What is Rape Culture?

Last night, I posted the following on Facebook and Tumblr:

It’s not that Ken Hoinsky ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund his book, “A Guide to Getting Awesome with Women,” filled with advice for aspiring rapists, like “Physically pick her up and sit her on your lap. Don’t ask for permission. Be dominant.”

It’s that 732 people backed his project on Kickstarter. That they donated more than eight times what Hoinsky was asking for.

Think about that the next time someone belittles the idea of rape culture.

This led to a side discussion about what “rape culture” meant. The suggestion came up that the phrase is a dog whistle that prevents honest discussion and implies all men are rapists and rape-enablers.

Okay, given the seven billion people in this world, I’m sure you can find one who believes all men are rapists, but that isn’t what that phrase has meant in any conversation I can remember having. (It is what I’ve seen some “Men’s Rights” advocates try to claim it means, because it gives them a way to derail discussion.)

I use “rape culture” to describe a society in which sexual violence is common, underreported, and underprosecuted, where rape victims are blamed or even prosecuted for trying to report the crime. A society that turns its back on rape survivors, or blames them for wearing the wrong clothes, drinking the wrong things, sending the wrong signals, putting themselves in the wrong situation, and so on. A society that treats women as objects and encourages men to be sexually aggressive, to see sex as a game to be won.

Does this mean all men believe women who are raped deserve it? That’s as silly as saying “The U.S. has a strong gun culture” = “All Americans are gun owners” or “Tumblr is full of fandom culture” = “All Tumblr posts are about fandom.”

Okay, fine, the argument goes. But that doesn’t prove this so-called “rape culture” actually exists. You worked as a rape counselor and spend a lot of time talking about this. Doesn’t that give you a distorted, overblown sense of the problem?

My sense has always been that my experience has helped open my eyes to a problem most people tend to ignore or minimize. That experience has included a fair amount of time reading research and articles about rape in our world.


Back in 1995, the AMA described rape as the most underreported crime in America. It’s difficult to get exact numbers, but here’s some of the research and statistics discussing just how common rape really is.

Men as Perpetrators:

It’s true that not all rapists are men, nor are all victims women. However, the vast majority of rapists are indeed male, and women are raped at a significantly greater rate than men. Looking specifically at men as rapists…

  • A study from 1981, which is admittedly out of date, found that 35% of college men said they would commit rape under certain circumstances if they thought they could get away with it.
  • A 1991 study found that 56% of high school girls and 76% of the boys “believed forced sex was acceptable under some circumstances.” (White, Jacqueline W. and John A. Humphrey)
  • In this article from 2010, psychologist David Lisak found that 1 in 16 men admitted to committing rape, though few men labelled it as such.
  • Another article by Lisak and Miller looked at the research and found that between 6% and 14.9% of men admitted to committing rape.

How Our Culture Facilitates Rape:

Once again, these are just a handful of examples that illustrate our culture’s attitudes toward rape and rape victims, and the impact of those attitudes.

  • In a 2002 study of athletes, Sawyer found that “both male and female respondents, though predominately males, felt that about half of all reported rapes were invented by women. In other words, it was believed that women lied about being raped 50% of the time.” (Source)
  • Most rapes are not reported to the police. (Source) Reasons for not reporting include:
    • Shame/embarrassment
    • Fear of reprisal
    • Fear of police bias
  • A review of 37 studies found that “men displayed a significantly higher endorsement of rape myth acceptance (RMA) than women. RMA was also strongly associated with hostile attitudes and behaviors toward women.” (Source)
  • Men who have peer support for behaving in an emotionally violent manner toward women and for being physically and sexually violent toward women are 10 times more likely to commit sexual aggression toward women. (Source)

You also see these things, if you look, in our daily lives. In reporting that sympathizes with the rapists or emphasizes the victim’s looks, in rape prevention efforts that put the responsibility for stopping rape on women, in the way we conflate rape and sex, in jokes that minimize or belittle rape, in the way we expect rape to be a normal part of our fiction, in stories of police hostility to rape victims, in legal battles where the popular defense is victim-blaming, and so much more.

When I use the phrase rape culture, I’m not saying, “Hey buddy, did you know that you are personally an evil rapist and responsible for all the rape?” I’m saying we have a culture in which rape is widespread, and the reasons are many and multilayered.

When women talk about men as potential rapists, they’re not saying all men are animals who will commit rape at the slightest opportunity; they’re pointing out that because rape is so widespread, and because the perpetrators are so often “normal-looking” men, frequently friends and family, it creates an atmosphere of distrust and fear. Heck, doesn’t the fact that we focus prevention efforts almost exclusively on women essentially require women to treat all men as potential rapists?

And when men respond to these conversations by trying to reframe them as a personal attack or accusation, it takes the focus off of the problem of rape and derails the conversation.