Over the past few weeks, this article series has looked at different aspects of rape culture, from the gender socialization issues (in part 1) from which it’s born to the complexities of victim blaming in dealing with rape victims (in part 2). In this last piece, we’ll take a hard look at the widespread misconceptions about rape, and ultimately, what things we can do individually and as a society to address the problem.
The Commonness of Rape
One of the problems about rape is that it is seen as a rare event. If you talk about rape with people, especially guys, most will say they’ve never known anyone who has been raped. When you tell people the truth, that 1 in 5 women have survived rape or attempted rape, they find it hard to believe. Most people know someone who have been mugged, had their car stolen, their home broken into, etc. but few people can think of a single person who has been raped. They find it hard to accept that such a high proportion of the women they know have probably faced rape or a rape attempt. Their perception of reality doesn’t match up, so many distrust the statistic. The only ones they hear about are ones that pop up in the media. The truth is that many victims keep quiet about their rapes and don’t press charges. Even if they do seek support from a few trusted people, many just don’t want to make it common knowledge. They often feel embarrassed and ashamed, as though they should have done more to prevent it. With victim blaming so prominent in our culture, it’s all too understandable why they might feel that way.
The Rapist Lurking in the Shadows vs. the Guy Next Door
When people talk about a rapist, they imagine a person who is clearly a predator, the anonymous figure lurking in the shadows, waiting for his next female victim. This character is easy to vilify. But this type of rapist isn’t the norm. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network), 73% of rapes are committed by a non-stranger, 38% are a friend or an acquaintance, and 28% are an intimate. This is a fact that is largely unaddressed by women’s safety initiatives, self-defense classes and personal protection products, which focus on the random attack of the shadow-lurking rapist.
Not only does our society not seem to know the way in which rape is perpetrated, many rapists themselves don’t even connect their actions with what society calls rape. In a recent study, of 1882 college students were asked 4 questions to determine if they had ever raped (or attempted to rape) anyone:
- Have you ever attempted unsuccessfully to have intercourse with an adult by force or threat of force?
- Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone who did not want you to because they were too intoxicated to resist?
- Have you ever had intercourse with someone by force or threat of force?
- Have you ever had oral intercourse with someone by force or threat of force?
You might wonder who would actually admit to doing these things, but it turns out 120 men in this study did. The trick was that the word “rape” wasn’t used in the questions. Not only did these men admit to committing or attempting rape, they admitted to doing it repeatedly. 76 out of the 120 men were repeat offenders. Only 4% of the men surveyed committed over 400 attempted or completed rapes. The illuminating video below offers a good explanation for why these men not realize what they are doing is rape and how they keep getting away with it.
Our Society’s Misguided Approach to Rape Prevention
Between our gender socialization issues and our misconceptions about rape, our society has adopted an approach to rape prevention that doesn’t address the root causes, and so the problem continues. As pointed out in part 1, even in areas where crime is going down, the incidences of violence against women remains more or less constant, despite the efforts made to prevent it.
The main problem with our prevention efforts is that they have been mostly focused on teaching women how to prevent rape. The message our society sends in this approach is that we accept it as fact that men will rape, so it’s up to the women to stop it at their end. So when rape happens, unsurprisingly, there is a tendency to analyze the woman’s lack of prevention efforts (or lack thereof) as being the reason for it having taken place. Minimal time is spent looking at the life history and psychology that led up to the rapist making the choice to rape. Below is an example that is all too common on social media:
To add to this problem, the type of prevention efforts society focuses on deal with the asocial rapist lurking in the shadows, when the reality is that rape far more frequently is an anti-social act committed by a man known to the victim. This is reflected in commonly circulated safety tip sheets, advice given by law enforcement agencies, self-defense classes, personal protection weapons from key chain pepper spray to cute kitten shaped hand weapons, and gimmicky tools like hairy pantyhose as well as Undercover Colors, the date rape drug detecting nail polish that’s been making the news.
Women are taught all these strategies, make daily and long-term lifestyle choices, many of which limit their personal freedoms, only to face rape attempts from the people they least expect, the ones they know personally. To top it all off, when women are raped, they are seen as having failed to be “responsible” for staying safe as the victim blaming begins.
