Tag: rape culture

Yes and No: Women’s Sexual Liberation is a Package Deal

Women are caught in a constant war between the pressure to have sex and the pressure not to. “Slut.” “Prude.” “I bought you dinner—why did you lead me on if you didn’t want to have sex?” Even within feminist circles, we face pressure from those who claim to care about our choices. “Sexual purity is a creation of the patriarchy.” “Sex is one of the ways men exert power over women.” “Liberated women have sex like men.” Feminism becomes divided into sex-positive and sex-negative. Sex is not positive or negative. It can be either, sure, but there is nothing inherently positive or negative about having sex. We should be framing our feminism as choice-positive or agency-positive.

A woman who has sex with a different person every weekend is no more or less liberated than a woman who waits to have sex until she has found someone she loves. Liberation is not measured in the number of sexual partners a woman has or doesn’t have. Liberation comes from agency.

In a conversation about rape culture and feminism, my conservative mom acknowledged that rape culture as I described it existed today. But when she was young, things were different, she said. Only certain “types” of women slept with men they had just met. Only those women were “fair game” for men’s unwanted sexual advances. The modern omnipresence of rape culture, then, could be tied to women’s sexual liberation. As more women have become sexually liberated, men have not abandoned the assumption that a certain type of girl is always down to fuck. The difference is that, now, we are all that type of girl.

As feminist author bell hooks wrote, “Men who were ready for female sexual liberation if it meant free pussy, no strings attached, were rarely ready for feminist female sexual agency. This agency gave us the right to say yes to sex, but it also empowered us to say no.”

Men who claim to support women’s sexual liberation if it means more blowjobs for them do not care about women’s agency. What has changed for them is not our role in the decision-making process, but their own ease of access. By equating sexual liberation with indiscriminate promiscuity, they can now pressure women to have sex with them in the name of feminism— because women who say no are puritans, held back by the patriarchy. Ding ding ding: rape culture.

Consent is positive. Choice is positive. Agency is positive. Sex itself is neutral. It can be positive or negative depending on the circumstances and the choice of the people involved. Both camps of feminists — sex-positive and sex-negative — offer valuable analysis of the way patriarchy controls women’s bodies and sexuality. But by valuing sex as positive or negative, feminists extend the limitations on agency created by patriarchy. The right to say yes and the ability to say no are a package deal. Any feminist would agree. So why does our language imply otherwise?



Bill Cosby, Rape Culture, and Individual Responsibility

On July 26th, 35 of Bill Cosby’s rape victims came forward to discuss their rapes and the culture that ignored their cries for help. A serial rapist going uncharged for years due to celebrity is indicative of a deeper cultural problem — one that treats rape as an innocent mistake rather than a violent crime.

Countless studies point to an underlying culture in our society of male sexual aggression and the victimization of women. Not all men rape, but all men have the capacity to rape, and all women suffer from constant fear of being raped. Fear is central in rape culture — fear of sexual violence, fear of not being taken seriously, fear of men, and fear of the institutions that are supposed to protect us. The FBI estimates that of the mere 40% of rapes that are reported, only 20% are ever prosecuted. Rape is a traumatic experience, in ways different from any other crime, and speaking up about it after the fact to disinterested, cold ears is terrifying.

Rape culture can be defined as, “A complex of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women … and a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women [and girls] and presents it as the norm.”

Most rape victims already know their rapists, whether they are a boyfriend, classmate, or celebrity. The constant fear that is characteristic of rape culture affects all women. Women can do little to protect themselves against the people they already trust. Even if they could, the onus should fall on the rapist, not the victim. The women Bill Cosby raped had little chance to defend themselves, and their cries for recourse fell on unmoved ears.

Bill Cosby himself did not view his actions as rape. According to his deposition, he saw little difference between drugging a woman for sex and buying her dinner with the same goal in mind. Cosby’s attitudes about rape reflect a societal misunderstanding of how consent works. While Cosby was fully responsible for the rapes he committed, his outlook reflects how much work we have left in fighting for women’s bodily autonomy.

Many critics of rape culture say that talking about rape culture shifts blame from the perpetrators to the society around them, therefore relieving rapists of their own responsibility. RAINN, the U.S.’s largest organization combatting sexual violence, criticized rape culture, saying that, “Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions of a small percentage of the community to commit a violent crime.”

This criticism represents a misunderstanding of what rape culture means and why we talk about it. Individuals, while wholly responsible for their own actions, do not act within a vacuum. Culture in many ways dictates the attitudes and actions of the members of that culture. Just as a culture of nationalism fosters violence toward immigrants, rape culture fosters sexual violence. A rapist like Bill Cosby was able to continue to commit crime after crime because society ignored and justified his actions. In order to effectively combat rape, we must embrace a more radical approach that addresses its societal underpinnings. By getting to the cultural root of sexual violence, we can put an end to the very environment that allows rape to thrive.

We don’t have to choose between combatting rape culture and holding individual rapists accountable. Under rape culture, individual rapists are not held accountable for their actions. Our society treats rapists as innocent boys who made a harmless mistake — that is rape culture. Our society sides with celebrities over rape victims despite insurmountable evidence to the contrary — that is rape culture. Cultures are spontaneous orders that arise out of individual action. In countering rape culture we must fight both harmful action andpermissive attitudes towards those actions.

RAINN’s alternative recommendations for fighting sexual violence largely include risk-reduction messaging. RAINN shifts the responsibility for preventing rape to the potential victims — not the individuals committing rape. In knocking down discussion of rape culture, critics do the exact opposite of what they intend. They remove the rapist’s responsibility and retreat into the victim-blaming that sits at rape culture’s core.

For a free society to flourish, we must not only respect individual rights, but also uphold individual responsibility. We owe it to ourselves to create a world in which rapists are held accountable for their actions and a culture in which human rights violations like rape are viewed as the atrocities they are. If you deny rape culture exists or say that it doesn’t matter, you are part of the problem. We can either recognize and fight rape culture or foster it — no third option is available.

This article was originally published on August 9, 2015 at C4SS.org.