I began my series of posts on meta-issues associate with discussions of rape culture here. I assume that discussion in what I write here.
As a quick summary: in that post I suggested that there are two ways to understand rape: either as an individual crime committed by “rotten apples,” or as a systemic crime that is akin to terrorism or hate crimes where rape has effects on both the direct target (victim) and an indirect target (other members of the group) beyond the direct targets of the crime. ETA: On the systemic view, rape is akin to terrorism, but it is not the same as terrorism. One important difference between rape and terrorism is that terrorists usually have an explicit message, demand, or political point. In the case of rape, there need not be an explicit message, and though there is a demand made of the direct target (the victim) there might not be an explicit demand made of the primary target (women as a group). In that post I argued that rape culture cannot be perceived if rape is viewed as an individual crime. It is only when rape is considered a systemic crime that rape culture can be perceived.
In order to perceive rape culture, one has to first believe that rape is facilitated or made more effective by a number of our cultural institutions. 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.
1. Rape Culture and Attributions of Responsibility
These two differing interpretations of rape lead to very different possibilities for responding to accusations that one has contributed to rape culture.
One reason this issue has been on my mind recently is the result of the Penny Arcade (PA) Dickwolves debacle. I won’t get into an entire discussion of what transgressed, if you don’t know there is a timeline of the discussion here and following the links will get you up to speed. To sum up altogether too briefly: PA published a comic where the joke was premised on the indifference of video game heroes to the suffering of rape victims (probably intended to question their heroism), some actual-real-life rape victims complained that they found the comic triggered their PTSD and suggested more sensitivity was required, PA then supplied a response that demonstrated they understood rape only as an individual act, committed by individual men with no further repercussions or opportunities for responsibility: and the nerd-comic-video game-areas of the internet erupted in debate that consisted mostly of taking past one another.
The PA response is characteristic of a person who understands rape as an individual crime. Those who understand rape as an individual crime think that ‘rape culture’ refers to cultural items (comics, TV shows, movies, books, etc.) that depict or mention rape. They believe that the only way that these cultural products could contribute to rape is if these products caused an individual to rape another individual. The only way a producer of some cultural product that references rape could be responsible for contributing to “rape culture” (as misunderstood) is by directly causing one individual to rape another individual. The solution, then, is simple: just say don’t rape. If anyone keeps raping after you have said not to do it, that is their individual failing, not your responsibility.
Those who understand rape as systemic, or akin to terrorism take a different perspective on the kinds of responsibilities that producers of cultural products might bear in relation to rape. They see cultural products as contributing to rape culture if they:
- a) make it easier to get away with raping women: for example, by failing to process evidence from rape kits, or by accepting low conviction rates for rapes compared other crimes, by doubting the testimonies of rape victims in ways that are not present for other crime victims, by thinking “only monsters” rape and refusing to believe a nice guy could do it etc.,
- b) make women more vulnerable to rape or deny the effects rape has on all women not only those who are actually raped: for example, by thinking rape is inevitable when cultural aspects can make rape unacceptable, or thinking only women can prevent rape and there is little men could do to prevent it,
- c) make rape more effective at curtailing the freedom of rape victims: for example by making many spaces ones in which victims feel vulnerable, or by failing to create safe spaces, or
- d) make rape more effective by curtailing the freedom of all women: for example, by offering rape prevention advice to women that requires curtailing our freedom or by thinking that the only way men could prevent rape is by “protecting” women rather than challenging men’s behaviour.
In each of the above examples the person contributing to rape culture might not directly cause someone to rape. Moreover, they might have deep moral objections to rape thinking that rape is always wrong and morally abhorrent. Furthermore, they might not increase the rates at which rapes are committed; but they do make the individual rapes more effective if the rape is believed to be sending a message or curtailing the freedom of one group (women). Thus, they could be said to bear responsibility for contributing to rape culture even if they do not bear responsibility for the individual, or particular rapes that occur within that culture.
