What are we to make of the claim that we inhabit a ‘rape culture’? Those making this claim seldom make it clear if they are being descriptive or expressive. A descriptive claim purports to tell us that something is or is not the case (“The exam is over”) while an expressive claim conveys subjectivity and sentiment (“That exam was torture!”). If the claim that we live in a rape culture is descriptive—that our culture condones or promotes rape—those making the claim must support it with adequate evidence. If they are not being descriptive, then the expressive meaning of the claim is not entirely clear.
Let’s begin by considering a passage from an article by Alyn Pearson entitled “Rape Culture: It’s All Around Us,” which appeared in the (now defunct) feminist publication Off Our Backs in 2000:
Rape is the common cold of society. […] We have assimilated rape into our everyday culture much as we have the cold. […] There is a silence surrounding the recognition that we live in a cultural environment where rape is endemic, but it is true. The rape culture is much like the poor sanitation conditions which led to typhoid—it provides an environment in which acts of rape are fostered. Look through any supposed women’s publication and notice the ads that display women at the mercy of a man or at the mercy of the male gaze. Notice the articles that emphasize dependence and passivity and avoid portraying independence and strength in women. […] Rape is part of the natural flora of our society and our world.1
Here Pearson makes two key claims. First, that our culture—those Western nations commonly referred to as liberal democracies—”fosters” rape. Second, that this process appears to be the product of pervasive features of the culture (“look through any”) rather than localized elements. The problem with this kind of descriptive claim is that it doesn’t seriously consider what counts as a culture and the kind of evidence required to demonstrate that such a culture exists.
So what do we mean when we talk about ‘culture’? Culture usually refers to the shared attitudes, behaviours, and norms of a society. Western nations, for example, are omnivorous cultures, although almost all of them also have vegetarian subcultures.2 The culture is characterized by the dominant public behaviour and expectations while the subculture represents a minority set of divergent ones. Vegetarianism is a subculture rather than a counterculture because it is largely compatible with rather than hostile to the parent culture.
Both the culture and the subculture are identifiable because they possess at least four key features: models, artefacts, rhetoric, and training. This list is not exhaustive, but these are the salient characteristics which allow us to identify, study, and compare cultures. ‘Rape culture’ possesses none of them.
A culture’s models may be heroes or villains, but they focus shared attitudes and beliefs, and also guide and inspire action. A community valorizes a hero to signal what it admires, while villains are identified to signal disapproval. The martial culture of Sparta, for instance, lionized men like Brasidas and American martial culture has lionized men like George Patton. Conversely, traitors such as Ephialtes and Benedict Arnold are denounced and vilified. Models or anti-models can be fictional, such as the heroes and villains of a culture’s literature (Achilles, Jane Eyre, or Lancelot), and they can even be symbolic and anonymous (the Unknown Soldier represents all the unnamed combatants).
Those who claim that we inhabit a ‘rape culture’ must identify this culture’s heroes and villains. Who is widely celebrated within Western democracies because he is or was an accomplished rapist? And who are the villains despised for exposing such crimes? To the contrary, the reputational ruin of public figures like Bill Cosby and Jimmy Saville and the Pulitzer Prize awarded to the journalist who helped to break the Harvey Weinstein story are evidence of a culture that considers rape reprehensible.
Cultural artefacts are works by artists and craftsmen which provide important insights into what members of a particular community value and what they abhor. Greek amphora and American movies tell us something about the respective cultures from which they emerged. Naturally, there is an overlap between models and artefacts, since the former often figure as the subjects of the latter. But even in the absence of individual heroes or villains, artefacts tell us something about the culture. A television series can help us to understand the prestige of various professions by showing us how characters are treated relative to their social roles. By the same token, comedy can help us identify the prevailing attitudes in a society by indicating who and what is ridiculed and why.
