Rape Culture. This term has come to be recognized by society and is constantly under some type of debate. To some, “rape culture” has been exaggerated, arguing that sexual behaviors and or actions are just societal norms. Others are on the forefront, protesting the ways in which the authorities have dealt with and how they respond to incidences involving sexual behavior. They argue that the people are not protected; our personal rights and freedoms are infringed upon when we experience unwanted sexual actions and the authorities aren’t taking a stronger stance against this behavior. “Rape culture” has to do with the justification of sexual incidences in which people experience unwanted sexual advances or feel uncomfortable in an environment due to sexual behavior. Why, as a society, are we not confronting issues of rape and sexual assault? Why do justifications for these acts exist? To understand why, we have to look at what social constructions surround rape and other forms of sexual assault, and how our language is a factor in shaping this type of culture. In her article, “Sexual Politics in Intimate Relationships-Sexual coercion and Harassment,” Lisa K. Waldner essentially defines sexual harassment, sexual coercion, and the gray areas that comprise such actions that contribute to “rape culture.”
Part of the reason why the issue of rape in society is so ambiguous is because the lines between welcomed/unwelcomed behavior, what is seduction vs. what is coercion, and what is consent have been blurred by social constructs and perceptions of what displays of sexuality are acceptable. To have a clear understanding of what these ideas mean would allow us to abolish the ambiguity and help us determine hard lines between what is and isn’t acceptable. Recognizing the differences in behavior, Lisa Waldner takes a look at what sexual harassment and sexual coercion actually are. She begins by taking a look at various types of sexual harassment, including “quid pro quo” and “hostile environment” scenarios (Waldner 50). In the first type of circumstances, “quid pro quo,” there involves somewhat of a hierarchy of power in which the authoritative position initiates a sexual encounter through sort of a one-sided deal (Waldner 50). Where does this occur? In the professional realm, there is often the opportunity for this type of harassment because individuals may hold some sort of superiority by position. For example, professors may tell a student that they won’t get the grade if they don’t *insert some sexual act here*. The professor is exercising their power over the student’s grade in order to manipulate the student into a sexual act. In another scenario sexual harassment is seen on a more power-balanced level, where one person is making the other person uncomfortable in an environment, but neither is necessarily in a position of power (Waldner 50). As Waldner explains, this harassment may involve humiliation, taunts, or continuous unwanted sexual advances. Is it right for someone to be made uncomfortable in a situation where they are rightfully allowed? On paper, most people would say absolutely not. But they are rarely able to defend this in real situations, mainly because other social factors are also a part of it. To one person it’s a joke, to another it’s extremely uncomfortable and even threatening. Either way, the individual should be able to decide for themselves and be heard when they say that the behavior is unwelcomed.
The next topic that Waldner covers is sexual coercion, where the lines of what is accepted and what isn’t are even blurrier. Whereas sexual harassment may not have been influenced by any “sexual interest,” sexual coercion does involve a certain level of “sexual interest” (Waldner 51). So how does society perceive sexual coercion? For most, there is a discrepancy between what is seduction and what is coercion. Persuading someone into sexual acts, ranging from kissing to intercourse, can be considered seduction. Perhaps someone sets the mood with candles or takes someone on a romantic date, society sees these techniques as very common ways to seduce someone. However, the line is crossed and the actions become coercive when the seducer takes a stronger approach to acquiring a sexual outcome (Waldner 52). Forms of physical pressure and verbal pressure all contribute to levels of sexual coercion. Rape is the most extreme level of coercion, involving the most extreme physical pressure and resulting in the most extreme result-intercourse. But the areas in between are where a lot of this unwanted sexual behaviors tend to occur, and that’s where society sees the ambiguity in coercion.
So why do we define such things as sexual harassment and sexual coercion? Moreover, why do we need to define these things? Simply put, there needs to be some sort of basis that society can refer to in order to understand how to classify certain sexual actions. We need these definitions because there have been so many debates over what constitutes harassment, who should be to blame, etc. Unfortunately, we are still seeing too many cases of rape, assault, and harassment in society today. In an article written by Zerlina Maxwell from Time Magazine at the beginning of 2014, this issue of rape culture was confronted as well. She addresses how authorities were dealing with rape and other such incidences as well as why people were trying to defend this behavior. Here she compiles a list, that couldn’t have been more clear:
- Rape culture is when women who come forward are questioned about what they were wearing.
- Rape culture is when survivors who come forward are asked, “Were you drinking?”
- Rape culture is when people say, “she was asking for it.”
- Rape culture is when we teach women how to not get raped, instead of teaching men not to rape.
- Rape culture is when the lyrics of Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ mirror the words of actual rapists and is still the number one song in the country.
- Rape culture is when the mainstream media mourns the end of the convicted Steubenville rapists’ football careers and does not mention the young girl who was victimized.
- Rape culture is when cyberbullies take pictures of sexual assaults and harass their victims online after the fact, which in the cases of Audrie Pott and Rehtaeh Parsons ragically ended in their suicides.
- Rape culture is when, in 31 states, rapists can legally sue for child custody if the rape results in pregnancy.
- Rape culture is when college campus advisers tasked with supporting the student body, shame survivors who report their rapes. (Annie Clark, a campus activist, says an administrator at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill told her when she reported her rape, “Well…Rape is like football, if you look back on the game, and you’re the quarterback, Annie… is there anything you would have done differently?”)
- Rape culture is when colleges are more concerned with getting sued by assailants than in supporting survivors. (Or at Occidental College, where students and administrators who advocated for survivors were terrorized for speaking out against the school’s insufficient reporting procedures.)
This is what rape culture is. And we are seeing too much of it. From OneInFourUSA.org, there are endless statistics that display the amounts of rape and abuse that men and women are faced with. The one that stands out the most says “1 in 4 college women report surviving rape or attempted rape.” This statistic does not include other types of sexual harassment.
And due to incidences of reported rape and sexual harassment, our very own Vanderbilt University has been put under question for the way in which university officials have dealt with sexual assault.
Looking at such facts and instances makes one aware that not only are these elements of rape culture extremely prevalent in the society we face, but in our actual home. We live at this university and may be no farther than one room away from the sexual violence that at some point, statistically speaking, we very well may face. As individuals we must challenge the rape culture that has woven itself into the basket of society that holds our freedoms and rights. As individuals we must not neglect the reality of rape culture until the day we become a victim of it. We must forget that although we may not know it first hand, it is a part of our culture, and thus we are inherently a part of it.