A college-aged woman goes to a party with friends. A guy who’s had his eye on her for a while sees his chance and starts plying her with alcohol, hoping to turn a long-standing “no” into a brief window of “yes”. Eventually, the young woman falls unconscious. The guy, figuring she won’t remember any of this tomorrow, has sex with her. The next day, nobody questions the motives of the guy who deliberately got a girl who didn’t want to sleep with him drunk so he could have sex with her, but everyone wants to know why the woman wasn’t more responsible. You have to be careful at parties, you know. Don’t you know what kinds of risks you’re opening yourself up to when you drink too much around the wrong people?
An older woman puts on a dress that makes her feel young again and heads into town for a night of drinking and dancing with friends. At a club, a man decides she’s irresistible in that dress and corners her, muffling her protests with one hand as he edges the hem of her dress up with the other. The woman leaves the club early, too ashamed to tell her friends what happened to her. Maybe she should have known better. Wasn’t she asking for attention, dressed up like that? Didn’t she get what she deserved for looking and acting so provocatively?
A teenage girl visits a close friend one afternoon to work on a homework project together. His parents aren’t home, so he seizes the opportunity, locking her in his room and doing what he’s always wanted to do to her. She’s too shocked to say no – she thought she could trust him. When she tells her friends, nobody believes her. He’s such a nice guy! He wouldn’t hurt a fly! When it turns out she’s pregnant, rumours start to spread about all the guys she’s been sleeping with, all the sex she’s been having with nice guys lured in by her flirting and teasing. When she takes her own life to escape the relentless bullying and harassment she now faces daily, people chalk it up as just another attention-seeking stunt.
A girl you know has a reputation for taking a different guy home every Saturday night. One Saturday, a guy she takes home decides that if she said “yes” to the first twenty, her “yes” to him is implied. When she goes to the police, they ask her how many sexual partners she’s had, how often she’s had sex in the past few months, whether or not she was on birth control. They tell her she brought it upon herself, what with that history of being a slut and all. She doesn’t press charges, knowing that if the case goes to court, her entire sexual history will be dragged out for public examination. She can’t bear the humiliation of having a jury judge her for having sex too often, too readily. The next time she sees her rapist – at a party, surrounded by his friends – he’s pointing at her and laughing. Someone high-fives him. She leaves in tears.
This is rape culture – an attitude to the crime of rape that has led to a society where one in four women will be raped or sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. This is not dependent on what they wear, how much they drink or their number of sexual partners; it is dependent on a societal belief that women owe heterosexual men sex and that said men have no responsibility to obtain consent before taking what they want. It does not just happen to young, attractive women who dress in revealing clothing and drink a lot and enjoy casual sexual encounters. It happens to women everywhere, women from all walks of life.
An elderly woman has been placed in an aged care facility by a son who can no longer accommodate her in his home. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago and has trouble remembering recent events. One of her carers, responsible for making sure she takes her medication every day, rapes her, knowing that not only will she not remember him, but that even if she did, nobody would consider her memory of events reliable. Who would believe a demented old woman was raped by a nurse with an outstanding professional reputation and several years of aged care work under his belt? Alzheimer’s causes people to say the strangest things.
A teenage girl is at her uncle’s house for a holiday celebration. He corners her in the guest room one afternoon and tells her nobody will believe her if she says anything. The abuse continues for months, occurring at every single family get-together. Her uncle has three daughters of his own, all around her age. She doesn’t know if her parents will believe her if she tells them. She’s terrified that her cousins are being abused too but doesn’t want to ask them in case they turn on her for accusing their father. When she runs away from home in a last-ditch effort to escape, it’s her uncle who finds her and takes her back to her grateful parents, who berate her for worrying them. She breaks down and tells them everything. When, to her relief, they believe her and press charges, it’s ultimately revealed that her uncle’s daughters were being abused after all. All of them were too afraid to say something. None of them had any guarantee that anyone would listen.
A husband and wife have been married for twenty years. One night, he’s in the mood and she isn’t. He’s had a little to drink and doesn’t care that his wife is begging him between sobs to stop. He’ll take the kids, he tells her. He’ll take everything. She’ll be left with nothing if she doesn’t give him what he wants. This is what she owes him. They’ve been married twenty years, who will believe her? Her friends tell her to leave him, but she can’t. She may never see her children again. She’s scared of what will happen to them without her. She stays, and over time, she learns not to bother begging him to stop any more.
