Rape culture is present in a society when rape and other forms of sexual violence are common and pervasive, when they are normalized and viewed as inevitable, and when they are trivialized by authority figures, the media and cultural products, and by the majority of members of the society.
In a rape culture, the commonality and pervasive nature of sexual violence and rape is fueled by commonly held beliefs, values, and popular myths that encourage and excuse sexual violence committed by men and boys against women and girls. In this context, women and girls consistently experience intimidation and threats of sexual violence and actual sexual violence itself. Also, within a rape culture, the rape culture itself is largely unchallenged and not viewed as a problem by the majority.
Sociologists recognize that rape culture is composed primarily of four things: 1. behaviors and practices, 2. the way we think about sex and rape, 3. the way we talk about sex and rape, and 4. cultural representations of sex and sexual assault.
Just as whole societies can be described as rape cultures, so too can certain organizations and institutions, and types of institutions, like colleges and universities, prisons, and the military.
History of the Term
The term, "rape culture," was popularized by feminist writers and activists in the U.S. during the 1970s. It first appeared in print in the book Rape: The First Sourcebook for Women, published in 1974, which was one of the first books to discuss rape from the standpoint of women's experiences. A film bearing the title "Rape Culture" premiered in 1975, and drew attention to how media and popular culture spread mainstream and erroneous beliefs about rape.
Women, at the time, used this term to draw attention to the fact that rape and sexual violence were common crimes across the country-not rare or exceptional crimes committed by crazed or damaged individuals, as many believed.
Elements of a Rape Culture
Sociologists define culture as the values, beliefs, knowledge, behaviors, practices, and material goods that people share in common which help to unify them as a collective. Culture includes common sense beliefs, commonly held expectations and assumptions, rules, social roles, and norms. It also includes our language and how we communicate, and cultural products like music, art, film, television, and music videos, among other things.
So, when sociologists consider what rape culture is, and when they study it, they look critically at all of these elements of culture and examine how they may contribute to the existence of a rape culture. Sociologists identify the following behaviors and practices, ideas, discourses, and cultural representations as part of rape culture. Others also exist.
Behaviors and Practices
Of course, the most consequential behaviors and practices that create a rape culture are acts of sexual assault, but there are others that also play significant roles in creating such a context. These include:
- Sexualized online harassment and bullying
- Harassment and intimidation of, and threats made toward, women and girls, even those which are framed by the aggressor(s) as "playful" or a "joke"
- Denying that rape is a widespread problem
- Diminishing or trivializing the trauma and violence of rape and sexual assault
- Accusing victims of lying
- Sexual objectification of women and girls
- Men and boys talking/bragging about sexual assault
- Equating masculinity with sexual dominance
- Revenge porn, both independent of physical assault and post-assault
- Ignoring the sexually violent crimes of celebrities
- Neglect of untested rape kits and general non-prioritization of sexual assault among police forces
- Support for accused men and boys over concern for the welfare of victims
Beliefs, Assumptions, Myths, and World Views
- Cultural expectation that men have to coerce women into having sex, and that women and girls want to be coerced
- Belief that men and boys are entitled to the bodies of women and girls
- Socialization of girls that they have a duty to serve the demands of male sexuality
- Socialization of girls to expect sexual violence and aggression
- Belief that discussion of sexual activity and affirmative consent are not sexy
- Belief that rape and sexual violence are the inevitable expressions of masculinity
- Belief that rape is an everyday occurrence that cannot be changed
- Fear among victims and their families that they will be stigmatized and further traumatized by reporting the rape
- Belief that rape is just rough sex
- Women and girls provoke sexual assault with their behavior and dress
- It is the responsibility of women to defend themselves and prevent rape
- Only bad men rape and only bad women are raped
- There is no such thing as intimate partner rape
- Women feel "slut shame" or regret after sex and cry rape
Language and Discourse
- Language that minimizes rape and by calling it sexual intercourse, non-consensual sex, inappropriate behavior, or sexual misconduct
- Using terms like "acquaintance rape" or "date rape" and "real rape" to make false distinctions about the crime of rape
- Referring to trafficked child rape victims as "child prostitutes"
Representations of Rape in Cultural Products
- Rape jokes and memes that mock rape
- The use of rape as a plot point and for economic gain in film and television
- Video games with rape scenarios
- Songs and music videos that glamorize sexual coercion, like "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines"
Notable Examples of Rape Culture
One of the most notable and tragic recent examples of rape culture is the case of Brock Turner, who was convicted of three counts of sexual assault by the State of California, after assaulting an unconscious woman on the Stanford University campus. Though the seriousness of the crimes for which Turner was convicted carried a possible sentence of up to 14 years in prison, prosecutors request six. The judge, however, sentenced Turner to just six months in county jail, of which he served just three.
Media reporting on the case and popular discourse surrounding it were rife with evidence of rape culture. Turner was repeatedly depicted with a photo that showed him seated for a portrait, smiling while wearing a suit and tie, and was frequently described as a Stanford athlete. His father trivialized the brutal sexual assault his son committed in a letter to the court, referring to it as "20 minutes of action," and many, including the judge, suggested that a sentence appropriate to the crime would unjustly derail Turner's athletic and academic promise.
Meanwhile, the victim, never identified in court, was criticized for being intoxicated, and virtually no concern for her welfare, nor a desire for justice for the crimes perpetrated against her, were expressed in the mainstream press, by Turner, his defense team, or the sitting judge who decided the case.
Other notable examples unfortunately abound, like the case of Kesha, who has been held legally obligated by a U.S. court to fulfill a record contract with her accused rapist/record producer, Dr. Luke, and the problem of heightened rates of sexual assault on college and university campuses across the U.S., as documented in the film The Hunting Ground.
The election of President Donald Trump, a man repeatedly accused of sexual assault, and who has spoken frankly about sexually assaulting women-the now-infamous "grab them by the p*ssy" tape-is an example of how entrenched and normalized rape culture is in U.S. society.
In 2017, a string of sexual assault accusations against powerful men in media, politics, and other industries has led to more and more conversations, on social media and elsewhere, about the pervasiveness of rape culture in our society.