Feminist Dictionary: “Rape Culture”

When Robin Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines” hit the airwaves this summer (at least I think it was this summer – I’m so behind on music news I’m pretty sure John Lennon’s funeral spread is just now getting cold), people completely lost their minds. With lyrics like “I know you want it,” and “The way you grab me/must wanna get nasty,” many accusing fingers were pointed at Thicke’s controversial tune, deeming it a celebration of the subjugation of women, and other -ations as well. His racy music video and his wee VMA tryste with one Miley Cyrus exacerbated the situation. You probably heard discussions of how “rapey” the song comes off, and how the complimentary video is extremely demeaning to women.

Exhibit A.

Exhibit A.

Naturally, the next term that comes up in a conversation like this is “rape culture.” Specifically, how Thicke’s hit song excuses said culture and how, in general, American culture is becoming synonymous with rape culture. But what exactly does this term mean?

Although lacking a formal definition, rape culture usually refers to any culture or subculture that either embraces or ignores the problems surrounding rape. Though the term seems to be applicable wherever and whenever it is needed, it often crops up in conversations about incidents where an actual rape or sexual assault went unpunished, such as the Steubenville incident, or was inappropriately punished, like the Montana judge who sentenced a child rapist to only 30 days in jail. (He walked free as of last Thursday). It can also be applied to situations in which theoretical rape was made light of by comedians with good intentions, or schools where rape is glorified by chants during a school-sanctioned activity.

The cry goes up immediately by feminists (and people with an ounce of sense): “They are glorifying rape culture!” or “This verdict is a product of rape culture!” Essentially, they are correlating these unfortunate and deplorable incidents with a rise in apologist causes and philosophies. The phrase is a good buzzword to use in conversation about violence against women (and other rape victims) and call attention to the issue. In those ways, it is a useful term. In other ways, though, it can be harmful.

My problem with the phrase “rape culture” is that it conjures up an image of some brainwashing cult that is slowly taking over the minds of the population and turning us all into rapists. The same way our parents taught us that it is okay for women to wear pants, it seems that these proponents of rape culture are teaching their children to grow up thinking that they can force themselves upon people. This dark, dank subconscious creeps in, day after day, until the “victim” is so hypnotized by it that he or she cannot help BUT rape. It isn’t their fault! It’s rape culture’s fault! Rape culture has conditioned them this way!

Not that kind of conditioning. Also, do you get the feeling those aren't his hands?

Not that kind of conditioning. Also, do you get the feeling those aren’t his hands?

Making the acceptance of rape into a culture in the first place is problematic because it takes the blame off of the rapist and puts it onto that massive, writhing organism called “society.” Of course social cues and upbringing affect the way people think, but societies are made up of individuals with individualistic ways of thinking and looking at the world. A rape is an isolated incident committed by a particularly twisted individual who has refused to abide by the rules of being human. It is not the fault of some omnipresent, everlasting undercurrent of everyday life. A person who becomes a rapist is on the margin of society, not in its epicenter, and they are fully responsible for their actions.

The purpose of the phrase, I believe, is not to mainstream-ize (someone spell-check that for me, I’m pooped) rape. It is to look at these isolated incidents in a broader context, and I think this is something that does need to happen. So how can we do this without utilizing a phrase that has the effect of excusing the very rapists it is trying to castigate? Perhaps the solution is to let go of our desire to coin buzzwords and just talk about the issue with precise terminology. Instead of saying “Robin Thicke’s video is a product of rape culture,” we can say, “Robin Thicke’s video is fucked up, and it’s even more fucked up that some people are okay with it. Discuss.” I mean, if you really want to, you can clean that up for your thesis, but you get the picture.

P.s. If I can’t turn in a thesis with the word “fuck” in it, I am going to be in serious trouble someday.

P.p.s. If I ever have to turn in a thesis, I am going to be in serious trouble someday.

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