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A "Rape Culture" Tutorial for the Naysayers

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It's happening more and more lately on my Facebook feed.

Every time I post a link to a cringe-inducing incident (sexist jokes, sexist comments, allegations of violence or rape), it inevitably happens. A well-meaning, yet somewhat unaware, (usually) male friend will comment or contact me in private, attempting to "understand" what's going on, all the while trying to explain, justify, minimize, and reduce the severity of what was just discussed.

There's a term for it. It's called "mansplaining" and it's slowly becoming an epidemic.

"I don't mean to downplay it, but..." [Of course you do.]
"All we know about this guy was this one horrible sexist event!" [So I should base my opinion of him on the behaviour I'm not aware of?]
"I get that this incident (like the one before it, and the one before it, and the one before it...) is horrible, but does this really justify the use of 'rape culture' as a term to be used so loosely?" [Yes.]
"Boys will be boys... It doesn't mean they'll act on their comments." [Oh, ok. That makes me feel much safer.]

Even men who consider themselves feminists don't often get it, because they too come from a place of unconscious privilege. They're inevitably standing on the top, looking down. From the place everything is compared to, measured against, the controlled group that serves as a standard; you know... the status quo.

First off, and since International Women's Day is around the corner, can we take a minute to define 'rape culture' for those who seem to think it's an irrational and highly charged blanket statement that seeks to vilify all men for all sins?

Rape culture is a term that was coined by feminists in the United States in the 1970s. It was designed to show the ways in which society blamed victims of sexual assault and normalized male sexual violence through jokes, TV, music, advertising, laws, words and imagery that make violence against women and their overt sexualisation seem practically normal.

Forty years later, not much has changed, despite Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente's assertion that "The war for women's rights is over. And we won!" (Huh? Must have been embarrassing being the only one at that celebration party, right Margaret?)

Examples of behaviors commonly associated with rape culture include victim blaming, sexual objectification and trivializing rape.

Rape culture doesn't mean I live in debilitating fear that a man will rape me the minute I step outside my home, but it does mean I nervously hold my keys in my hand when I walk home late at night.

It doesn't mean that I'm terrified to speak to a stranger in a bar, but it does mean that I may be in a bar with someone "ironically" wearing a T-shirt that says "Carry On And Rape A Lot" (yes, it's an actual shirt manufactured by an actual company), because... Hahaha! Rape!

It doesn't mean I hate men and won't accept a polite compliment, but it does mean I'll pick up my pace, avoid eye contact and I won't respond to the cat calls of a group of construction workers from across the street (if you think that's a tired old cliché, you're a man reading this or have never travelled to Europe).

Rape culture doesn't automatically mean I have been a victim of sexual assault, but it does mean I may very well have been, or will be, or can easily name someone who has been. By the same token, it does mean that, over the years, I've been repeatedly groped in public, exposed to unwanted sexual advances, flashed at by dirty old men at the ages of six and, then again at 36, and those unique-to-me life experiences barely elicit a separate paragraph, because they're so routine to so many women, it usually makes them shake their heads in resigned recognition when shared, while most men I've told react in horrified shock.

Statistically, incidents of rape and sexual assault are simply too commonplace for most women to be unfamiliar with or untouched in some way by them, whatever the naysayers may say.

Rape culture means a rape victim is victimized all over again when she reports (if she reports) the crime, when the police, the judge, the people around her get to excessively question the validity of her claims.

Rape culture means a bunch of privileged college kids get to discuss the finer points of sodomizing the student association president in a private Facebook conversation (I'm looking at you, University of Ottawa!), and when that conversation is leaked, exposing them, instead of meekly apologizing and resigning, they brazenly threaten legal action against the victim.

Rape culture means that, two days later, the very same university suspends their entire men's hockey team for an alleged gang rape of a woman in Thunder Bay.

Rape culture means you get to read a myriad of excuses from apologists who rush to their defense, patiently and patronizingly explaining to you that you don't really know these boys, and what if they were just good kids who made that one tiny mistake? The way the Steubenville rapists were bright kids with bright futures, until they decided to -- oops! -- rape someone.

Rape culture means that St. Mary's University in Halifax had a "rape chant" for years, and both men and women obliviously sang along, without questioning the words, because it was all "just in good fun."

Rape culture means that a Montreal bar gets to make jokes about date rape and domestic violence, and when you denounce them, you get called out for not being able to take a joke, and the trolls come out to call you a "bitch" and a "lesbo."

