Rape Culture 101

June 7, 2016

Rape culture is an environment in which rape is presumed to be inevitable and certain people are taught to fear rape and certain people are not. Rape persists because rape is related to the universal devaluing of people and behaviour deemed to be feminine. Rape persists because we ceaselessly conceive of rape as related to our conceptions of what is strange, or alien, to humanity. Rape persists because the language we ascribe to sex facilitates the weaponization of sex into rape.

Rape’s presumed inevitability is the logic behind victim blaming, where a person who endures rape is understood as responsible for having “provoked” that rape. The phrase originates in the book Blaming the Victim by William Ryan, which refutes victim blaming as a logic used to justify anti-black racism in the United States. Because we think rape is inevitable, if you behave irresponsibly or somehow fail to use every resource at your disposal to protect yourself from rape, then you are responsible for that rape.

The way we conceive of rape as a natural force is also why we coach people who endure rape not to vocalize their fear, their experiences, or their frustration with either their fear or their experiences. When we think about rape as a natural force, the people who fear rape are stupid at worst and precious at best: infantile, like children who are afraid of the dark.

In rape culture, we think certain people are more vulnerable to being raped than others. We teach these people to fear rape, and we teach them that it’s their job to avoid it. The fact that we teach certain people to fear rape and don’t teach others comprises a second key component of rape culture. The division of work in rape culture is such that only people who we think are at risk of being raped must be attuned to others’ capacity to rape.

Teaching people not to rape (and, indeed, trying not to get raped) is work that is disproportionately performed by the people who are raped the most often: women and feminine people, even more so if they are trans, nonbinary, of colour, Indigenous, sex workers, disabled, fat, queer, or poor. The world teaches these people to fear a specific kind of rape in a myriad of ways. We actively try to dictate the ever-shifting conditions that might guarantee their safety (always wear long garments, never walk alone after dark); we obscure and control the conditions under which an assault “counts” as rape; and we present sensationalist rape narratives as both a looming threat of daily life and an entirely normal occurrence in cultural products like print and online news media, popular fiction, and video games.

The devaluing of people and behaviour deemed feminine includes misogyny and transmisogyny, and it also includes other people, habits, and objects that are read as feminine or as supposed-to-be-feminine. There’s a relationship between rape and all of the following phenomena:

  • The widespread derision for material objects with no gender that are perceived as feminine such as makeup, high heeled shoes, and purses (which are dismissed as “frivolous” or “impractical”)
  • The widespread derision for habits such as uptalk and public displays of emotion that similarly have no gender but are perceived as feminine, which are discouraged as “unprofessional” or “immature”
  • The disproportionate violence that cis women, trans women, and people of all genders endure when they are perceived as feminine or not feminine enough, regardless of their actual gender

Our ideas about what femininity is and how it should operate in the world are integral to a nuanced understanding of how we devalue “femininity.” The standard, most respectable performance of femininity includes multiple characteristics: virtuous, beautiful, and maternal, but also thin, white, cisgender, able bodied, strictly heterosexual, neurotypical. This “respectable standard” is impossible, and yet certain people fall further from it than others, and are threatened with rape and rape culture in different ways as a result.

The further you fall from standard respectable femininity, the less likely it is that the public will believe you or empathize with your pain. Perpetrators, then, can rape people as a means of policing them into standard respectable femininity (for example, the “corrective” rape of queer women), and as a means of policing them out of standard respectable femininity (“look how far away you are from acceptable or respectable femininity, I can do anything I want to you because you’re not deserving of respect”).

Rape also symbolically feminizes a person in that when a person rapes another person, the individual who endures the rape is perceived to have lost power or been disempowered; thus relegating them to a feminized status in a binary where feminine is less. Rapists, then, can use rape as a means of “empowering themselves” by “taking” it from the people they rape. Because of how entrenched the gender binary of masculine versus feminine is, rapists can leverage the binary to inform their own empowerment.

Rape, and its relationship to the hierarchized gender binary, functions to create and control people who are read as feminine: it is the extension of smaller femme-antagonisms. I have witnessed (and myself experienced) a reluctance to challenge the structures and social relations that inform and comprise femme-antagonism. This is not surprising, as doing so would challenge the power dynamics that shape hetero supremacist and patriarchal society. However, naming and resisting the gender binary and its attendant antagonism towards femininity is key to fighting sexual assault and abuse.