In short, if a particular behaviour is common or important to a community we should find a proportionate body of artefacts celebrating this fact. So what are the representative cultural artefacts that condone or promote rape? In a ‘rape culture,’ the literary canon, movies, and wider popular culture should be replete with sympathetic portrayals of rape and rapists. Instead, we find the opposite. The rape of Lucretia discredited the Tarquins and the Roman monarchy, and artistic portrayals of the incident reflect this attitude. More recently, in graphic and harrowing films like Irréversible or a television series like Game of Thrones, rape is offered as evidence of a character’s moral depravity. Furthermore, an act of rape usually sets a character up for just deserts. In a ‘rape culture,’ vigilante and rape-revenge stories would be unintelligible as a sub-genre of exploitation cinema, because the retribution could not deliver the cathartic sense of justice these films invite their audiences to crave.
This is not to say that there are no counter-cultural artefacts that celebrate or appear to celebrate rape. But it is extremely hard to think of celebrated and culturally representative works of art that do so. The moral lessons communicated by films like To Kill a Mockingbird or Schindler’s List are obvious. Which works of art or entertainment condone or promote rape in the same way? The messages in such works must be similarly unambiguous because cultures are not giant exercises in deception. Public attitudes towards the monarchy are not hidden in Britain, Americans are aware of their sports culture, and the French are not oblivious to the revolutionary symbolism in their politics. If a culture of rape existed in Western nations, it would be easy to identify that culture’s God Save the Queen or La Liberté Guidant le Peuple.
All cultures produce rhetoric held to be laudable and corresponding forms of taboo speech that are proscribed. Cultural conventions establish times and places in which it is appropriate to say certain things and avoid saying others. When we attend the events that structure public life—graduations, marriages, funerals, elections, and public holidays—we have a good idea of the kind of thing we are expected to say. What is prescribed and proscribed under such circumstances is revealing of mores. Concession speeches in democracies signal that the contest is between adversaries but not enemies; the gratitude expressed during graduations reminds us that individual success is also a collective effort, and so on.
Under what set of circumstances are we expected to praise rape? There are none. There is never a time and place when we come together to praise rape or rapists. It might be objected that ‘victim-blaming’ or a skeptical response to allegations of rape are a form of apologism, but there are at least two problems with this kind of argument in this context.
First, if rape were considered either morally neutral or praiseworthy, there would be no need to shift blame because there would be no reason for blame to be assigned in the first place. Condemning a victim of rape is always unjust, but the misattribution of blame nevertheless concedes that a violation has occurred for which someone must be held responsible.
Second, when consent is contested, it is usually an attempt to show that no rape occurred. Why deny something that is tolerated or promoted? Likewise, the requirement that victims of rape provide evidence of assault is not a way of encouraging or tolerating the crime. Indeed, the very seriousness of the accusation and the likely consequences for the accused are precisely why convincing evidence is demanded.
The perpetuation of a culture’s prevailing attitudes, beliefs, and practices requires training and transmission. Athletic and military training are examples of formal training, while family life and religious education are more informal. In both formal and informal environments, the ‘trainers’ explain what they are doing and why. The pupils generally understand the process, and there are discussions about best practices and objectives.
In Western societies, we can find plenty of self-defence and safety-awareness classes designed to help women (and men) protect themselves from attack. But where are the rape academies and credentialed instructors? If we are to believe Alyn Pearson, ‘training’ occurs via “any women’s magazine” or other elements of mass culture, in which males are shown as dominant and females as subservient. This is unserious. No culture transmits its salient values in this oblique manner. A culture without a functional means of transmitting its most important values is either dying or illusory.
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So, ‘rape culture’ lacks each of the key features of an ordinary culture. It has no known and shared models, it produces no identifiable body of artefacts, it has no prescribed public rhetoric, and it has no formal or informal training programmes. Either ‘rape culture’ functions like no other known culture or it is not a culture at all.
But if ‘rape culture’ is inadequate as a descriptive claim, we are left with mystery. What does it mean? Elsewhere in her Off Our Backs essay, Alyn Pearson makes the following assertion:
To be a young woman today means to live with the rape culture in all its subtleties. It means to fluctuate body weight to please the day’s fashion archetype. Being a young woman today means to be unhappy if men don’t like the way you look. I have cried many a night because of my big shoulders and my skinny, white legs, and I still struggle to find my own definition of what is sexy.”3
Complaints like these reflect an important shift in debates about rape culture. Instead of an explanatory account and supporting evidence for claims about culture and transmission, we are provided with a list of grievances.
