On Rape Jokes and Normalizing Assault

A few people have commented on this part of yesterday’s blog post about sexual assault and excuses:

And then you have the guys who say they’ve never heard such things. Really? Never? As common as sexual assault is in this country, you’ve never heard anyone boasting about a problematic encounter? Never heard anyone glorifying assault, talking about what they could do, what they could get away with? Never heard the jokes about getting women drunk in order to get them into bed rape them?

I have no problem accepting that most people aren’t as blunt, vulgar, and obvious about such remarks as Trump was in that video clip. And I’m obviously not in any position to point out examples in people’s real lives. So instead, I figured I’d list some examples of this kind of boasting, glorification, and normalization from shows most of us are probably familiar with.

Let’s start with Avengers: Age of Ultron, wherein Tony Stark jokes, “I will be reinstituting prima nocta.” For those unfamiliar, prima nocta is the historical right of a lord to have sex with rape any woman he chooses on her wedding night. But it’s not like Tony’s actually boasting about sexually assaulting women, right? It’s just a gross, sexist joke, isn’t it?

So how about the Big Bang Theory, where we see this “hilarious” scene of Howard using a remote control car with a video camera to look up Penny’s skirt. (This is one of many, many problematic examples from that particular show.)

Going back a little further to Friends, there’s an episode where Joey realizes his tailor has been sexually abusing him for years. Laugh track is included to make sure you know how hilarious this is. (There are plenty of other messed-up bits in this show as well, including the “Taking care of a drunk naked woman sounds like a job for Joey” line, followed by Joey starting off to do just that, only to be stopped by Chandler.)

The Harry Potter films never question the fact that Fred and George are selling what are, in essence, a magical date rape drug. When Ron is drugged by a love potion, it’s once again played for laughs, and never challenged or confronted.

How I Met Your Mother had Barney struggling with a Very Serious Problem: “How Can I Have Sex With Robin Again?” His solution? To get her drunk at Ted’s wedding. (This is one of many shows where, if you’ve watched it, then yes, you have heard the jokes about getting people drunk in order to get past their unwillingness to have sex rape them.)

None of these are as blunt and vulgar as Trump’s quote. All of them normalize and minimize sexual harassment and/or assault. They suggest it’s normal for guys to not worry about pesky things like consent. They teach that the proper response to being sexually harassed is laughter and maybe mild, quickly-forgotten annoyance.

I can’t say what people see and hear — or don’t — in their day to day interactions with other people. Some of us are less social and outgoing than others, and hopefully we’ve mostly tried to surround ourselves with decent human beings. But as common and prevalent as this stuff is in our media and our culture, it’s hard for me to imagine never hearing any of it in real life.

Rape Statistics

Earlier this week, I referenced a CDC study on rape statistics as part of my post about tiresome mansplainers and harassment. It was pointed out that this particular study was potentially problematic in the narrow way it defined the rape of men. Fair enough — and I agree that from my reading and experience, the actual number of male rape survivors is significantly higher than the CDC found in their study.

So let’s bring in some additional data. Looking through these statistics, please keep in mind that no single study is perfect. Also remember that rape tends to be underreported, due to a combination of factors including shame, fear, lack of support from friends & family, aggressive victim-blaming from law enforcement and the judicial system, confusion over rape myths and the definition of rape, and more.

  • “9 of every 10 rape victims in 2003 were female.” (Source)
  • A U.S. Department of Justice study in 2005 estimated 15,130 male victims of rape/sexual assault, and 176,540 female victims. (Source)
  • “The first and most inclusive set of measures we present are the number and percentage of undergraduate women who reported being a victim of attempted or completed sexual assault of any type before entering college (15.9% ) and since entering college (19.0%).” (Source – study did not examine male victims of rape)
  • “1 in 6 women (17 percent) and 1 in 33 men (3 percent) reported experiencing an attempted or completed rape at some time in their lives.” (Source)
  • “In 1994 victims reported about 1 rape/sexual assault victimization of a female victim for every 270 females in the general population; for males, the rate was substantially lower, with about 1 rape/sexual assault of a male victim for every 5,000 male residents age 12 or older. Overall, an estimated 91% of the victims of rape and sexual assault were female. Nearly 99% of the offenders they described in single-victim incidents were male.” (Source)
  • Another U. S. Department of Justice study found that 95.4% of single-offender rapes/sexual assaults were committed by men. (2.9% were committed by women, and in 1.8% of cases, the gender of the rapist was unknown.) When multiple offenders were involved, then the offenders were all male in 89.6% of cases. (Source)
  • “In a single year, more than 300,000 women and almost 93,000 men are estimated to have been raped [in the U.S.]” (Source)
  • “[E]stimates for the percentage of false reports begin to converge around 2-8%.” (Source)
  • The U.S. Department of Justice has consistently found that only about 1 in 4 rapes are committed by strangers. (Source)