A young man is sentenced to a year in a juvenile detention facility. His case worker is a woman in her twenties, just graduated and new to the job. He knows she’s the one who’ll tell the judge whether or not he should be released early, which is why he says nothing about the things she makes him do during their sessions together. He knows everyone else knows – the guards, the other social workers, even his fellow inmates. Nobody says anything. He got himself into this mess. He has to be prepared to weather the consequences.
This is rape culture. This is a world in which rape victims are dehumanised, degraded and violated are stripped not only of their humanity but of their right to speak out. It is a world in which we’d rather believe in good boys tempted by bad girls, because the alternative would be acknowledging that rape is a conscious choice a rapist makes without any provocation whatsoever. We turn a blind eye when trans* women, women of colour and sex workers are disproportionately targeted because as a society, we believe – even though we’d never admit it – that they must have done something to deserve it. In fact, all of those victims must have done something to deserve it – dressed the wrong way, had too much to drink, said the wrong thing at the wrong time, sent mixed signals. Rape, we figure, is a punishment for not acting right. It’s a way of keeping people, especially women, in line. It’s what you get for not obeying the rules. It’s what happens to you when you’re naughty.
And this belief is why one in four women – or three in five Native American women, and disproportionately high numbers of women in state facilities, sex workers, queer or trans* women and women of colour – will be raped in their lifetimes: because we live in a culture that says they must have done something to deserve it. We truly believe that female sexuality is something that needs to be regulated, forcibly if need be. We feed into the narrative that the girl must have done something – must have let her guard down, must have provoked her rapist somehow. We refuse to accept that rape is a choice a rapist makes and that he needs no reasons to make it.
Rape is not a punishment. Rape is a crime. Rapists are criminals. They are never justified in doing what they do. Their victims are always, always blameless, no matter what the circumstances. And there is nothing victims can do to prevent being raped. Don’t drink, cover yourself from head to toe, associate only with female friends – you are still at risk, because society hasn’t yet figured out that the only way to stop rape is to stop telling men they’re justified in raping. You can never take the subway home late at night, never find yourself in a lonely alleyway, never put yourself in a room alone with a man you thought you could trust, take every single precaution society has told you to take, and you still have an up to one in four chance of this happening to you. There is no way you can prevent it. There is nothing you can do to make yourself less of a target. If a rapist wants to rape you, he won’t need a reason (though he’ll probably come up with one later, and his fellows will accept it). Rape is a crime committed consciously by rapists. There is nothing you can do to stop them, because you never got them to start in the first place.
It is the year 2013, and women continue to be raped everywhere – not just at parties, not just at clubs, not just in dark alleys, but everywhere. They are raped in aged care, in prisons and in educational institutions. They are raped by partners, family and friends. And they are blameless. They are victims who did not do a single goddamn thing to warrant the heinous crime perpetrated upon them. And this will keep happening until we take steps towards the only rape prevention measure that actually works:
Telling rapists not to rape.
It doesn’t matter what she’s wearing. It doesn’t matter how much she’s had to drink. It doesn’t matter how much you want her. It doesn’t matter if she can’t fight back and you know it. It doesn’t matter if you know she’ll never tell. It doesn’t matter if you took her “no” for a “yes”. If you make the choice to rape, it’s on you. There are no excuses, no justifications, no reasons what you’ve done is okay. What you’ve done is a crime, and you are a criminal. You were not goaded into it. You were not provoked. You made a choice to harm someone because you wanted to. If you make that choice, you’re a rapist, and it is all on you.
We need to stop propping up criminals. We need to stop the rape jokes, the victim-blaming, the public scrutiny of victims instead of their rapists. We need to stop making excuses. We need to stop accepting excuses. We need to stop buying into the idea that she must have done something to deserve it. We need to stop the bullying and harassment of victims, the messy public trials, the culture of shaming within law enforcement, the culture of silence within institutions. We need to stop the hyper-sexualisation of women of colour and trans* women that leads to disproportionate targeting. We need to stop blaming sex workers. We need to stop being enablers. We need to stop allowing rapists to operate with impunity, safe in the knowledge that someone, somewhere, will always believe they were justified in doing what they did.
This is rape culture, and it is failing hundreds of thousands of women around the world every day. It is our responsibility to stop it.