Time Magazine featured dueling editorials regarding rape culture last week, by Caroline Kitchens and Jessica Valenti. Kitchens reports on a major anti-rape network will no longer emphasize the idea of rape culture and shows some facts that support their decision; Valenti retorts to show that rape culture is a real phenomenon. They’re both worth reading in full if you care about the topic, but I want to highlight two things that got my attention in particular.
First, the substance. Valenti polls Twitter for people’s definitions of rape culture:
Rape culture is when women who come forward are questioned about what they were wearing.
Rape culture is when survivors who come forward are asked, “Were you drinking?”
Rape culture is when people say, “she was asking for it.”
Rape culture is when we teach women how to not get raped, instead of teaching men not to rape.*
My personal experience is perhaps best described by Cracked’s David Wong: “Hey, how many males reading this had to, in the last year, Google the phrase “rape culture” because you were accused of being part of it, yet had no idea what it was?” That’s roughly where I fall on the spectrum. I’ve never thought of rape as something to be minimized or dismissed, and I don’t know anyone who does. I’ve encountered it in my social circle far too often, but I’ve never seen anyone ask if the victim had been drinking or dressed in a particular way. I have spoken to people, however, whose experiences have been very different – they have heard these questions asked, and victims reluctant to come forward because they’d have to explain themselves. (I’m on the record as stating that a victim bears no responsibility for being attacked, even if they could have reduced the risk to themselves by acting differently, but I can see why someone would feel reluctant to come forward if they had to answer such questions.)
*”Rape culture is when we teach women how to not get raped, instead of teaching men not to rape.” I find this statement silly, and if you don’t, try substituting another crime. Teaching people to lock their car doors or avoid dark alleys isn’t creating a grand theft auto culture and a robbery culture, it’s just common sense. Perhaps there is more education of men needed – probably is, especially when alcohol is involved – but this is a nonsensical argument for the existence of rape culture.
The gulf between the two camps represented above is wide, and it’s not surprising that considering how different people could have different experiences. What’s surprising is how little they’re willing to concede to the other side: you’d think anti-rape activists like Valenti would be glad to know that rape culture isn’t as widespread as they feared, for example**. What’s at play is another tyranny of the dichotomous mind, where the only alternative to one extreme is the other extreme, and shades of grey are ignored. It’s a shame, considering how important this issue is. More on this below.
**While I’m hardly an expert on the issue, I believe Valenti et al are making a big strategic mistake. Instead of matching their words to reality and saying “there’s a problem, we’re making progress, and it needs to be eradicated,” the insistence on a national culture war will alienate many reasonable people whose experiences don’t match theirs. Once someone proclaims the existence of a pervasive national culture, those who don’t see the world that way will tune them out. Considering how impo
Second, since I’ve been discussing how attaching different meanings to words leads to unproductive discussions, I thought I should point out a particularly glaring instance between these two editorials. First, Kitchens:
In January, the White House asserted that we need to combat campus rape by “[changing] a culture of passivity and tolerance in this country, which too often allows this type of violence to persist.”
Tolerance for rape? Rape is a horrific crime, and rapists are despised. We have strict laws that Americans want to see enforced. Though rape is certainly a serious problem, there’s no evidence that it’s considered a cultural norm.
Is 1 in 5 American women surviving rape or attempted rape considered a cultural norm? Is 1 in 6 men being abused before the age of 18 a cultural norm?
Here we have two people talking past each other using the same words. “Cultural norm” is a fuzzy concept, and each writer seems to be thinking of it in a different way. For Kitchens, a cultural norm seems to be something generally approved by society at large, like drinking alcohol. In her experience (and in mine), most people don’t condone sexual assault or dismiss victims as having asked for it. Thus, it couldn’t possibly be a cultural norm. For Valenti, it seems to be something that happens frequently in a society, like driving under the influence. (The numbers are, as always, disputed, but read the articles if you want more on that.) Something that happens so frequently must, at some level, be approved by society at large – surely there are ways to bring these numbers down.
Thus we come to the unproductive conversation I warn about: they’re both right in some way, and thus convinced that it’s not worth listening to the other person. It’s especially sad when the topic is so important and common ground isn’t far away.