The Insidious Nature of Rape Culture

07/27/2016 02:14 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2016

I confess. I didn’t understand what a big issue Rape Culture was until this year.  I heard about a Stanford Rape Case a few years ago (Remember #StandWithLeah? That was also at Stanford) and about the Columbia University student, Emma Sulkowicz, who carried around a mattress all year to protest the administration ignoring her rape case as well as so many others. I remember being vaguely aware of these issues and commenting to a male friend a few years ago about how “rape happens more than you realize.” Well, it happens more than I realized too.

It wasn’t until Brock Turner and Judge Aaron Persky made headlines and became a cause that I really woke up to what was happening in this country regarding Rape Culture. I, too, was so indoctrinated that I stopped registering the catcalls and the occasional gropes on the subway. It took my return to New York City after spending most of the last year abroad, in places where that simply doesn’t happen, for me to realize how incredibly awful a daily experience that is.

Brock Turner, convicted rapist.
Brock Turner, convicted rapist.

I read about Brock Turner and was angry. I read about Judge Aaron Persky’s ridiculously lenient sentence for Brock Turner and was infuriated. I heard dozens of women I know and respect, who I would never think of as anything but strong and capable and loving, talk about their experiences being sexually assaulted and raped. These are women who are highly accomplished artists and lawyers, musicians and doctors, teachers and programmers. They are daughters and sisters and mothers and wives. They are smart and funny and unbelievably strong women who take on the world every day, but who, for the most part, have never spoken about their sexual assault or confronted their assailant.

One in three women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. One in thirty-three men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes.  Most will never report the fact they were sexually assaulted. Most will not talk about the fact they were sexually assaulted. They will hide from the awful truth of what happened to them and the perpetrator will go on, unpunished, most likely to commit the same crime again. 

There is great work happening to help change this. There are trailblazers like Michelle Dauber who is spearheading the Recall Judge Aaron Persky campaign and Jessica Ladd who is building an anonymous way to report sexual assault which decreases the odds of a perpetrator raping more than two victims.  Two is still two too many but it’s far better than what is currently happening on college campuses. 

As Jessica Ladd explains in her TED talk, while in college, one in five women and one in thirteen men will be sexually assaulted. Under ten percent of those assaults will be reported. Ninety percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by repeat offenders.  If Rape Culture didn’t blame and shame the victim, the first victim would be more likely to report her (or his) assault. 

If she (or he) knew that they wouldn’t be blamed or made to feel less than for going through this traumatic experience, they would be able to speak about it, to friends, to administrators, to the police. Assailants would be punished before they had a chance to repeat their crime, over and over again. Think of how those numbers would drop.

Jessica Ladd, working to prevent serial rapists
Jessica Ladd, working to prevent serial rapists

Stanford has had, not one, but two major rape cases hit national headlines in the last two years.  Columbia University has had one. In 2014 Stanford had 26 rape reports filed on their main campus. The same year, Harvard had 33, Dartmouth had 42 and Brown had 43. That is a huge number of students being sexually assaulted and willing to come forward and talk about it. Think about all the ones who didn’t, because they didn’t want to jeopardize their standing at the college or “ruin their future”.

If you’re thinking that “of course these colleges have such huge numbers for rape cases; They have a lot of students!” then you should talk to someone, probably a therapist, because no number above “0” is an acceptable number of rape cases per year, no matter how many people are in the population.  But, to humor you, then yes, Stanford, Harvard, and Brown are not the worst places to be in college when considering the number of rape cases per capita.  However, that list still includes Dartmouth with 6.7 rape cases per 1,000 students, as well as Pomona College (8.5), Swarthmore College (11) and Reed College (12.9). 

I’m pulling these numbers directly from the US Department of Educations Website.

Women writing letters for the Recall Aaron Persky campaign.
Women writing letters for the Recall Aaron Persky campaign.

Did you notice that I was able to cite horrific rape statistics from some of the top post-secondary schools in the country? These are our best and brightest, the young people society has decided hold the most promise for moving our world forward. We put them together on a few campuses across the country, assuming they will lift each other up intellectually and form relationships and networks that will help them accomplish great things throughout their lives. Some of them, it turns out, take that standing of privilege and accomplishment and use it as armor to perpetrate horrific acts of sexual violence and as a society, we do little to nothing to correct this behavior. Why should the value of the perpetrator be more than that of the victim? They are on the same campus, both intelligent and accomplished enough to have secured one of those coveted spots. 

The fact that most sexual assault and rape victims are women is why. For too long women were receptacles for male desire, property to be traded, objects to be admired and desired. There was no concept of spousal rape or domestic abuse or sexual harassment as society considered them all appropriate behavior. We no longer live in those times but the traces of them remain in our ongoing Rape Culture, which tolerates and normalizes sexual violence, blaming the victim instead of the perpetrator.  

Someone articulating their stance on rape at an event.
Someone articulating their stance on rape at an event.

For a long time, I wasn’t aware of how insidious Rape Culture is, of how much of an issue it is. Thanks to the coverage the Brock Turner case has gotten in the mainstream media, and the ongoing efforts of the Recall Judge Aaron Persky Campaign and the Fuck Rape Culture group in NYC, I have realized that this is an issue that affects us all, regardless of our gender, race or sexual orientation.  If we are lucky enough to escape being a victim in college, we are likely to know one or several people who weren’t. The push happening now to change Rape Culture is a movement, small at first but rapidly gaining momentum.  I want my nieces and the little girls I babysit and your beloved young girls to go to whatever college they want without having to check the rape statistics first.  I want them to be safe in their apartments, in their colleges, at a party or just hanging around with their friends.

There is absolutely no good reason for us, as a society, to continue to tolerate Rape Culture. Brock Turner is not the most violent rapist ever but he is rapist and for that act of sexual aggression, he should be punished.  His punishment is not only to teach him an overdue lesson about consent but to show anyone else who is considering committing rape that there are consequences for that sort of behavior. Judge Aaron Persky should be removed from his seat and held up as an example for those who ally themselves with perpetrators of rape and who continue to enforce Rape Culture from a position of power. Those who can not dispense justice should not be in a position to do so.

In the last one hundred years, American culture has changed many times for the better.  Women can vote. Child Labor Laws exist. Segregation has ended. Gay marriage is legal. Ending Rape Culture is absolutely achievable, if enough of us who have been violated or who have loved ones who have been sexually assaulted, band together and demand it.

I’m demanding it and I sincerely hope you are too.

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