The term "rape culture" is a sociological theory in which individuals who sexually harass and assault others are given a social license to do so, as they live in a society that makes excuses for perpetrators and blames victims for their own abuse. Feminist theorists often argue that rape culture beliefs are socialized into young men and women from childhood. Young men are socialized into beliefs that they have power and/or control and entitlement over others' bodies from a very young age. Likewise young women are socialized into believing they control men’s desire and lust via their clothing, behavior, and attractiveness. The theory of rape culture argues that these social beliefs facilitate sexual harassment, inappropriate sexual touch, sexual assault, and sexual objectification of others by reducing the stigma of engaging in unwanted sexual behavior and by increasing a since of entitlement from men towards women.
In Christian spheres of influence there has been an increasing focus — via Sojourners, Christians for Biblical Equality, and likeminded groups — to exposing how social beliefs, church leaders, and authoritarian theology has contributed to rape culture beliefs in the church and in the larger community. This focus comes in the midst of a media debate between social conservatives and social progressives about the very existence of rape culture. Inspired by conservative opposition to the recent publicity from the White House on the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses, this debate was further inflamed by the retraction of a Rolling Stone article about allegations of sexual assault at the University of Virginia. In response, it has become popular in recent months for conservative commentators to argue that there is no such thing as "rape culture."
This escalation of rhetorical debate is dangerous because it distracts from the real concern that rape culture theory was developed to address — that we help socialize dangerous behavior in children by our actions, inactions, and modeled beliefs.
As a culture, we continue to socialize our children into roles that perpetuate unwanted sexual behavior and victim-blaming. Our media glorifies sexual objectification and violence. The United States continues to be culture where too often men assault and murder women for the crime of not returning romantic interest. We have a culture of predominantly male-on-female crime where ex-love interests stalk, harass, assault, rape, or murder from a deep sense of entitlement.
We live in a culture where children, women, and men are trafficked and abused for a sex industry that continues to serve a primarily male audience. Many opponents of rape culture theory argue that perpetrators are isolated and rare, but in reality, a majority of women report experiences of unwanted sexual contact at some time in their life.
In many places, "spas" and brothels that traffic women and children openly advertise their services with tacit approval from law enforcement. To deny the existence of social structures that perpetuate these realities has real-life implications. Laws, policies, and community support are shaped by cultural belief, and our culture war of rhetoric misses these realities.
As recently as two weeks ago, a Republican lawmaker in Utah made headlines for questioning the passing of a law that defined consent for sexual behavior as requiring both individuals to be conscious. Rep. Brian Greene stated, "That makes sense in the first date scenario, but to me, not where people have history of years of sexual activity."
To his credit, upon further reflection the lawmaker retracted his statement — but his initially expressed belief is an example of the philosophical entitlement that supports one individual’s assertion of power towards another’s body.
Uncritical acceptance of rape culture norms leads individuals to think of these events as isolated incidents rather than critically analyzing the cultural practices and beliefs that lead to acts of violence.
My daughters are quickly approaching adolescence and I am surprised again and again by the social acceptability of sexual harassment and victim blaming that is so deeply entrenched in our culture and in our churches. While many churches are still focused on teaching young women to "dress modestly" so not to provoke lust, I find that my circle of mothers is grieving as we compare how to teach our daughters the best response — to increasingly uncomfortable moments with elementary and adolescent aged boys who harass without regard to dress, and to adults who use dress as an excuse to defend the actions of those boys. Yet as a mother of a son I grieve also the messages that he will encounter from others — that his sexual appetite is his defining characteristic, and that he is entitled to judge, comment on, and touch women’s bodies.
Rape culture teaches young men that sexual jokes and uninvited sexual touch are normal and desired, and it teaches young girls that silence or compliance is their role.
In my tiny corner of the world, the daughter of a dear friend was recently banned from wearing jeggings and yoga pants at her elementary school after a letter was circulated that young boys at the school "couldn’t concentrate" due to the tightness of girls’ clothing. Rather than engaging the parents of the male child in discussions over self-control and self-discipline, the small rural school district reacted in agreement with the notion that girls’ clothes can control a boy’s thoughts. It mandated that all young girls in that public school are now banned from sweat pants, yoga pants, jeggings, and leggings. I wonder how that young man’s parents will keep him from shoplifting from stores that leave their merchandise lying around in the open?
Rape culture perpetuates the belief that the design of a girl's pants can control a young man’s thoughts and the only way to change the thoughts is to change her pants.
Debating rape culture’s existence is like debating the existence of air. It surrounds us, it shapes our children, and it makes them vulnerable to entitlement for abusive behavior toward others. As a Christian I believe in the ubiquitous influence of sin on the world, and I also believe that it is the role of the church to join in the redeeming of the individuals and structures.
Before a societal or personal characteristic can be changed, it must be named and seen in its full reality. Rape culture is real, it is present, and it is destructive to men and women. Beliefs, policies, and structures that facilitate perpetrators and silence victims must be faced, discussed, confronted, and changed. It is time we stop confusing modesty — respect for self — with consent — respect for others. These are both good but different topics. It is time to consider how our media, our purchases, and our votes support structural inequalities like human trafficking. It is time to examine our own beliefs.
Rather than banning yoga pants and publically hand-wringing that men can’t have sex with an unconscious spouse, we need to engage our leaders to respond to the continued realities of interpartner violence, sexual assault, and sexual trafficking.
Ending rape culture demands changes of the heart and changes in policy.
Tara C. Samples, Ph.D. is a grateful disciple of Jesus who believes that social justice is the responsibility of the Body of Christ which is called to speak for those whose voices are not heard by the powerful. She is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and a Professor of Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She relocated from life in the urban South to a Midwestern prairie town. Together with her family she is exploring practicalities of living out the spiritual discipline of justice in her new community. Tara is a wife, a mother, and foster-parent. In her professional life, Tara speaks and writes on the psychological treatments of traumatic grief and trauma-spectrum disorders. Tara is as an advocate against injustice, violence, oppression and sexual exploitation in the church and in the world.