pay-wall, but someone transcribed the whole article here).
- Asking questions of rape victims that would seem absurd if they were asked of victims of other crimes [PDF]
- The belief that rape often occurs as the result of miscommunication between men and women [PDF] (and see Amanda Hess’ discussion of the linked paper here)
- Low conviction rates for rapes as compared to other crimes
- Failing to process the evidence related to rape charges
Coercion Aspects of Rape Culture: The aspects of rape culture that support the coercive effects on women as a group or the coercive effects on individual rape victims involve anything that contributes to the effectiveness of rape at curtailing women’s freedom and increasing our dependence on men, or that is effective in getting women to curtail our own freedom. Some examples:
- Rape jokes told by comedians, in films, in cartoons, and other cultural products. These “jokes” make rape victims less safe to consume cultural products because these products might trigger PTSD reactions. (For more on this kind of rape culture, see my post on Rape Culture and Attributions of Responsibility, where I describe the Penny Arcade debacle).
- Using rape as entertainment on TV, in films, video games, and other cultural products. This makes rape victims less able to enjoy these products.
- Thinking that rape prevention is something women (only) should do, usually by curtailing their activities; rather than thinking that men can prevent rape (I also wrote about this before here)
3. In Sum
There are different ways to understand the crime of rape. Those who cannot perceive rape culture tend to interpret rape as an individual crime. They believe that rapists target their victims randomly based on things like vulnerability, ease of access and so forth. If they agree that women as a group are more likely to be the target of rapes they put this down to pragmatic concerns (for example, women are weaker, and so forth; or rapists are heterosexual and just want sex, so their choice to target women is a result of these two factors). They also believe that rapes might have very significant effects on the victims of the crime, but they do not believe that rapes have effects beyond the specifics of the crime (if there are any such effects beyond the specifics of the crime, then these are interpreted as the result of being too sensitive, paranoid, unreasonable or hysteric).
Those who perceive rape culture interpret rape as a crime that affects not only the victims of the actual rape, but also affects all women. On the latter view, rape sends a message to all women that reminds women of our vulnerable position and requires even non-victims to take precautionary measures. On this view rape victims are not chosen at random. Rather than choosing the most vulnerable target (for example the drunkest person at a party) the rapist chooses a target from a particular group (for example only choosing the drunkest woman at a party, even if there might be a man who is more drunk and might make an easier target).
On the latter view rapes do not affect only the victim, but also affect all women who (after hearing of a rape) are now more careful to dress modestly, to never walk alone at night, to always choose well-lit paths, and to individually decide to take all kinds of measures that curtail their individual freedom in the name of (perceived) security against the possibility of rape.
In short, those who see rape culture think that rapes occur, and are tolerated, at least in part to remind all women of our secondary status, to curtail our freedom, and to remind us of our vulnerability. Those who do not perceive rape culture think that rapes are random, based only on satisfying the sexual desires of the perpetrator, and they believe rapes only affect the victims and any wider effects are the result of some kind of defect in those who allow it to “get to them,”
If one understands rape as a systemic rather than individual crime, then one thinks that rape culture is any aspect of a culture that contributes to the “effectiveness” of rape in one of the following ways: a) makes it easier to get away with raping women, b) makes women more vulnerable to rape or denies the effects rape has on all women not only those who are actually raped, c) make rape more effective at curtailing the freedom of rape victims, or d) make rape more effective by curtailing the freedom of all women freedom.
 Although women are often blamed for doing something “irresponsible” that lead to the rape, sometimes men also complain that women are “too suspicious” of them. The implication seems to be that women should realize that this particular man (making the complaint) is not a rapist. But, as Thomas explains this objection here and here.