Sunday, April 17, 2011

Rape Culture: Deconstructing Myths

Our culture has become one that promotes rape. Don't agree with me? Then let's look at some facts. A rape culture is one in which sexual violence against women is common, and in which the media, shared attitudes, and practices excuse or tolerate this violence. For example, sexist jokes are told which engender disrespect for women and a disregard for their general well-being. Ever hear or laugh at those blond jokes? Isn't it always a woman who's thought of as stupid but hot in those jokes? People make value judgments about each other that promote these attitudes - for example, have you ever been with someone who looked at a woman wearing a skimpy dress and heels and said, "she's asking for it" - "it" being sex, of course, consensual or not? Sexualized violence toward women continues in cultures where women are judged as being sexually available simply because of their gender. Victim-blaming and the objectification of women are both behaviors found in rape cultures, and both problems are rampant in the US. Recently, an article in the New York Times suggested that an eleven year old girl was responsible for her gang-rape by a group of men and boys because she sometimes wore make-up and dressed in suggestive clothing.

Let's have a show of hands: how many of you have heard men refer to their girlfriends or wives as "their bitch"? How many of you have heard men talk about women's body-parts, reducing a person to a perky pair of breasts or a nice rear-end? How many of you have heard someone say of a pretty woman, "I'd do her"? This casual commentary that so many of us engage in on a day to day basis helps to create a society that disregards women's rights to enjoy basic human respect and fundamental safety.

Life in a rape culture affects every single woman. The rape of one woman is degrading to all women; each time one of us is dragged down, the rest of us know a heightened sense of fear. Maybe this is why women indulge in victim-blaming too. Isn't it safer if we can reduce the victim, if we can make the rape her fault? If we are able to say "she shouldn't have worn that skirt" or "she shouldn't have painted her nails red and worn high heels" or "she shouldn't have been in a car with that man" then we are able to say, by default, that such a horrible thing could never happen to US. No, we are safe - we would have better sense than to wear a mini-skirt or have red nails and high heels, or to go on a date with someone who hadn't been throughly vetted first. Wouldn't we?

Women - the plain fact is that we are all at risk. Deep down, we all live in fear of rape, and we all limit our behavior because of it. It's why we go to the bathroom in pairs, why we take our girlfriends along when we go to the movies, why we ask our husbands to accompany us to the laundrymat or the grocery store. The fact of rape holds the entire female population in a position of fear and subjugation, even though there are many men who do not - and would never - commit rape, and there are many women who are never victims of rape. This is the legacy of our mysogynistic culture; this is the legacy of "no means yes" and "she's asking for it" and "hey, look at the ass on that bitch!"

So - what if we just stop?

Men, think about it. What would happen if you suddenly stop listening to jokes that sexually degrade women? What would happen if you refused to take part in conversations that objectify women? What would be the result if you taught your sons to do the same? What if you defined your own manhood and refused to allow stereotypical definitions of it to rule your life and your actions?

Women, we need to think about it, too. Instead of saying that women should take self-defense classes or should be careful how they dress and where they go, what if we teach our sons not to commit acts of sexual aggression? What if we teach our daughters that they are worth more than casual, physical contact? What if we, as women, refuse to live in a rape-culture? What if we speak with our fathers, our husbands, our brothers, and our sons, and communicate to them that their actions shape our lives?

We are all responsible for the culture we live in. Every single one of us, every time we hear a sexually explicit and demeaning joke and we laugh instead of calling down the joker; every time we see a headline that says "Woman Claims Rape" and we question whether it really happened; every time we scrutinize the history, backgrounds, dress, and motives of a victim of rape, we ARE building the culture in which these crimes continue, unabated. We must work together to make this world better, none of us are able to do this alone. How can we start? Well - here are some common myths about rape, and some ways to counter them. What if, instead of laughing it off when someone says "no means yes" or "boys will be boys", you counter the myth with the reality? Let's look at some of the myths and the facts that can deconstruct them.

Myth #1: No means yes.
Fact: No means no. It is not an invitation, or a starting point for negotiations. It means stop what you are doing to me, and stop it NOW.

Myth #2: She asked for it.
Fact: Nobody asks to be raped. Rape, by definition, happens when the victim does not give consent to sexual contact.

Myth #3: Boys will be boys.
Fact: There are plenty of boys who would never dream of committing rape. Rape does not happen because boys are high spirited, or hormonal, or more aggressive than girls. Rape happens because somehow, somewhere, rapists developed the idea that their rights and wants are more important than anyone else's.

Myth #4: Rape is about sex.
Fact: Rape is about power and control. Rape is a crime of anger, not of sexual desire. Gratification comes from overpowering the victim and the imposition of the rapist's will over that of the person who is raped.

Myth #5: Women can prevent rape if they try hard enough.
Fact: There is no right way to respond to rape. Rape, whether coercive or violent, cannot always be prevented or avoided by fighting or begging, or screaming. Saying that a woman could have avoided rape by fighting harder or being more careful is another way of blaming the victim for her rape.

Myth #6: Only women can be raped.
Fact: Rape happens to men and women, boys and girls. It is equally horrible, no matter whether the victim is male or female. No one deserves to be raped.

Myth #7: Women make false rape reports all the time.
Fact: Less than 2% of rape reports are false. And lots of rapes are never reported, so the statistic of false reports is likely even less than 2%. So for every two false reports of rape, there are 98 true reports.

Myth #8: Only "bad" women get raped.
Fact: Anyone can be raped. There is no guarantee of safety. Sexual violence happens across class, cultural, ethnic, gender and age lines.

Myth #9: When women are raped, the perpetrator is usually a stranger.
Fact: It is much more likely to be someone a woman knows, or even someone she likes, or dates. 80% of rapes are perpetrated by someone known to the victim.

Myth #10: If a woman didn't fight back, then she wasn't really raped.
Fact: Rape can be life-threatening and it is not always in the victim's best interests to fight. Whatever the victim did to survive was the right thing to have done.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but rape occurs all the time, everywhere, and can happen to anybody. Together, we can make a difference to many people. Join me in raising awareness, in deconstructing the rape culture we live in, and in dispelling rape myths - let's make the world a better place.

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