What Is Rape Culture, And How Can We Combat It?

Once you notice how many parts of our culture normalize rape, you'll start seeing it everywhere.
Fighting back against rape culture can become a part of everyday life.
Fighting back against rape culture can become a part of everyday life.

Thanks to the ubiquitousness of the #MeToo movement, we live in a world where everyone’s first reaction to seeing a male celebrity’s name trending on Twitter is to assume he either died or did something predatory.

Sexual violence impacts people — especially women — in all aspects of our lives, from reading about the latest person who has committed an assault, to dealing with harassment in the workplace, to derogatory comments we get while simply living our lives.

It can be easy to feel hopeless in the face of these relentless threats, but there are small things we can do in our everyday lives to make our society less tolerant of rape and sexual violence, according to Dillon Black, a prevention coordinator at the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women.

What is a rape culture?

The term “rape culture” has its roots in what 1970s writer Susan Brownmiller called a “rape-supportive culture.” (Quick heads up: like many pioneering feminists of that era, her work contains ideas we now understand as exclusionary to feminists of colour.) What that means is that we live in a society that encourages us to scrutinize victims, support rapists, and generally make light of sexual violence.

Watch: What is rape culture? Story continues after video.

Once you start looking, you’ll notice examples of a rape-supportive culture everywhere: in news reports that focus on how good a swimmer a rapist was, in TV shows that regularly use rape as a trope, in songs about slipping something in a woman’s drink, in judges and defence lawyers who ask rape victims what they were wearing when they were attacked and judges who tell victims they should be flattered.

Black walked HuffPost Canada through some of the ways we can fight rape culture in our everyday lives.

Know the facts

The first step, Black said, is understanding how big of a problem sexual assault actually is.

One-third of Canadian women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. But only five per cent are reported to police — and of those five per cent, just 12 per cent result in a conviction within six years.

And there’s evidence that many people don’t understand what it means to commit assault. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, 96 per cent of Canadians believe all sexual activity should be consensual, but only one in three people understand what it means to give consent.

Some people think that consent is when a person doesn’t say “no.” But consent is actually an enthusiastic yes.

People take part in the 2020 International Women's Day March in Toronto on Sunday.
People take part in the 2020 International Women's Day March in Toronto on Sunday.

“Amplifying survivors’ stories and their experiences is super important, because you also see how prevalent it is,” said Black, who uses they/them pronouns. Black said it can be particularly eye-opening to many men, who experience sexual violence at lower rates than women. Many are surprised to learn just how common sexual assault is.

Believe survivors

The most significant thing you can do when someone tells you they’ve been assaulted it to believe them.

There’s this pervasive idea that rape accusations are thrown around casually, and that many of them are false. But that doesn’t line up with the statistics.

The truth is that when you account for how few rapes are actually reported, only about 0.5 per cent of rape allegations are false. So it’s not totally outside the realm of possibility, but it almost never happens.

But we don’t live in a world that believes that: one in five victims of sexual assault feel blamed, according to Statistics Canada, both by the perpetrator and by their own friends and family.

Watch: Mandi Gray talks about the way people assumed she couldn’t be a sexual assault survivor because she doesn’t match the “victim” stereotype. Story continues after video.

“In a culture that’s so instilled with sexual violence and rape and all of this confusion and these myths around it, I think one of the best things you can do to combat it is just being empathetic and listening and believing people when they tell you that they’ve gone through that,” Black said.

Another important part of that process, they added, is “understanding that false allegations and the justice system is not onside with survivors most times.”

Understand that “nice guys” can be perpetrators, too

Another pervasive rape myth is that rapists usually jump out of the bushes at strangers. Stranger rape occurrs in about two out of ten rape cases, and is horrifying, but it’s also pretty rare. Stats tell us that the vast majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows.

One thing that’s often difficult is “coming to terms with the fact that people who perpetrate or harm other people aren’t necessarily what we would think of as serial killer, monster type people,” Black said. “They’re very much normal people.”

When survivors do come forward, a common reaction from friends of the person they’ve accused is that it can’t be true, “because he’s such a nice guy.” But that’s the point — most of the people who have crossed lines of consent, whether they did so deliberately or not, are nice to their friends and polite to their co-workers. It can be hard to swallow, but understanding this is an important part of understanding how sexual violence functions.

“People who perpetrate or harm other people aren’t necessarily what we would think of as serial killer, monster type people. They're very much normal people.”

- Dillon Black

“In the same way that a lot of us will definitely know someone who has gone through sexual violence ... it’s very likely that you know someone who has engaged in some form of sexual violence or rape culture, whether it’s intentional or not.”

Excusing someone of sexual violence because they’re a nice person, or a talented filmmaker, or they were an incredible athlete, is one way our culture minimizes the impact of sexual violence.

“You see a lot of the general public really going to bat for perpetrators, thinking that their reputation shouldn’t be ruined on the basis of this, and generally a culture that really doesn’t understand the implications of sexual violence for survivors,” Black said.

Think critically about your news sources

Black says it’s important to look at where you’re getting information about sexual violence, because there’s still a lot of misinformation out there, much of it with the (incorrect) thesis that many rape victims are lying.

Don’t accept everything you read as fact, and apply your critical thinking skills to figure out which outlets are trustworthy. Know what outlets you can trust, and look up authors to see if they have a history of minimizing rape or blaming victims before you trust their authority on the subject.

Women inspired by the Chilean feminist group called Las Tesis protest in front of the New York City criminal court during Harvey Weinstein's sex crimes trial in January.
Women inspired by the Chilean feminist group called Las Tesis protest in front of the New York City criminal court during Harvey Weinstein's sex crimes trial in January.

But even trustworthy news sources that cover issues related to sexual violence can over-amplify one-off situations, making them seem much more common than they actually are.

For example, a 2014 Rolling Stone article about a campus gang rape that turned out to be largely exaggerated, and maybe even partly fabricated, has been widely covered and is still used by right-wing media to discredit rape victims, years later.

While the story represents a clear journalistic failure on the part of Rolling Stone, one exaggerated or even false rape accusation doesn’t detract from the more than 600,000 sexual assaults that Canada sees annually.

“Call in” rather than call out

It’s normal for people to make light of sexual assault, as with this 2015 sale ad that invited shoppers to “Rape Us Now.”

In a lot of cases, Black said people probably aren’t being deliberately malicious — they just don’t understand how big of a problem it is, or how many people are affected by it.

In those cases, they suggest trying to appeal to people’s empathy rather than calling them out. “I don’t necessarily think shaming people works, because they get defensive,” they said.

Instead, Black recommends talking privately with someone who’s made a rape joke, or minimized assault in some way.

“Just so you know, when you say that, someone who had gone through that would think that you were someone that they couldn’t trust,” they recommend trying. “It would undermine a lot of the experiences that they had gone through, because it makes it seem like not a big deal, or it’s a joke.”

Explaining how bad their words would make someone feel, in other words, is likely a lot more effective than telling them they were wrong to say that.

Appealing to someone's empathy is often the most effective way to get them to change their behaviour.
Appealing to someone's empathy is often the most effective way to get them to change their behaviour.

Overall, Black is hoping we can change the way we think about sexual assault.

It can be easy to think that “that person who abused or harmed someone, they didn’t do that to me so it’s not my responsibility,” they said. “But then we become a culture that just lets it happen. We have to find ways to see it as more of a public issue than an individual issue.”

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