This is ‘rape culture’ as an expressive rather than a descriptive claim. Pearson makes no attempt to show how beauty standards correlate with rape. Nor is there an inquiry into the best methods by which to distinguish true allegations from falsehoods. Instead, the conversation becomes a series of calls for reform, justified by an explicit but unsupported claim that various attitudes and standards promote rape. There is no effort to establish causality, because making an expressive claim does not demand it.
The problem is that the expressive use of the term ‘rape culture’ is hyperbolic and possibly dangerous. Exaggerating for effect may not produce the desired result. George Orwell warned that misuse of the term ‘fascism’ would rob meaningful accusations of their power. Loose talk about rape and blanket indictments of democratic and egalitarian societies are hardly likely to contribute to serious debate and consensus-building. Bullying rhetoric is not an honourable or reliable way of addressing the problem of rape or encouraging efforts to stamp it out.
Undoubtedly, democratic societies are not above reproach. No one should feel harassed the moment they enter public space. Bodies are not public resources and we are not entitled to help ourselves. Cat-calling, verbal humiliation, groping, and workplace harassment of employees by employers are all real and serious problems. These issues deserve careful thought and consideration. But there are degrees of sexual misconduct and misbehaviour and conflating them all with rape in order to silence and shame interlocutors can only be counter-productive.
It might be objected that ‘rape culture’ is not a hyperbolic term because the problem is massive and widespread. We might not promote rape but it is ubiquitous nonetheless, so an expressive term like ‘rape culture’ is commensurate with the scale of the problem. In 2013, the FBI registered 79,770 reported cases of rape.4 Do such numbers justify use of a term like ‘rape culture’? Troubling as these numbers are, this is not persuasive. For the same year, the FBI also reported 345,041 robberies.5 By this measure, there is a better case that the United States is a culture of thieves than a culture of rapists. But no considered judgment of the United States could conclude that its public culture devalues property rights.
Finally, one might object that ‘rape culture’ is an adequate expression of the difficulty in prosecuting rape, and a reflection of low conviction rates. But the problem here is not the nature of our culture but the nature of the crime itself. Rape leaves little material evidence. Sex is not a crime, but sex obtained by force or coercion is. Proving that consent in a private act was denied or withdrawn can be notoriously difficult, especially if an assault is not immediately reported. Allegations often require a jury to weigh one person’s testimony or recollection against another’s and this can make it harder to establish the standard of guilt required for a successful prosecution.
The claim that we inhabit a ‘rape culture’ is not an adequate or good faith attempt to analyze and explain our attitudes, beliefs, and practices. More plausibly, ‘rape culture’ is a hyperbolic term used to leverage more general reform. This is counter-productive to the very goals anti-rape activists are dedicated to pursuing. The victims of rape deserve justice and the perpetrators deserve punishment. Neither of these goals is advanced by unserious claims about the character of Western societies or by grossly exaggerating their shortcomings for political effect.
The author is a PhD candidate at a Canadian university in the final stages of his thesis. ‘Antonin Foucaux’ is a pseudonymn.
1 Pearson, Alyn, ‘Rape Culture: It’s all around us’, Off Our Backs, Volume 30, Number 8, 2000, pp.12-14
2 Vegetarians and vegans only make up 2% of the American population. See ‘Study of Current and Former Vegetarians and Vegans’, Humane Research Council, 2014
3 Pearson, p.13
4The FBI’s statistics and definition can consulted at the following sites https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2013/crime-in-the-u.s.-2013/violent-crime/rape and https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2013/crime-in-the-u.s.-2013/rape-addendum/rape_addendum_final
5 The FBI statistics on robberies cited can be consulted at https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2013/crime-in-the-u.s.-2013/violent-crime/robbery-topic-page