Rape culture means that in 2011 a convicted rapist didn't go to jail because a Manitoba judge concluded the victim sent signals that "sex was in the air" through her suggestive attire and promiscuous conduct on the night of the attack.

Rape culture means that the men around you get to question the veracity of these claims, and get to excuse them as exceptions that can't possibly be the rule. Only, how many exceptions do we get to dismiss away before we acknowledge that we have a problem?

Rape culture means that U.S. state representatives get to publicly state that "some girls rape easy" (Republican Roger Rivard, State of Wisconsin) and "If a woman has a right to an abortion, why shouldn't a man be free to use his superior strength to force himself on a woman?" (Republican Lawrence Lockman, State of Maine), and they still don't get run out of office by their electorate.

Rape culture means that a Toronto police officer can suggest that a woman can avoid sexual assault by not dressing like a "slut" and think it completely justified to say out loud.

Rape culture means privileged white middle-class women like Margaret Wente and Barbara Kay -- so out of touch with reality they have long ago become irrelevant -- are given space in national publications like the Globe and Mail and the National Post to spew their moralizing rhetoric. They get to flippantly dismiss women's concerns about safety on Canadian campuses, while conveniently appeasing the naysayers blind to the damning statistics and the facts of sexual assault cases. But, hey... rape usually happens to "stupid girls" who do "bad things" they get to say while wagging their fingers at us.

In these irresponsible columnists' minds, rape is a direct consequence of bad decisions made, unaccountability on the victims' part; not a direct and indirect result of a society that views women's bodies as sexually available for men to ogle, comment on, harass, dehumanize, hit on, objectify, and inevitably assault.

I suppose it's comforting to believe that rape is the direct result of bad decisions, because then you can convince yourself that you can decrease its occurrence by simply taking the steps required.

But rape doesn't always involve some creepy stranger jumping out of a van late at night, holding you at knifepoint and forcing himself on you. I mean, it can involve that, but statistics clearly reveal that 70 per cent of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows. A family friend, a relative, a boyfriend, an acquaintance -- in many cases, an ordinary "good" guy you trusted.

Rape culture means that every time you discuss the topic of rape, a man will always -- without fail -- pop up to ask: "what about rape against men?" Not that those victims don't matter (they most certainly do), but that somehow that miniscule percentage is supposed to overshadow and obliterate the overwhelming daily percentage of women who get raped. As if discussing rape against women is somehow deemed invalid because men aren't the primary focus of the discussion...

Rape culture means that when you bring up sexual assault and rape, apologists will question the numbers, the studies, the motives, the blurred lines. Was it really rape? Was it really assault? Was the victim credible? Are you sure she didn't simply regret it in the morning? Instead of questioning why the numbers are so high, your knee-jerk reaction is to resort to questioning the ulterior motives of the ones posting them.

Rape culture means that most women and girls are raised and instructed to limit their day-to-day behaviour because of the existence of rape. Most women and girls who travel abroad, who take public transportation, or walk to a dimly lit parking lot at night experience that "what if" panicky moment. Women reading this know what I'm talking about. Men, in general, do not. And knowing that most men don't rape, and that most women will never be victims of rape, is not enough to erase that fear. Because it's real, and it's the legacy of a culture where rape (and rape denial) exist in too high numbers.

Rape culture is the incessant trolling female opinion writers are forced to deal with, the constant barrage of "are you sure's?" they're asked when they state the facts, the #rapeculture hashtags they are forced to come across on Facebook and Twitter used as ironic fodder for jokes ("Your team got raped, dude!") by those who refuse to get it.

Rape culture is the constant questioning of a rape victim's past sexual history, her choices of attire, and her social habits. Did she drink? Was she seen late in a bar? Was she sexual? Was her skirt too short, her top too tight; her heels too high? Did she look -- come on, people... spell it out -- like she was "asking for it"? You know what I'm talking about. The kind of questions you're no longer allowed to ask, yet are still forming quietly in your head.

Some men are quick to complain that many of them feel persecuted and discriminated against in the current climate. They like to perpetuate the notion that feminism is anti-men, anti-sex, anti-equality. That it conveniently removes or downplays the notions of accountability and responsibility for women. That couldn't be farthest from the truth for most feminists I know (many of which are men, by the way). No one is looking to remove accountability. It's the lack of accountability in the form of excuses that we need to see go away.

Ultimately, however, rape culture means I get to write an almost 2000-word dissertation attempting to explain what rape culture is, knowing fully well that too many of you will be too busy dismissing it as feminist griping to consider whether any of this might possibly have merit.

Hey... at least I tried.

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