PA probably did not encourage any men to go out and rape directly. But it might have made the effects of rape more “successful” if success is measured in terms of reminding women of their subordinate status and keeping women from participating in “masculine” or male-defined spaces. For example, after some pressure, and after several invited speakers withdrew from Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) East on account of the Dickwolves debacle, and several journalists or fans said they were not going to attend PAX East , PA decided to remove their “Dickwolves” T-shirts and banners. That was a good move and if PA had actually apologized that probably would have been the end of the discussion (for example, when Michael Moore apologized on Rachel Maddow, after making comments disbelieving the women accusing Asange of rape, the controversy involving him died down, and some even thanked him for the apology). In fact, when they did withdraw the T-shirt, Kirbybits did thank them.
But that is not where it ended. Instead, Gabe/Mike tweeted that he would be wearing his Dickwolves T-shirt to PAX, and so by implication he invited others to wear their shirts. This declaration might never cause anyone to commit rape. Nevertheless, if rape is understood as systemic (or intended to send a message in ways akin to terrorism, as discussed in the previous post), then it might make rapes that have already occurred more effective in curtailing women’ freedom or reminding women of their “proper” place. Rape victims might then think that PAX East was not a safe space for them and might “voluntarily” decide not to attend the conference. This makes rape more “effective” because then women have fewer safe, accessible spaces in which they can participate. The effectiveness of this strategy is further bolstered by the fact that women-rape-victims are making this decision “voluntarily” no one is banning them from attending the conference (so there is no legal case under non-discrimination laws, for example); nevertheless the effect is the same: fewer spaces in which women can participate in the creation or critique of cultural products.
One thing that is important to note is that perpetuating rape culture does not require a “social conspiracy” (as Tycho/Jerry put it here). Conspiracies are organized efforts in which the conspirators communicate with each other to achieve some end. But no one (as far as I know) has claimed that rape culture is perpetuated through a concerted effort, like a conspiracy. Also, Jerry writes there, “The only people who are pro-rape are rapists. The idea that you would have to specifically enunciate an idea like that is almost overwhelming. It’s self-evident. Hence, the comic.” But, again, perpetuating rape culture does not require that the person doing so is pro-rape. All that is required is that what is done makes women less safe in public spaces or at conventions. Jerry thinks that there are “hundreds of tacit assumptions” that under gird an understanding of rape culture, but there is really only one: specifically, the assumption that rape is akin to terrorism because it has an effect on all women, not just the direct victims of the crime. Jerry positions his own view as neutral or “self-evident,” but in fact, his view is also under girded by “tacit assumptions:” specifically, he assumes that rape is an individual crime and there is no way to contribute to rape unless you actually rape someone.
Gabe’s decision to encourage wearing Dickwolves t-shirts makes “rape messages” (understood as preventing women from being full participants in cultural/political events) more effective because it means that those who have already raped, and have created rape-victims vulnerable to rape triggers will be more successful at sending the message to rape victims and potential rape victims that they are not safe in this space. It has the effect of limiting the freedom of mobility, association and participation of those who are rape victims or who see themselves as likely/potential rape victims. This act does not contribute to rape culture in the senses of a) or b) described above; but, it does contribute to rape culture in senses of c) and d). Encouraging wearing Dickwolves t-shirts makes rape victims less welcome at PAX East, and it makes women in general less welcome.
2. In Sum
There are different ways to understand the crime of rape. On individual understandings the very idea of rape culture is nearly absurd. Unless a direct causal influence between the cultural product and some instance of rape can be established, there is no responsibility for rape or its effects. On another view that sees rape as systemic, or as a means of reminding women of our subordinate and vulnerable status and enforcing our subordinate status, there are a number of ways of being responsible for rape, though the majority of these responsibilities are probably non-criminal-culpability ways of being responsible. They are not “you’re guilty” ways of being responsible; instead they are “please don’t contribute in these ways,” or “please understand how this excludes me” ways of being responsible.