This claim, advanced by a cadre of feminist activists and bloggers, has been gaining mainstream currency—particularly in the wake of the nationally publicized Steubenville, Ohio rape case which exposed some very ugly attitudes and behaviors. While no one would deny that sexual violence is a grave problem, the crusade against “the rape culture” is a dubious cure: it distorts truth, fosters anger and divisiveness instead of respect and equality, and ultimately endangers justice for all.
There is, of course, some truth to the feminist argument that traditional sexual norms have often led to tolerance toward sexual coercion in certain situations (especially when the woman’s conduct is seen as “loose” or seductive). Even now, such sentiments are echoed in vile Internet comments bashing the 16-year-old Steubenville victim as a drunken slut—very much a minority view, but voiced frequently enough to be troubling.
But it’s quite a leap from acknowledging these attitudes to depicting modern Western—and especially American—culture as a misogynist cesspit in which rape is routinely condoned and validated. Indeed, indictments of the “rape culture” typically rely on falsified or out-of-context “facts.”
Thus, according to Nation magazine blogger Jessica Valenti, “we live in a country where politicians call rape a ‘gift from God’”—a reference to Indiana U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock. But what Mourdock actually said, in explaining his anti-abortion stance with no rape exception, was quite different: that “life is [a] gift from God … even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape.” What’s more, the comment was roundly condemned, and the outrage over it helped ensure Mourdock’s defeat in a traditionally Republican district.
Equally misleading is Valenti’s assertion that “a rape victim may see her case fall flat because she isn’t married.” This example comes from a bizarre California case in which a woman was assaulted in her sleep by a fellow houseguest at a relative’s house; prosecutors argued both non-consent due to her being unconscious and deception due to the defendant impersonating her boyfriend (who had been sleeping next to her earlier). The conviction was reversed on appeal because, under a 19th Century state law, rape by deception requires impersonating a spouse. However, the appellate panel sent the case back for retrial—with the charges based on non-consent alone—and urged the legislature to revise the antiquated law.
Or take the claim that thirty-one states allow rapists who impregnate their victims to seek child custody or visitation rights. In fact, these states simply don’t have laws explicitly barring such suits—not due to concern for the rights of rapist fathers but mainly, says activist and attorney Shauna Prewitt, because the issue is assumed to be non-existent. While recourse may indeed be needed, no one has cited a single known instance of a rapist (or accused rapist) actually getting parental rights; Prewitt appears to be the only woman on record as stating that she had to fight a custody suit from her assailant.
Is the Steubenville case, as the crusaders claim, prime evidence of “the rape culture”? The incident in which a severely intoxicated, unconscious or barely conscious girl was stripped, penetrated with fingers, and otherwise molested by two boys during a party—and several other boys took photos and made videos of these acts—certainly shows something rotten in large swaths of adolescent culture. No decent person could fail to be sickened by the text messages in which one of the perpetrators, Trent Mays, flippantly discussed the girl’s abuse and shared her nude photo, or by the YouTube video in which an ex-classmate delivered a drunken monologue about “the dead girl” along with a string of rape jokes. The story also offers real evidence of the seamy side of the “football culture” that caused many locals to rally around the boys—star players on the Steubenville High School football team—and, in some cases, malign the girl.
Yet the sordid details also rebut a key premise of the “rape culture” argument: that our society generally does not view non-consensual sex as rape. The Steubenville boys used the term repeatedly and seemed well aware that intercourse with the unconscious girl would have been rape—though apparently not that Ohio’s legal definition of the crime includes digital penetration. Judging by the text messages, they also knew early on that they might be in trouble with the law if the girl and her parents found out what had happened.
To blogger Amanda Marcotte, the mere fact that the attackers were initially eager to broadcast their deeds shows that they expected social support and even approval. But maybe it shows simply that they weren’t very bright; Mays and his friends actually discussed deleting incriminating messages in case their cell phones were seized by the police, but never followed up. There is nothing new about adolescents flaunting socially unacceptable behavior. Consider girls making videos of beating up other girls to post them on the Internet; or a recent incident in Homer, Alaska in which an unconscious 16-year-old boy at an alcohol-soaked football team party was sodomized with a beer bottle while other teens, boys and girls, looked on and some took pictures. The case got virtually no national media attention, perhaps because it does not fit the “rape culture” paradigm: no sane person would argue that our culture views male rape with beer bottles as normal boyish hijinks.
The Steubenville story is a cautionary tale not only about attitudes that facilitate sexual assault, but also about the dangers of the war against “the rape culture.” The Internet warriors who championed the victim, including the “hacktivist” group Anonymous, have been praised for bringing the case into the national spotlight and exposing social media items that documented vile conduct by the attackers and their friends; but their crusade also had a darker side.
The activists have disseminated wild rumors about the victim being drugged, kidnapped, repeatedly gang-raped, urinated on, and dumped on her parents’ lawn; about a (named) female accomplice luring her into a trap; about a “rape crew” of Steubenville football players that systematically assaulted young women while an adult fan of the team mentored them and collected photos of the attacks. (“Proof” of the latter was that one of the man’s hacked emails contained a photo supposedly resembling Savannah Dietrich, a high school student who went public last year about being sexually assaulted by two lacrosse players at a party—in Louisville, Kentucky, some 350 miles from Steubenville, and not Louisville, Ohio as Anonymous claimed.) Even respected feminist academics joined the rumor mill: on the Ms. Magazine blog, State University of New York sociologist Michael Kimmel averred that the girl had “an iron rod shoved inside her.” Many of these stories still circulate, despite being completely unsupported and often directly disproved by trial evidence.
In Steubenville, at least, the activists were on the right side (which does not excuse their methods). But their brand of righteous zealotry could easily raise a virtual lynch mob against the falsely accused, as the Duke University rape hoax from a few years ago should remind us.
To the zealots, any talk of false rape allegations is itself a part of the rape culture. But, while it is hard to get reliable statistics on false accusations, there is plenty of research to show that the problem is not negligible. There are real-life stories, too: last May, another former high school football star, Brian Banks, was cleared a decade after a rape charge sent him to prison for six years and destroyed his hopes for a professional athlete’s career. Banks’s “victim,” Wanetta Gibson—who had received a settlement from the school district for failing to ensure her safety—contacted Banks to apologize for her lie but still refused to come forward; a secret recording of her confession allowed him to be exonerated.
The women’s movement has made invaluable progress in lifting the stigma of rape and reforming sexist laws—ones that, as recently as the 1970s, required women to fight back to prove rape and instructed juries that an accuser’s unchaste morals could detract from her credibility. The fact that today, a rape case can be successfully prosecuted even when the victim was drunk and flirtatious, or engaged in consensual intimacies before the attack, is a victory for justice as well as women’s rights. Yet the fact remains that charges of sexual assault involving people who knows each other in a “he said/she said” situation are very difficult to prove in court—not because of “rape culture,” but because of the presumption of innocence. Gender equality requires equal concern for the rights of accused men.
Let us, by all means, confront ugly, sexist, victim-blaming attitudes when we see them. But this can be done without promoting sexist attitudes in feminist clothing: that a woman’s word automatically deserves more weight than a man’s; that all men bear responsibility for rape and “normal” men need to be taught not to rape; or that a woman who is inebriated but fully conscious is not responsible for her actions while an equally inebriated man is.
These ideological shibboleths will do little to help real victims of sexual violence, and may even hurt them by inviting an inevitable backlash.