I experienced my first conscious encounter with rape culture as an eleven-year-old. I was leaving class one day when I heard one of my classmates say to a couple of her friends, “Mr. Jones* is such a perv! He totally looks down my shirts!” Her friends agreed, and they continued angrily discussing similar studies as I continued down the hall. Nothing ever came of their fury. I doubt any of them ever reported their experiences, and if they did, the teacher did not face any consequences.
It is difficult for me to pinpoint my exact feelings as I listened to my classmate’s story after all this time. I remember my shock, quickly followed by incredulity. I also remember thinking that –at least by my standards— many of her shirts were too low-cut anyway.
Up until writing this post, I do not think I ever told this story to anyone. My silence was not from fear or shame. It took me a decade to tell this story because it took a decade for me to realize the importance of what I heard and what my classmate experienced. In fact, even though I decided to devote my blog post to rape culture several weeks before I began to write, I remembered this story only an hour before I began typing.
We were all in sixth grade. None of us was more than twelve, and yet, my classmate, her friends, and I had all internalized that idea the objectification and violation of our bodies was normal enough to be little more than a nuisance we ranted to our friends about, along with our frustrations about school projects, obnoxious siblings, and social gossip. Not only that, I also engaged in a form of victim blaming. I evaluated the position the girl’s assaulter (teacher + male + older=more trustworthy) and herself (younger + female + wore revealing clothing=less trustworthy) to determine the validity of her story. With this, I dismissed her experience as overdramatic and paranoid.
This tragic story—the sexual violation of my classmate, our collective lack of response, and my refusal to believe her—constantly repeats itself in an infinite number of iterations around the world. It is so common, many never even recognize that what they see, endure, or do, is wrong at all.
This is the heart of rape culture, which Emilie Bucwald in her book Transforming Rape Culture defines as a “culture that condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm . . . In a rape culture both men and women assume sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable .” Rape culture is not just a culture where people do not consider rape and sexual assault to be a crime. Rape cultures misunderstand the definition of sexual violence, ignore its frequency, and minimizes its impact. Rape culture condones the, “normalizing, trivializing, and eroticizing male violence against women” as unavoidable or benign “and blam[es] victims for their own abuse” .
These definitions of rape culture are abroad. Like any other aspect of culture, it is difficult to extract the elements of our society that encourage sexual violence from the countless basic assumptions we make about the world and our place in it. For that reason, I am not going to “diagnose” the source of rape culture. I am not going to blame alcohol, or religion, or pornography, or legal codes, or popular media, or anything else one might define as the primary cause of the astonishing prevalence of sexual violence in American society.** Every part of our culture is suspect. Each of us must examine each of our assumptions, beliefs, values, and behaviors. Every time each of us discovers something that glorifies sexual violence, minimizes the suffering it causes, or encourages victims to remain silent, we must expose it.
This task may sound impossible. I am talking about warring against an enemy with a million faces. Rape culture masquerades as harmless habits, sneaks into our daily speech, and hides within our basic assumptions. Combating it forces each of us to question many of our fundamental beliefs about our world.
Eliminating this culture is an intimidating task with no clear end date or finish line. And yet, every time someone realizes that catcalling really isn’t okay, every time someone tells their partner to stop without fearing the consequences, every time someone focuses on helping—not judging— an assault victim, and every time a victim comes forward expecting to be believed, we defeat rape culture. In this fight, every victory transforms lives.
Eleven-year-old me did not understand the rights I had to my body. Eleven-year-old me thought that I needed to cover up to protect men from my own body because they could not control themselves. Eleven-year-old me thought that rape victims had usually made bad decisions. Eleven-year-old me thought that violations of a woman’s body were sad, yes, but normal. At the same time, eleven-year-old me wondered if it would be better to die than to be “ruined” like that.
Eleven-year-old me was absolutely wrong.
*Not his actual name.
**1 out of 6 American women and 1 out of 33 men experience attempted or completed rape in their lives. 15% of assault and rape victims are children. https://rainn.org/get-information/statistics/sexual-assault-victims