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Rape Culture 101

Rape culture. It’s easy to unknowingly participate in, but incredibly challenging to eliminate due to socialization and the heterocisexist patriarchy we live in.

There are books, academic papers, and case studies on Rape Culture, so to address it, criticize it, and suggest solutions in one article is impossible. However, as the school year starts it is important to at least discuss the basics – let’s call it Rape Culture 101 – so we can all be more aware of how we interact with one another on campus and be sure to participate in bystander intervention.

Rape Culture can be defined many ways but in general we can define it as a culture in which rape and sexual violence is considered normal and common, and where society’s attitudes, norms, practices, and media encourage sexual violence or condone physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm. Because of Rape Culture people are taught not to be raped, rather than not to rape (Think: don’t put your drink down, don’t walk alone at night, or even the new “anti-date-rape” nail polish).

When I first heard this definition I criticized the fact that it assumes women are always the victims and survivors, and that men are always the perpetrators. I felt this way because 1. anyone can be a rapist regardless of one’s sex, gender, sexuality, race, socioeconomic class, or level of education; and 2. It perpetuates gender binary. However, after discussing this with others, I understood that the reason the definition of Rape Culture is focused on women as the survivors, and men as the perpetrators, is because it is a quintessential example of how Rape Culture is constructed from socialization and this heterocisexist patriarchy where a large majority of the population has been taught that men rape and women are victims. But as we all know, it is not this simple.


Rape Culture can be described in three categories:

1.  Heterocisexist patriarchy

Breaking down the word heterocisexist we can come to understand the world we live in as a hetero (heterosexual, straight) – cis (gender identity that agrees with societally recognized sex) – sexist (discrimination against women) society. Thus, since general society assumes the majority of people to be heterosexual and cisgender, Rape Culture is so often defined and described as men raping women.

2.  Defining Consent

The most essential topic when discussing Rape Culture is how we define consent. Verbal, clear, sober, mutual consent is required when engaging in any sexual or physical activity. As American University students it is imperative to know how AU defines consent. A large percentage of sexual assault cases revolve around a misinformed understanding of consent and what qualifies as sexual assault.

3. Victim Blaming

Rape is an act of power not an act of sexual pleasure. When someone is raped it is never okay to ask what they were wearing, how they were acting, what their sexual history is, or what risk taking behavior they might have been partaking in. These questions are completely irrelevant and do not belong in the discussion of sexual assault. In addition, Rape Culture hurts everyone—not just survivors of sexual assault and violence. Survivors’ families, friends, and significant others are all affected by Rape Culture so it is crucial not to partake in victim blaming. Not only is victim blaming wrong and damaging, but it also shows a lack of compassion and understanding about a very serious issue.

Rape Culture originated from the heterocentric patriarchial dichotomies of gender and sexual roles, the objectification of female bodies, incorrect and non-inclusive sexual education, and an overall lack of sex positivity.  But this doesn’t mean we have to accept it or participate in it. Instead we must take a stand against Rape Culture by first educating ourselves on why Rape Culture exists, and ways we can slowly eradicate it. As with any issue in our world, solely educating ourselves on the problem is not enough. We must take action if we want to see change and that can start today by putting an end to slut shaming and victim blaming, and changing the radio station when sexually violent songs play such as the infamous “Blurred Lines.” 

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Emma is a sophomore at American University, majoring in Journalism and minoring in Political Science and Women's Studies. She loves to write, journal, and blog in her free time. Emma is a Communications Intern at the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), a non-profit in DC. She is a social media editor for Her Campus American.
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