the end of Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April, two key questions were on the table for those who not only are aware of rape but would like to end men’s violence against women.
First, do we live in a rape culture, or is rape perpetrated by a relatively small number of predatory men?
Second, is rape a clearly definable crime, or are there gray areas in sexual encounters that defy easy categorization as either consensual or non-consensual?
If those seem to be tricky, or trick, questions, don’t worry. There’s an easy answer to both: patriarchy (more on that shortly).
This year’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April was full of the usual stories about men’s violence, especially on university campuses. From football-obsessed state schools to elite private campuses, the reality of rape and rape culture was reported by journalists and critiqued by victim-survivors.
But April also included an unexpected debate within the anti-violence movement about the appropriate boundaries of the discussion about rape and rape culture.
“In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming ‘rape culture’ for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses,” wrote the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, or RAINN, in a letter offering recommendations to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault (see the government’s final report). “While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.”
RAINN expressed concern that emphasizing rape culture makes “it harder to stop sexual violence, since it removes the focus from the individual at fault, and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions.”
Feminists pushed back, pointing out that it shouldn’t be difficult to hold accountable the individuals who commit acts legally defined as rape, while we also discuss how prosecuting rapists is made difficult by those who blame victims and make excuses for men’s violence, all of which is related to the way our culture routinely glorifies other types of men’s violence (war, sports and action movies) and routinely presents objectified female bodies to men for sexual pleasure (pornography, Hollywood movies and strip clubs).
Meanwhile, conservative commentators picked up on all this, using it as a club to condemn the always-demonizable feminists for their allegedly unfair treatment of men and allegedly crazy critique of masculinity.
I’m a man who doesn’t believe feminists are unfair or crazy. In fact, I believe the only sensible way to understand these issues is through a feminist critique of — you guessed it — patriarchy.
Rape and rape-like behavior
Before wading into the reasons we need feminism, let’s consider a hypothetical:
A young man and woman are on a first date. The man decides early in the evening that he would like to have sexual intercourse and makes his attraction to her clear in conversation. He does not intend to force her to have sex, but he is assertive in a way that she interprets to mean that he “won’t take no for an answer.” The woman does not want to have sex, but she is uncertain of how he will react if she rejects his advance. Alone in his apartment — in a setting in which his physical strength means she likely could not prevent him from raping her — she offers to perform oral sex, hoping that will satisfy him and allow her to get home without a direct confrontation that could become too intense, even violent. She does not tell him what she is thinking, out of fear of how he may react. The man accepts the offer of oral sex, and the evening ends without conflict.
If that sex happened — and it’s an experience that women have described (see Flirting with Danger by Lynn Phillips and the companion film) — should we describe the encounter as consensual sex or rape? In legal terms, this clearly is not rape. So, it’s consensual sex. No problem, right?
Consider some other potentially relevant factors: If a year before that situation, the woman had been raped while on a date, would that change our assessment? If she had been sexually assaulted as a child and still, years later, goes into a survival mode when triggered? If this were a college campus and the man was a well-known athlete, and she feared the system would protect him?
By legal standards, this still clearly is not rape. But by human standards, this doesn’t feel like fully consensual sex. Maybe we should recognize that both those assessments are reasonable. In short, rape is a definable crime that happens in a rape culture — once again, both things are true.
What is patriarchy and why does it matter?
Patriarchy is a term rarely heard in mainstream conversation, especially since the backlash against feminism took off in the 1980s. So, let’s start with the late feminist historian Gerda Lerner’s definition of patriarchy as “the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in the society in general.” Patriarchy implies, she continued, “that men hold power in all the important institutions of society and that women are deprived of access to such power. It does not imply that women are either totally powerless or totally deprived of rights, influence and resources.”
Feminism challenges acts of male dominance and analyzes the underlying patriarchal ideology that tries to make that dominance seem inevitable and immutable. Second-wave radical feminists in the second half of the 20th century identified men’s violence against women — rape, child sexual assault, domestic violence and various forms of harassment — as a key method of patriarchal control and made a compelling argument that sexual assault cannot be understood outside of an analysis of patriarchy’s ideology.
Some of those feminists argued that “rape is about power not sex,” but other feminists went deeper, pointing out that when women describe the range of their sexual experiences it becomes clear there is no bright-line distinction between rape and not-rape, but instead a continuum of sexual intrusion into women’s lives by men. Yes, men who rape seek a sense of power, but men also use their power to get sex from women, sometimes under conditions that are not legally defined as rape but involve varying levels of control and coercion.
So, the focus shouldn’t be reduced to a relatively small number of men who engage in behavior we can easily label as rape. Those men pose a serious problem and we should be diligent in prosecuting them. But that prosecution can go on — and, in fact, will be aided by — recognizing the larger context in which men are trained to seek control and pursue conquest in order to feel like a man, and how that control is routinely sexualized.
