A teenager in Ohio is sexually assaulted. Meanwhile, peers and members of her community encourage her assailants via social media. When the girl comes forward, she is met with disdain and death threats, while the media showers her convicted rapists with sympathy.
This mass media refers to the phenomenon as a result of “rape culture.” But what does that mean? Two Central Oregon Community College professors have different perspectives.
“When you have kids making encouraging comments about rape on social media, that’s not just kids making comments,” said Barry, referring to the Steubenville Ohio rape cases. “Those kids are picking up from something on our culture.”
Patriarchal influence in culture impacts the way society sees sexual assault, according to Barry.
“It makes us wonder who is accountable,” he said. “How do we assign blame? Was she asking for it?”
Tina Redd, a writing and women’s studies professor at COCC, believes that an ambiguous term such as “rape culture” may distract from more specific issues.
“I wonder if the phrase [rape culture] is a way to avoid conversation,” said Redd. She believes referring to a problem as part of an entire culture creates the illusion that no changes can be made.
“You can feel outrage about the problem, but you also feel helplessness,” said Redd. “It’s hard to change culture.”
Masculinity, femininity and sexuality
The popular culture portrayal of masculinity plays a part in the prevalence of sexual assault, according to Barry. Advertisements, movies and television shows all send the message that men are powerful and women are powerless, he said. Men are portrayed as almost animalistic when it comes to their sexual urges, so they can’t help but be sexually aggressive. It’s not man’s job to resist his urges, but rather a woman’s job not to provoke him.
“That stuff is so insidious and prevalent in our culture that we don’t even notice it, yet it impacts us,” said Barry. “Boys are trying to be masculine, so that’s what they’re projecting.”
The balance of power portrayed in popular culture can encourage sexual assault.
“It makes it harder for boys and men to understand consent and the concept of ‘no’ meaning ‘no,’ ” said Barry.
Redd agrees that the portrayal of masculinity plays into the problem of sexual assault, but so does the projected image of femininity.
“It’s very difficult for us as a culture to acknowledge that both men and women are human beings, not just polar representations of gender,” said Redd.
Just like men are taught they must be aggressive to be masculine, women are taught they must be sexual in order to be feminine, according to Redd. She pointed to portrayals of women in shows about teen pregnancy and makeover shows: they’re all sexual characterizations.
“When you narrow the choices of female sexuality to things that are vulgar, you debase and dehumanize them… it invites rape,” she said. “When we’re talking about rape culture, what we’re really talking about is the inability to express femininity in a positive way.”
It’s important to note, according to Redd, that the sexualization of women is significant because it objectifies them, not because it invokes actual sexual desire. Rape is an act of aggression and violence, not desire, she said.
“We might suggest more modesty in dress, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think that’s going to make rape go away,” said Redd. “It’s difficult to see a connection between provocative dress and power and aggression.”
The combination of men who are taught they must be aggressive and women who are taught they must be sexualized is dangerous, according to Redd. It sets the stage for women to be dehumanized enough for that moral line to be crossed.
“You don’t rape women, you rape things,” she said.
Making a change
For change to be made, Americans need to start talking about the right things, according to Barry. First, Barry said it’s time to start focus on the right problems.
“A lot of time is spent talking about false accusations of rape, and those do exist,” said Barry. “But there are so many more cases of real rape. We need to be asking questions about our patriarchal society and why we keep enforcing these norms.”
Changes also need to be made to sex education in high schools, according to Barry. Barry referenced a study that suggested the teenagers from countries with more inclusive sex education programs have a healthier view on sex and consent. Teenagers who are taught “abstinence only” programs are less likely to immediately accept the answer “no.”
The first step to fixing “rape culture” is addressing singular issues, rather than treating it as an unchangeable norm, according to Redd. Changes will need to start small.
“If we’re going to address it in a specific way, it’s going to take a real grassroots female response,” said Redd.
Part of that, according to Redd, is combating negative portrayal of gender relationships with positive ones. Images of male on female violence need to be replaced with portrayals of healthy friendships between men and women.
“The average college aged men and women are not engage with violence with each other,” said Redd. “We need to promote that.”