THE BLOG

Rape Culture Is: Know It When You See It

06/01/2013 10:16 pm ET | Updated Aug 01, 2013

This article, written by investigative journalism students at the University of Massachusetts, is presented as part of a larger series addressing issues related to sexual assault on college campuses.

Rape culture. It's a phrase you hear a lot. But, what exactly does it mean? Is there one general definition? Not necessarily. In many ways the phrase evokes the famous Supreme Court comment about obscenity from Potter Stewart, "I know it when I see it."

And, you don't have to look far to see examples of rape culture these days. Whether it's advertising, movies, music videos or social media -- images, words, concepts -- it's all out there illustrating men dominating women.

"Everywhere you turn there's condoning, trivializing, and eroticizing rape, and collectively it sets a tone that says this is no big deal or this is what women deserve," said Lynn Phillips, a Lecturer with the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Communication Department.

The language of rape culture exists in everyday conversation.

"I raped that test," is a phrase that has become commonplace, connoting a sense of accomplishment. "You might 'rape' somebody you're playing against which means you won really easily against them," said Mike Angelli, a UMass student.

And, there is an endless amount of "joking" about rape occurring in cyberspace.

Trending social media topics such as "the rape sloth" continues to generate a type of editorial cartoon known as memes, which display comments about rape in a comedic form.

"Wanna smell my new cologne? It's called chloroform," quoted one of the statements.

Other meme "jokes" include "Oh you don't want sex? Challenge accepted," and even "I've got a dick and a knife, at least one of them is going inside of you tonight."

Memes can be generated by anyone on the Internet, which only makes it easier for others to continue the trend.

Popular movies are strewn with plots of men with the sole purpose of having sex. In the movie "American Pie," the entire plot of the film revolves around teenage boys wanting to throw a party so they can get girls drunk and have sex with them. This has become more popular through comedies in the past few years and is a trend that does not seem to be slowing down. Movies that have similar plots are "Euro Trip" and "Superbad."

Defining Rape Culture

Becky Lockwood, associate director of the Center for Women and Community in Amherst, Mass., says popular culture has helped create a mindset where sex is less about intimacy and more about possession. "We've objectified sex. It's almost a commodity now, and its really unattached from any sort of intimacy or emotional experience, and if it's a commodity, people feel okay with doing whatever they can to get it," she said.

Phillips helped produce the documentary, Flirting With Danger, which looks at power, choice, and consent in heterosexual relationships. She focuses much of her research on gender issues in sexuality, and while some struggle when asked to define exactly what "rape culture" is, Phillips' definition is fairly comprehensive.

"Rape culture is a culture in which dominant cultural ideologies, media images, social practices, and societal institutions support and condone sexual abuse by normalizing, trivializing and eroticizing male violence against women and blaming victims for their own abuse," Phillips said.

College students, however, struggle when trying to define "rape culture" and often ending up defining rape, but rape culture is more insidious, in that it goes to issues beyond the crime itself.

"Rape culture is anything that supports a culture where people think that it is okay to use sexual violence to get what they want," Lockwood said. "And, it's usually not about sex. ... It's usually about power."

Angie Epifano, a former Amherst College student who went public with a published account of her own rape last fall, said the culture also creates a silence amongst survivors seeking help.

"It's a culture where survivors don't feel safe to speak out," Epifano said. "When you look at it, sexual assault and rape are basically the only violent crimes that when you talk about it, people close off."

"If you were mugged in New York City people would be horrified," Epifano added. "No one is going to sit there and say 'Are you sure you were mugged?' With sexual assault there is always this question of 'Are you sure? What were you wearing?'"

Rape Culture and Politics

Not only have the concepts behind rape culture been trivialized in social media and everyday word of mouth, but into the political sphere as well.

During Republican Todd Akin's 2012 campaign for the Missouri Senate race, he made an argument against abortion saying that women's bodies shut down during rape, and "legitimate rapes" will not result in pregnancies.

There is no scientific evidence for his claims, and to label rapes as "legitimate" or not only furthers the stigmas surrounding alleged rape and victim-blaming. Akin received a lot of heat for this statement, but also received some support for it.

During a Senate debate last October for the open seat in Indiana, candidate Richard Mourdock discussed his stance on abortion, "I think even when life results in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen," he said.

Murdock corrected himself after the debate, but even GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney came out days after the debate supporting Mourdock as a candidate.

Ending Rape Culture

Boys will be boys.

The idea that males are rowdy, always have been, and always will be, allows us as a society to think that males have less responsibility to act respectfully.

For example, in October 2011, a Yale University fraternity came under fire when members from Delta Kappa Epsilon chanted across campus "No Means Yes, Yes Means Anal." Yale quickly announced that they do not by any means support sexual assault and a public summary of the disciplinary actions was released.

"This was considered kind of a funny sort of thing that a large group of fraternity men were doing, and collectively this sets a tone that says 'this is no big deal' or 'this is what women deserve,'" Phillips said.

Doing away with the "boys will be boys" attitude and in turn holding men responsible for how they speak, act, and feel towards women can seem like a large task.

Lockwood suggests education on healthy relationships starting in elementary school. Education around bullying in schools could also have a significant part to play in stopping this cycle as well.

"So boys who are bullied often are boys who don't fit what is seen as the traditional masculine script," Phillips said. "Girls who get bullied, it's often because they had sex when somebody thinks they shouldn't have, or in a way somebody thinks they shouldn't have, too much, too easily, or whatever the norms are in her particular school. Basically, she's a slut, he's a wuss. It's very gendered."

It Happens Here: Photos Of Men And Women Who Were Sexually Assaulted At Amherst College