If this seems far-fetched, think about the ways men in all-male spaces often talk about sex, such as asking each other, “Did you get any?” From that perspective, sex is the acquisition of pleasure from a woman, something one takes from a woman, and men talk openly among themselves about strategies to enhance the likelihood of “getting some” even in the face of resistance from women.
This doesn’t mean that all men are rapists, that all heterosexual sex is rape or that egalitarian relationships between men and women are impossible. It does mean, however, that rape is about power and sex, about the way men are trained to understand ourselves and to see women.
Let me repeat: The majority of men do not rape. But consider these other categories:
- Men who do not rape but would be willing to rape if they were sure they would not be punished.
- Men who do not rape but will not intervene when another man rapes.
- Men who do not rape but buy sex with women who have been, or likely will be, raped in the context of being prostituted.
- Men who do not rape but will watch films of women in situations that depict rape or rape-like acts.
- Men who do not rape but find the idea of rape sexually arousing.
- Men who do not rape but whose sexual arousal depends on feeling dominant and having power over a woman.
- Men who do not rape but routinely masturbate to pornography in which women are presented as objectified bodies whose primary, or only, function is to provide sexual pleasure for men.
Those men are not rapists. But is that fact — that the men in these categories are not, in legal terms, guilty of rape — comforting? Are we advancing the cause of ending men’s violence against women by focusing only on the acts legally defined as rape?
Rape is rape, and rape culture is rape culture
Jody Raphael’s book Rape is Rape: How Denial, Distortion, and Victim Blaming Are Fueling a Hidden Acquaintance Rape Crisis points out that if we use “a conservative definition of rape about which there can be no argument” — rape as an act of “forcible penetration” — the research establishes that between 10.6 percent and 16.1 percent of American women have been raped. That means somewhere between 12 million and 18 million women in this country today live as rape victim-survivors, if we use a narrow definition of the crime.
Because no human activity takes place in an ideological vacuum — the ideas in our heads affect the way we behave — it’s hard to make sense of those numbers without the concept of rape culture. A rape culture doesn’t command men to rape, but it does make rape inviting, and it reduces the likelihood rapists will be identified, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and punished. It’s hard to imagine any meaningful efforts to reduce, and someday eliminate, rape without talking openly and honestly about these matters. But RAINN argues that such denial is exactly the path we should take.
Why should we fear talking about the socialization process by which boys and men are trained to see themselves as powerful over women and to see women as sexual objects? Why should we fear asking critical questions about all-male spaces, such as athletic teams and fraternities, where these attitudes might be reinforced? Could it be a fear that the problem of sexual assault is so deeply entwined in our taken-for-granted assumptions about gender that any serious response to the problem of rape requires us to all get more radical, to take radical feminism seriously?
This does not mean all men are rapists, that all male athletes are rapists, or that all fraternity members are rapists. It does mean that if we want to stop sexual violence, we have to confront patriarchy. If we decide we aren’t going to talk about patriarchy, then let’s stop pretending we are going to stop sexual violence and recognize that, at best, all we can do is manage the problem. If we can’t talk about patriarchy, then let’s admit that we are giving up on the idea of gender justice and goal of a world without rape.
It’s easy to understand why people don’t like this formulation of the problem, given that anything beyond a tepid liberal, postmodern feminism is out of fashion these days and radical feminist analyses of male dominance are rarely part of polite conversation. Sometimes people concede the value of such an analysis, but justify the silence about it by claiming, “People can’t handle it.” When someone makes that claim, I assume what they mean is “I can’t handle it myself,” that it’s too much, too painful to deal with.
That’s not hard to understand, because to confront the reality of rape and rape culture is to realize that vigorous prosecution of the small number of men who rape doesn’t solve the larger problem.
If anyone still doubts that rape culture exists and is relevant, how else would we explain the Yale University fraternity members who marched on campus while shouting sexist chants, including “No means yes, yes means anal,” as part of a 2010 pledge event?
Everyone recognizes the mocking reference to the anti-rape message, “No means no,” which expresses women’s demand that men listen to them. These Yale men reject that. The second part of their chant — “Yes means anal” — states that women who agree to sex are implicitly agreeing to anything a man wants, including anal penetration. This will make sense to anyone who is aware of the prevalence of anal penetration in today’s pornography marketed to heterosexual men. In those pornographic scenes, women sometimes beg for that penetration and other times are forced into it, but the message is the same: Men’s pleasure is central.
In this one chant, these men of Yale — one of the most elite universities in the United States, which produces some of the country’s most powerful business and political leaders, including five presidents — clearly express a patriarchal view of gender and sex. Their chant is an endorsement of rape and an expression of rape culture.
Is a feminist critique of rape and rape culture a threat to me as a man? I was socialized in a patriarchal culture to believe that whatever feminists had planned, I should be afraid of it. But what I have learned from radical feminists is that quite the opposite is true — feminism is a gift to men. Such critique does not undermine my humanity, but instead gives me a chance to embrace it.