THE BLOG
03/20/2013 02:29 pm ET

Why Girls and Women Participate in Rape Culture: More Lessons from Steubenville

Thanks to Darcy Mitchell for sharing her ideas, which inspired this article

Just when you think the Steubenville rape case can't get worse, two teenage girls are arrested for allegedly making threats against the rape victim. The buzz on social media seems to center on shock and sadness with a healthy dose of disgust. Many seem surprised and rightfully horrified that now it is girls further victimizing a rape victim. Shouldn't girls be each other's biggest ally, especially when it comes to gendered crimes like sexual assault? Unfortunately, this isn't all that surprising.

Many girls and women contribute to rape culture, and in turn, their own likelihood of being objectified, dehumanized and victimized. The problem is that they don't know it. While we often talk about rape based on individual cases, the fact is that rape thrives within rape culture. Steubenville is a stark example, complete with bystanders, endorsers, victim-blaming and attempts to minimize and even cover up the crime. As anyone who saw the video knows (of Steubenville boys joking with friends that maybe she was dead and that perhaps she wanted to be raped) there is an environment of dehumanization and misogyny in which these heinous crimes occur. Girls contribute to that environment too. Here are some of the reasons why girls/women participate in rape culture and how to break the cycle.

Socialization: Socialization is the lifelong process whereby people learn the norms and values of their society. A part of this is gender socialization which in the U.S., as in many other countries, involves a misogynist discourse about rape and rape victims in which, differing from other crimes, rape victims are often blamed for their own victimization. Media tells us this story over and over again -- she asked for it, she was dressed provocatively, she chose to get intoxicated, and so forth. As coverage of Steubenville has shown all too well, the major news outlets continue to engage in victim-blaming when it comes to rape. It's important to remember that males and females are all socialized within this context and as a result girls/women often adopt and thus replicate some of the most egregiously sexist attitudes, particularly about sexual assault. We all need to question how much of these old-school, sexist narratives have shaped our understanding of sexual violence.

"Sluts" and "Tramps"-- Labeling Girls/Women: Rape culture thrives when we are willing to think of some girls/women as less than others, and as such, as more deserving of sexual violence. This attitude is pervasive in media culture and children begin learning it from a young age. It's not surprising that children use words like "slut" to insult girls in schools across the country (elementary school through to college). Girls/women often participate in this activity. Girls are taught from a young age from media and peers that they will get favorable attention from others if they engage in this behavior. As media culture often pits females against each other, competing for male attention, it isn't surprising that so many are willing to cut each other down and to use shame in order to do so. By doing so in this sexualized manner, they unwittingly contribute to a culture in which all girls/women are potential rape victims. When you call another female one of these demeaning terms, you are enacting patriarchal power and making yourself and all of the girls and women you care about potential victims. Language matters. Speak carefully.

Fear of Being Disliked by Males: Many girls/women feel great pressure to be perceived as "cool" by males in their environment, particularly in artificial social environments like school settings. They want to be thought of as a "guys' girl" which pits them against their female counterparts. There is a price to pay for standing up for other females, and too many refuse to pay the price. Of course the only way to ever change that is for more and more girls and women to stand up for each other; to stand up for what's right. By doing so, they will change their environments more than they may realize.

The Truth Is Too Painful: I believe the primary reason that girls are willing to victimize rape victims, and thus standup for (convicted) rapists and legitimate unimaginable sexual degradation, is because they are simply too afraid to accept the truth, that they could have just as easily been the victim and they would have been powerless to prevent it. It is very painful to live in a society in which you know there are some boys and men who view you as nothing but body parts to be penetrated at their will. It is truly painful to think that boys and men among you, including your friends, would do to you what they did to the Steubenville victim. No one wants to think about those in their own community treating them as if they were a toy, devoid of humanity. By blaming the rape victim, girls/women separate themselves from her. They are better able to buy the lie -- to pretend that it would never be them, when in fact it would just as likely have been them. Girls and women participate in rape culture because the truth of living within a misogynist culture is too ugly. They participate because they can't stand the thought that they, their sister, their mother or their daughter could be the Steubenville victim. But once you accept this truth and stop participating in rape culture by demonizing victims, you defuse and change that very culture and make it all the more unlikely you or someone you love will be brutalized.

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