A couple weeks ago, #RapeCultureIsWhen started trending on twitter prompting an important and overdue discussion. Here are a few screenshots of the conversation. We at PARC thought this was excellent that a discussion was happening around such an ingrained and problematic issue in our society, until it became clear that 140 characters was nowhere near enough to do a deep dive on this topic.
I've been thinking about this for the past couple weeks since the hashtag was trending - a collection of enlightening, emotional, upsetting and also violent rants and commentary. Several articles from TIME opinion contributed to the backstory of this event, but let me go back a bit further to provide a fuller picture:
In 2012, the Washington Post published an article authored by American Enterprise Institute scholar, Christina Hoff Sommers. Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute on January 27, 2012. The article is titled, “How the CDC is Overstating Sexual Violence in the U.S.” The article called into question, maybe accused, the CDC of faulty fact-finding in order to inflate the number of sexual violence victims in the United States. The author’s basis is that the statistics gathered by the FBI and Department of Justice are DRASTICALLY lower than what was found by the CDC. And she’s absolutely right. The two studies she compares, the National Crime Victimization Survey (DOJ) last updated in 2012, and the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (CDC) last updated in 2010 have very different findings on sexual violence.
The problem with comparing this CDC statistic to the DOJ numbers is that the two are not statistically comparable; as one compares intimate partner violence throughout a lifetime while the other is a Census question on unwanted sexual activity. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey reports its facts on sexual assault based on a couple of questions included on the 2010 Census on unwanted sexual activity. Meanwhile, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention study conducted phone interviews asking about rape, physical violence, and stalking by an intimate partner.
The motive of information distribution is also different. The CDC aims to spread awareness of the public health implication of violence – whether it is a drug-induced attack by a stranger at a party, someone closely known by the victim, or an attack late at night while walking home in the dark. The Justice Department has an interest in information for the purpose of judicial action and crime statistics. The author, Sommers, uses this as the foundation for her argument (commonly used by libertarians and conservatives) against a “hyped up” or inflated perpetuation of so-called “rape culture” that feminists have created.
Then #RapeCultureIsWhen started trending on Twitter in response to an article posted on TIME by a research assistant from American Enterprise Institute, Caroline Kitchens @cl_kitchens, titled “It’s Time to End ‘Rape Culture’ Hysteria”. Kitchens asserts that nowhere have we, as a culture, accepted that rape is a cultural norm and innocent males are suffering in the environments rape-culturists are creating. She even goes as far as to say the Obama Administration is overreacting by establishing a Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. Overreacting…
When 1 in 5 American women (to say nothing of men and the trans community) have been sexually assaulted, the White House is overreacting?
Kitchens writes, “No one would deny that we should teach boys to respect women. But by and large, this is already happening. By the time men reach college, RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) explains, ‘most students have been exposed to 18 years of prevention messages, in one form or another.’ The vast majority of men absorb these messages and view rape as the horrific crime that it is. So efforts to address rape need to focus on the very small portion of the population that ‘has proven itself immune to years of prevention messages.” I find this quote from RAINN problematic and my opinion is that Kitchens is the wrong person to be interpreting it.
First of all, I wholeheartedly disagree and wish to say clearly that most students have been exposed to 18 years of violent and sexually aggressive images and language! Yes, rape is a horrific crime; but I think the image of a stranger attacking a drunk woman in a short skirt under the cloak of night is the message we’re feeding students for those 18 years. It's a problem that media has painted a picture of a rapist being "The Other."
Unfortunately by the time boys reach high school and college age, they understand rape as violent strangers jumping out of bushes to assault women. But multiple research studies (see here, here and here) have found that when they remove the word “rape” and phrase the question to ask merely the definition of rape - that is, "Have you ever forced someone to have sex with you even though they refused, were drugged, intoxicated or said they did not want to?" you find some VERY different answers than the small portion Kitchens wishfully referred to. Most respondents who answer yes replied that they had done so more than once. And those are just the ones who admitted it.
By the time our boys are sexual people, we actually have not had honest, clear messages with them about what consent is. The average guy watches movies, plays video games, and consumes advertising showing women are to be used for sex at the will of men. We are most certainly NOT being clear with our boys about how to respect women.
A week after Kitchens article, TIME posted a rebuttal opinion article by Zerlina Maxwell @ZerlinaMaxwell “Rape Culture is Real”. She details her own firsthand experience with the aspects that make up the definition of rape culture - including being asking what she was wearing and whether she was drunk on the night her own roommate’s boyfriend raped her.
Maxwell quotes Jaclyn Friedman. “What we really despise is the idea of rapists: a terrifying monster lurking in the bushes, waiting to pounce on an innocent girl as she walks by,” Friedman says. “But actual rapists, men who are usually known to (and often loved by) their victims? Men who are sometimes our sports heroes, political leaders, buddies, boyfriends and fathers? Evidence suggests we don’t despise them nearly as much as we should.”
I had a social theory professor in college who, while lecturing on Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (light reading), and his theory on the body being the prison of the soul, said these words to a class of 20 year old students: “And this is why it is false to believe that to get fucked by someone you know when you don’t want them to is any less HORRIBLE as by a stranger who grabs you in a dark street!”
And I got it.
I needed someone with authority, who had a PhD, who had read everything, to say - your brain is connected to your body. When they rape you, they rape all of you.
I needed to be educated on this and I was a 20 year old feminist. Education is what’s needed. By insisting that cultural influences are at play, we do not trivialize the survivor. By naming rape culture, we do not excuse or deflect blame from a rapist. This offers a solution because we (Caroline Kitchens included) are undoubtedly all after a shared goal of less sexual violence. Some of us, like PARC, have specific ideas on how to do this. Ideas like education on how to prevent and avoid victim blaming, encourage bystander intervention and healthy masculinity. Understanding what is creating this problem helps us find solutions; and understanding what #RapeCultureIsWhen is, is a huge part of getting there.