"You were drinking, what did you expect?"
Those were the first words that I heard when I went to someone I trusted for support after my roommate’s boyfriend raped me eight years ago. When I came forward to report what happened, instead of support, many well-meaning people close to me asked me questions about what I was wearing, if I had done something to cause the assault, or if I had been drinking. These questions about my choices the night of my assault — as opposed to the choices made by my rapist — were in some ways as painful as the violent act itself. I had stumbled upon rape culture: a culture in which sexual violence is the norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults.
Last week, in an essay here at Time, Caroline Kitchens wrote that rape culture as a theory over-hyped by “hysterical” feminists. Emboldened by a disappointing and out of touch statement by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), Kitchens writes, “Recently, rape-culture theory has migrated from the lonely corners of the feminist blogosphere into the mainstream. In January, the White House asserted that we need to combat campus rape by ‘[changing] a culture of passivity and tolerance in this country, which too often allows this type of violence to persist...’ Tolerance for rape? Rape is a horrific crime, and rapists are despised.”
Kitchens goes on to downplay the problem of sexual violence saying, “Though rape is certainly a serious problem, there’s no evidence that it’s considered a cultural norm.”
Is 1 in 5 American women surviving rape or attempted rape considered a cultural norm? Is 1 in 6 men being abused before the age of 18 a cultural norm? These statistics are not just shocking, they represent real people. Yet, these millions of survivors and allies don’t raise their collective voices to educate America about our culture of rape because of fear. Rape culture is a real and serious, and we need to talk about it. Simply put, feminists want equality for everyone and that begins with physical safety.
“If so many millions of women were getting carjacked or kidnapped, we'd call it a public crisis. That we accept it as normal, even inevitable, is all the evidence I need,” Jaclyn Friedman, author Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape told me, in response to Kitchens’ piece. “If we already despise rapists, why are they so rarely held accountable in any way?," Friedman asks. An analysis by RAINN found that 97% of rapists never spend a single day in jail for their crimes. "What we really despise is the idea of rapists: a terrifying monster lurking in the bushes, waiting to pounce on an innocent girl as she walks by," Friedman says. "But actual rapists, men who are usually known to (and often loved by) their victims? Men who are sometimes our sports heroes, political leaders, buddies, boyfriends and fathers? Evidence suggests we don't despise them nearly as much as we should.”
In response to Kitchens’ piece, I started the hashtag #RapeCultureIsWhen on Twitter hoping that it would spark a public dialogue about rape culture and shift the conversation away from the myths that shame so many survivors into silence. This conversation is meant to be a tool to educate people about what rape culture is, how to spot it, and how to combat it. The hashtag immediately took off and trended nationally for hours on the strength of personal stories and advocates sharing information about victim blaming, bystander intervention, and healthy masculinity. The level of engagement is an illustration of how many people wanted to speak out about this issue many are too afraid to touch. The following statements are made up of contributions the #RapeCultureIsWhen hashtag as well as the myriad personal stories of survivors with the courage to speak out:
- Rape culture is when women who come forward are questioned about what they were wearing.
- Rape culture is when survivors who come forward are asked, “Were you drinking?”
- Rape culture is when people say, “she was asking for it.”
- Rape culture is when we teach women how to not get raped, instead of teaching men not to rape.
- Rape culture is when the lyrics of Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ mirror the words of actual rapists and is still the number one song in the country.
- Rape culture is when the mainstream media mourns the end of the convicted Steubenville rapists’ football careers and does not mention the young girl who was victimized.
- Rape culture is when cyberbullies take pictures of sexual assaults and harass their victims online after the fact, which in the cases of Audrie Pott and Rehtaeh Parsons tragically ended in their suicides.
- Rape culture is when, in 31 states, rapists can legally sue for child custody if the rape results in pregnancy.
- Rape culture is when college campus advisers tasked with supporting the student body, shame survivors who report their rapes. (Annie Clark, a campus activist, says an administrator at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill told her when she reported her rape, "Well... Rape is like football, if you look back on the game, and you're the quarterback, Annie... is there anything you would have done differently?")
- Rape culture is when colleges are more concerned with getting sued by assailants than in supporting survivors. (Or at Occidental College, where students and administrators who advocated for survivors were terrorized for speaking out against the school’s insufficient reporting procedures.)
It’s no surprise that we would refuse to acknowledge that rape and sexual violence is the norm, not the exception. It’s no surprise because most of us would rather believe that the terrible realities we hear about aren’t real or that, at least, we can’t do anything about it. The truth is ugly. But by denying the obvious we continue to allow rapists to go unpunished and leave survivors silenced.
Zerlina Maxwell is a political analyst, speaker, and contributing writer for EBONY.com, Feministing.com, theGrio.com, BET.com, and RHRealitycheck.org. She writes about national politics, candidates, and specific policy and culture issues including domestic violence, sexual assault, victim blaming and gender inequality.