Shifting Our Attention to the Men Who Rape
If we want to make lasting change in our society when it comes to reducing not only rape, but all forms of sexual violence and harassment against women, we need shift our focus to the source of the problem, the people who are choosing to rape. Schools are starting to make headway in addressing some of the gender socialization issues that women face related to body image issues, personal vision about what they can and can’t do, assertiveness and self-esteem. Similar efforts must also be made to address male gender socialization issues at a young age, to encourage in young men true confidence and self-esteem, to work together rather than compete to be “the best”, to be more open expressing their feelings, and to be respectful toward women as equals, not as property to be won, controlled or protected. I recently saw a really great comic on Robot Hugs that explains what men need to be taught about women better than I’ve seen anywhere. Be sure to give it a read. Many may doubt the potential effectiveness of this approach, but what we have been doing certainly isn’t ending the problem. It certainly won’t change anything instantly in the way a self-defense tool can show an instant result with a single success story. These kinds of approaches are investments in our future that cause ripple effects that bring results over years, decades and generations.
What to Offer Women for Rape Prevention
So if we’re not supposed to be teaching women what they should and shouldn’t do to prevent rape, what should we be teaching them? Do the negative social effects of victim blaming outweigh the benefits of learning self-defense skills or using self-defense tools? As a martial arts and self-defense instructor, am I only adding to the problem? This is a question I too had to ask when I was first exposed to the complexity of the problem of rape culture.
Teaching martial arts and physical self-defense skills is not solely for the purpose of applying those skills. Most instructors teach them hoping that the confidence and awareness that come with learning these skills will serve to keep their students out of trouble in the first place, as well as to bring personal peace in lives overall. When men and women carry themselves with confidence and are more aware of their surroundings, they are much less likely to be targeted as victims of crimes in general. As for women’s self-defense classes that combine personal safety strategies and physical skills, it can be a grey area, depending on what strategies are being taught. Alena Schaim, director of IMPACT Santa Fe and self-defense instructor, offers the following on this point:
I believe self-defense classes should not only teach physical skills. We also have a responsibility to re-frame the conversation around violence. By helping students sort through the safety tips they’ve been told, learn about biases, PTSD symptoms or “paranoia,” and intuition, students’ ability to be authorities in their own lives returns. Acknowledging that most violence happens by people we know and practicing for those situations — which necessitates an emphasis on verbal strategies and an understanding of how women have been socialized — helps normalize survivors’ experiences in the class, teaches immediately relevant material and decreases fear of others.
Self-defense classes should help women not by removing their freedoms but by focusing their attention on using their intuition and awareness to identify predatory behaviour, empowering them to make decisions and take actions in whatever situation they face.
To come back to the Undercover Colors nail polish, my biggest problem with it isn’t the tool itself, but how it’s promoted. It is such a highly specific tool that only yields results against a predator using specific drugs to create an opportunity for rape, when the vast majority of rapes of this nature are committed using alcohol. And yet, the company promotes it on Facebook as a tool that a woman can use to “discreetly ensure her safety by simply stirring her drink with her finger.” A woman could dip her fingernail in every drink she drank, not noticing that her predator has been giving her drinks with double the alcohol. Moreover, many women probably wouldn’t even bother wasting their expensive nail polish when having drinks at a trusted friend’s house party, surrounded by people she knows, yet statistically speaking, these are the people who are more likely to rape. Sure, women could use this product in combination with personal safety and self-defense training, but then with that education, the nail polish is rendered obsolete. What it does do, for those who don’t take any training, is take the user’s attention off awareness and intuition by funnelling the user’s focus on a single method of prevention that is statistically rare, despite its popularity as a topic of media attention. The potential damage it could cause to a woman’s perception of her safety far outweighs its potential benefits.
Our Complicated World
This is indeed a complicated world. There are no simple solutions to the complex problem that rape culture represents. Change must occur at a societal level but we must all make ourselves personally responsible for our own actions and choices to support a world of gender equality and personal respect. We shouldn’t be looking to freedom-removing women’s safety tip lists or narrowly useful gimmicky products like Undercover Colors as solutions. Nor can we keep accepting the victim blaming line of thought when it comes to sex crimes like rape or the recent theft and publication of celebrity nude photos that has received so much media attention. The graphic below effectively portrays the self-perpetuating nature of the problem.
The resolution of what is being called “rape culture” must begin by recognizing and accepting the complexity of the issue, and to question our long held views about what it means to be a man or woman. We must also question how we judge and interact with people based on their gender, whether they are an intimate partner, a family member, a friend, co-worker or stranger. Lastly, we must do our part to uphold a new standard by speaking out against other people’s words and actions that demean people based on their gender. Writing this article is one way I’m doing these things. I hope that you’ll join me in this initiative in some way, however small.
Now over to you. What are your thoughts on rape culture? What do you think we could do to change things for the better?