Stanford University student and Olympic hopeful swimmer Brock Turner was convicted on three felony counts for raping a 20-year-old woman on campus and was sentenced to only four months in a county jail because, as the judge put it, “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.” Maybe you saw the T-shirts that — parodying MasterCard’s marketing tag line — called taking drunk women home “priceless.” Or the recent attempt to ban skinny jeans to stop boys from teasing girls for wearing “tight” pants. Or the banners fraternity members hung on their houses to proclaim themselves “freshman daughter drop-off” zones. You’ve seen headlines that call rape “sex,” as if it were consensual. You’ve heard song lyrics that basically say “no means yes.” You’ve read about worries that a rape conviction will ruin an athlete’s future, as opposed to the survivor’s. And about celebrities who are given a pass, over and over again.
That’s rape culture. It’s not a new concept. It’s the toxic mix of myths, excuses and justifications that surround — and perpetuate — sexual violence. The fact that rape culture is now understood as a thing is a good thing. A game-changer, in fact.
But what’s increasingly important is that we understand it correctly. Which means that we need to understand its role in our everyday lives.
We often talk about rape culture as an independent entity, something that exists all on its own in the world. As if over here there’s culture and over there, with those frat guys and clueless politicians, there’s rape culture.
But rape culture isn’t separate. It’s our culture. Our culture is “rapey.”
It’s mainstream culture that shifts blame from those who commit violence to those who are victimized by it. It’s mainstream culture that places the burden of preventing and coping with the effects of sexual violence on survivors. It makes male and LGBT survivors invisible and de-prioritizes survivors of color, indigenous survivors and others. It excuses sexual violence under the guise of “boys will be boys.” Versions of these examples exist across all of our cultures and are an inextricable part of our society as a whole.
Disrupting and transforming culture is an often-overlooked critical component to addressing gender-based violence. Challenging cultural norms enhances more traditional ways of addressing violence. As we change culture, we make the behavior and attitudes of those who commit violence stand out more. We make that violence and abuse more apparent. We make it easier to hold people accountable for violence.
I used to see rape culture as something separate from my culture as an American, video game player, 30-something, white guy, (former) firefighter and EMT. I recognized rape culture as a concept, but I missed all the subtle and not-so-subtle ways — from idle jokes to outright harassment — that sexual violence is a part of the culture of all of those communities I belong to.
We all have the opportunity to intervene in a moment of potential violence and to challenge all of the iterations of our “rapey” culture we see around us. Looking at rape culture as independent makes it nearly impossible to eradicate, disrupt and transform. Looking at it through the lens of our culture is the only way forward to make real and lasting change together.
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