Whether the general public realizes it or not, popular media has shaped the way we view women and sexuality. It determines how we view rape and sexual assault and how we treat our survivors. For one in 16 women, their very first sexual encounter was rape. In terms of numbers, this amounts to three million American women whose sexual initiation was rape, according to the Associated Press.
Rape culture is a societal condition in which rape and sexual assault are not only common, but normalized to the point that a victim is held responsible for the crime committed against them. Instead of rallying around survivors with support and protection, they are blamed and their attackers are excused and defended. Rape culture is perpetuated through the objectification of female bodies - especially young, oftentimes underaged, women of color - sexist attitudes about women’s roles in society, and the glamorization of violence against women. Rape culture is what allows high-profile male celebrities to terrorize women for decades before they’re finally called into question. It’s what protects college athletes when they rape someone at a party.
Rape culture discourages women from reporting their assault for fear they’ll be threatened, dismissed, or ridiculed, both by the justice system and the people closest to them. It contributes to unfair termination when the abuse and harassment is confronted. Rape culture is what allows the harassment to take place at all. It blurs the lines between consent and abuse and tells prepubescent girls that their value lies in their beauty. Women can’t be too beautiful or wear certain clothing, or they’ll be labeled as “sluts” who were “asking for it.” Rape culture prioritizes male freedom and sexuality and feeds the “Madonna and the Whore” complex among women.
While male victims of sexual assault exist and deserve protection, most women from girlhood onward move through the world accompanied by the fear of being raped. This is a reality that the majority of men don’t face and a fear that many of them don’t comprehend. What fuels the disconnect between men’s and women’s safety and the prevalence of rape culture? Furthermore, how do each of us as individuals, regardless of gender, allow rape culture to persist?
One of the most common manifestations of rape culture that we see is the act of victim-blaming. Victim-blaming, as the name implies, is when a victim of rape or sexual assault, rather than the perpetrator, is held accountable for what was done to them. For example, if a woman is assaulted while drunk, she gets blamed for having had too much alcohol. Similarly, women are admonished for wearing revealing clothing or going out at night alone. The hyper sexualization of men and boys fosters victim-blaming. It also makes it difficult for some people to believe that married and committed women can’t be raped by their partners, even though consent has nothing to do with relationship status.
According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), eight out of 10 sexual assault survivors knew the person who attacked them before the attack occurred. People victim-blame by pointing out a survivor’s sexual history and suggesting that anyone who had a lot of sex in the past can’t be forced into rape. On the other hand, some people maintain the idea that only promiscuous people be raped. These are just a few illustrations of how survivors are disregarded after they come forward about their assault.
What role do media and pop culture play in misinforming the public about rape and sexual assault? Speaking with the Associated Press, sex education specialist Dan Rice says the problem starts with inadequate sex education in our schools, “Our culture teaches people not to be raped instead of teaching people not to rape.” Of the 24 states that require sex ed in schools, most of them are centered around abstinence and omit the topic of consent. Additionally, most sex ed classes don’t discuss same-sex assaults or female attackers. Well-meaning people often teach girls to say “no” firmly and loudly but don’t teach boys how to take no for an answer. Assuming that a woman is “playing hard to get” is a popular trope in our media.
The normalization of rape in the media goes back to Old Hollywood. From the marital rape of Scarlett O’Hara in the classic Gone with the Wind (romanticized as Rhett Butler whisking her up the staircase) to the graphic rape scene in The Last Tango in Paris where Marlon Brando’s character assaults the character of his costar, Maria Schneider. The scene wasn’t in the script and Schneider vehemently opposed it before being coerced by Brando and the director to film it, which she later admitted to feeling violated by. Both Gone with the Wind and The Last Tango in Paris won Academy Awards. Fast forward to the 1980s and we’re presented with the teen romance Sixteen Candles, where the date rape of a girl forms an entire comedic subplot. The girl in question is written off as slutty, dimwitted party animal by the film’s male protagonist.
The trend of rape culture and sexual violence continues today’s popular media, in shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones or Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why (aimed specifically at adolescents). While rape has always been portrayed in movies, televising the violent act is fairly new. Even on network television, including shows for the teen demographic (like Gossip Girl and 90210), acts of sexual violence prevail. Furthermore, news media is another perpetrator of rape culture. The election of our current president, despite allegations against him and declarations from his own mouth, illustrates rape culture’s foothold in our society.
One of the best ways to combat this is to educate ourselves and one another on the ins and outs of consent. These are discussions we need to have with our friends, partners, and children. TalkWithYourKids.org guides parents through age-appropriate ways to educate their children about consent, from the time that they’re a toddler up to their college years.
It may seem strange to talk to a young child about consent, but this conversation empowers the child to name their boundaries and communicate with a trusted adult if those boundaries are crossed. Teaching consent is another way that children learn respect and empathy for others and is a lesson that will carry them into their later years.
Next, we have to recognize victim-blaming and stand firm in our conviction to believe and support survivors when they speak up. Additionally, masculinity should not be defined by a man’s aggression or sexual conquests. The excuse that “boys will be boys” must no longer be tolerated.
While rape culture throughout mass media is harmful, it’s opened up a conversation about the root cause of rape and sexual assault. With diligence and education, we can end the normalization of sexual violence and build a safer society for all.