It’s easy to see the effects of rape culture in a woman’s day-to-day life if you know what to look for. The signs are everywhere, and they play a role in a lot of decisions women make in a typical day: the decision not to walk alone at night or the careful attention paid to what to wear out late at night or to a party.
April is national sexual assault awareness month and, as such, is a great time to get informed. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2010 there were about 270,000 reported instances of sexual violence among women ages 12 and above, compared to 556,000 instances reported in 1995. And according to Albion College’s annual Clery Report in 2012, there were two instances of reported sexual violence on campus.
Rape culture is the concept that links rape and sexual assault to the culture of a society, which normalizes the violence and leads to behaviors that excuse, tolerate or even condone rape. Rape culture can also be linked to victim blaming, the practice of shaming women who are the victims and survivors of sexual assault.
Professor Trisha Franzen had a few thoughts on victim blaming, its history and its lasting effect.
“In the 19th century women were considered to be more virtuous than men, or morally superior to men,” Franzen said. “And so if a woman was sexually assaulted generally men were blamed then. But that was tied to the fact that women in the 19th century were not considered to have any of their own sexual desires. So, then fast forward to around the 1920s with the recognition of women’s sexuality and then there was this idea that women would use their sexuality to trap men. It’s also where we have a particular manifestation of women-blaming, when they say she was asking for it she was trying to use her sexuality in a negative way which makes [rape] her fault.”
Bailey Beem, Avoca sophomore, is also the president of POWER, the student feminist organization on campus. She shared her feelings about rape culture and how it affects young college women.
“I remember my freshman year I would not even dare to walk alone at night – it wouldn’t even cross my mind,” Beem said. “Also, [rape culture] is really going over what you’re wearing to a party, like ‘Is this too provocative?’ or ‘Am I going to cause a problem?’ That’s the kind of mindset that it gives women, that we have to protect ourselves from men, essentially, whereas we never tell men to just [not] give women a reason to feel like they’re not safe.”
Beem stated that often times rape culture can lead to a mind-set that evokes a fear of men in some senses. She compared this fear to a fear of sharks, which is seen as a completely rational fear of a dangerous creature. But if a women were to say she was afraid of men, she would be condemned, even though the chances of a young woman being sexually assaulted are astronomically higher than the chances of her being attacked by a shark.
“We blame women entirely for men’s actions,” Beem said. “Especially in terms of alcohol, why does it affirm his actions but condemn mine?”
In recent years, thanks to social media especially, more young women are aware of what rape-culture is and how it has shaped their lives from childhood. Social media platforms like Tumblr create spaces in which young women and even men who are very passionate about rape culture can share their ideas and thoughts. Websites like UpWorthy also share dynamic content about rape culture and videos that empower women.
The medical field has also increased in both effectiveness and sensitivity when it comes to dealing with victims of sexual violence. There are now local institutions in place around the country that aide women after a sexual assault or rape. This is a drastic change from the culture in the ‘60s and ‘70s when women were offered little help after an attack.
“The biggest change, in my view, has been the development of this system of sexual assault nurse examiners,” Franzen said. “Because I used to go with people to the hospital, and the people in the emergency room would look at me and ask me if I knew how to use the rape kit – they had no training. Now if you do go to the hospital, you have someone who is specifically trained to handle all of that. From the questioning to the exam, the technology, it’s so much better all around.”
Events like Slut Walks — with several coming up this month and this summer in cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles —raise public awareness through bold displays about rape culture and victim blaming. The event, which is essentially a parade of women dressed in revealing clothing and carrying signs with phrases against rape culture and slut shaming on them, has taken off in recent years.
Hayley Milne of British Colombia, Canada, participated in a 2011 Slut Walk in Vancouver.
“It’s a great avenue enabling women to show that their body is more than a sexual object, that rape is never the victim’s fault,” Milne said. “I think the presence of so many women and men walking for the cause shows exactly why rape culture should change and that we can be a part of that change.”
Both Franzen and Beem agreed that talking about sexual assault and rape is the key to ending rape culture. By educating women, they can avoid a situation that in the moment may be too traumatizing to fully comprehend. Many times in school or even in groups of friends, women will avoid talking about assault with a survivor of sexual violence because it makes the other women feel uncomfortable. By talking about sexual assault and raising awareness about it, women can educate others and break down social barriers that make rape a taboo topic.
The most important thing about sexual violence is that it can be overcome. Survivors of sexual assault and rape have systems in place now that haven’t been around for that long. Here on campus there are safe places victims can go to seek comfort and treatment anonymously.
“I hope that people know that there is a system, this sort of local sexual assault advocacy that we have on campus for confidentiality if you just want to have an exam you can do this without involving the college, or whatever direction you want to take you can make those decisions,” Franzen said.
Photo courtesy of London Slut Walk