The second reason sexual assault and sexual abuse exist and continue to exist in our society is the way rape is related to our conceptions of what is strange, or alien, to humanity. An often employed strategy of rape prevention is to recognize rape as a moral outrage, to locate and quantify its unacceptable constituent parts, and to try to remove these toxic parts from the presumably completely healthy body of “sex.” This involves casting rapists as aberrant, monstrous, or sick. Rape in this model is something Different with a capital “D,” something done by strangers, or people who are “strange,” to people they do not know.

Here, when someone rapes you, if you’re actually hurt by the rape, you cast your rapist out of your life: render them a stranger to you, because even if you thought you knew them, you do not truly know them at all. The people we truly know cannot be monsters, or, if you truly knew your rapist, then you ought to have known there was something monstrous about them and by electing to maintain a relationship with them, you brought your rape upon yourself. If your rapist is not a stranger, or if you do not turn them into a stranger after your rape, then it cannot have been a rape at all.

Carceral solutions to rape rely on this logic of strangeness to situate a monstrous rapist outside of the civil society they violate. Conceptualizations of rape that render rapists “sick” permit predatory perpetrators to leverage their trauma as an excuse for their predilection for rape—and because perpetrators are so often subjects who we’ve been trained from birth to empathize with (straight, white, able bodied, neurotypical, cisgender men, the heroes and protagonists of so many narratives) we believe them.

In this view, people who endure rape are also rendered “strange” to us: reified survivors, forever changed and hardened by their experience of violence; or tragic victims, who will ceaselessly be in need of shelter and guidance from those in power. The relationship between the idea of “stranger” or “strange” and how we think about rape is one of the reasons that sexual assault persists in society: in its place, imagine a conceptualization of rape that frames it as a horrifically normal exercise of power, an act of violence within a systemic context of femme-antagonism. Rape as quotidian.

There is one more set of ideas I would like to discuss with respect to the three major reasons why sexual assault and abuse exist and continue to exist in our society. I recognize rape as a weaponization of sex; rape is what happens when people turn sex into a weapon. I’ve outlined some of the processes and ideologies that make it easy to turn sex into a weapon, but the last of these is the very language we use to talk about sex itself.

Sex, like all forms of social relationships (including one’s own relationship with one’s own body) has to be understood in the context of other forms of power, such as capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. Even when we try to talk about sex positively—sex as a choice, sex as a part of who we are, sex as identity forming, sex as a necessary means of how we come into ourselves—sex is still subject to these forms of power. Within capitalism and colonialism, cis hetero sex is state sanctioned and desireable because of its capacity to produce new workers and settlers via pregnancy. However, given the discourses that exist around sex-as-identity building, within capitalism even queer sex is necessary to the formation of liberal agential subjects: independent, tireless, happy, productive people.

If engaging in sex is necessary to be a modern, liberated subject, then what choice do we truly have to engage in it? And if that choice is flawed or absent, then where is the line between sex we “choose” to have, and rape (so often called, paradoxically, “nonconsensual sex”)—and how easy is it for perpetrators to exploit that line? I resist conversations about sex that posit it as a necessary or naturalized part of “healthy” existence.

To conclude, I understand rape culture as an environment in which rape is presumed to be inevitable and certain people are taught to fear rape and certain people are not. I see three major reasons sexual assault and abuse exist and continue to exist in our society. The first is because of the way rape is related to a widespread antagonism towards things society perceives as feminine. The second is because of the way society believes rape happens between strangers and that rapists have to be people who are strange. The third is because the language and attitudes society ascribes to sex create the conditions for sex to be used as a tool of power and control to rape. Ultimately, these phenomena converge into a system where people—predominantly white men, as we see time and time again—are able to rape others with impunity. Burn it all down.


Image via nubbsgalore.tumblr.com

Further Reading

Dear BB: Dudes in Rape Culture. GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine. September 30, 2015.

Baker, Katie J.M. Here Is The Powerful Letter The Stanford Victim Read Aloud To Her Attacker. Buzzfeed. June 6, 2016.

Bolger, Dana. Why Do We Love Bystander Intervention and Fear Community Consequences For Rape? Feministing. January 14, 2015.

C.E. Undoing Sex: Against Sexual Optimism. LIES: A Journal of Materialist Feminism Volume 1. AK Press, 2012.

Clementine, Clémence X. Against the Couple Form. LIES: A Journal of Materialist Feminism Volume 1. AK Press, 2012.

Gavey, Nicola. Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape. Routledge, 2005.

Moen, Erica. Sex Positive. Oh Joy Sex Toy. March 16, 2016.

Troyan, Cassandra. The Body Always Remembers (An interview with Amy Berkowitz). The New Inquiry. September 24, 2015.



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