I could go on all day, but I’ve got a doctor appointment to get to. My takeaway from everything I’ve read over the years, as well as my personal experiences and interactions, is that:

  1. No single study is perfect.
  2. Rape is too damn common.
  3. Women are far more likely to be raped/sexually assaulted than men.
  4. Men are also raped and sexually assaulted. This is a real and valid problem too, and male victims are just as deserving of support.
  5. Men are far more likely to commit rape/sexual assault than women.
  6. Most rapes/sexual assaults are committed by friends, romantic partners, or family members, not strangers.

And of course, no matter how many studies you cite, no matter how many people share their stories and experiences, there will always be people — often but not exclusively guys, in my experience — who get extremely defensive and refuse to believe it.

Rape, Abuse, and Marion Zimmer Bradley

My very first rejection letter was from Marion Zimmer Bradley. It was both harsh and helpful. So I was thrilled when, years later, I made one of my first professional sales to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine. I was even happier when I sold a story to her anthology Sword & Sorceress XXI.

I’m proud of those stories. I believe the Sword & Sorceress series was important, and I’m grateful to Bradley for creating it. I believe her magazine helped a lot of new writers, and her books helped countless readers. All of which makes the revelations about Marion Zimmer Bradley protecting a known child rapist and molesting her own daughter and others even more tragic.

Here are some of the relevant links.

  • Marion Zimmer Bradley’s testimony in defense of her husband, Walter Breen, a convicted pedophile.
  • A blog post from Deirdre Saoirse Moen, in which Moira Greyland, daughter of Marion Zimmer Bradley and Walter Breen, states that Bradley molested her starting when she was three years old and continuing until Greyland was twelve and able to walk away. Greyland also describes Breen as “a serial rapist with many, many victims,” but says Marion “was far, far worse.”
  • The “Breendoggle” Wiki. Much of fandom seemed to know about the allegations against Breen. The documentation includes eyewitness accounts of Breen molesting children and discussion that even if Breen was indeed an active pedophile, that doesn’t mean he should be expelled from fandom.
  • Silence is Complicity. Natalie Luhrs talks about Breen, MZB, and the damage done by prioritizing silence over safety, complicity over acting to protect the vulnerable members of our community.
  • On Doing a Thing I Needed to Do. Janni Lee Simner talks about having written for some of MZB’s projects, and her choice to donate her income from those sales to RAINN.

There’s more out there, including people defending MZB, as well as people insisting we must “separate the art from the artist” and not let MZB’s “alleged” crimes detract from the good she’s done. And there’s the argument that since MZB died fifteen years ago, there’s no point to bringing up all of this ugliness and smearing the name of a celebrated author.

I disagree.

To begin with, while Bradley and Breen are both gone from this world, their victims survive. The damage they inflicted lives on. Are you going to tell victims of rape/abuse that nobody’s allowed to acknowledge what was done to them? That the need to protect the reputation of the dead is more important than allowing victims their voice? To hell with that.

Second, as Luhrs and others have pointed out, many of the same behaviors that allowed this abuse to continue for so long are still present in fandom and elsewhere today. We excuse sexual harassment as social awkwardness. We ignore ongoing harassment and assault for years or decades because someone happens to be a big name author or editor. Half of fandom shirks from the mere thought of excluding known predators, because for some, sexual harassment and assault are lesser crimes than shunning a predator from a convention.

I’m not going to say that people should or shouldn’t throw all of MZB’s books away. There are authors whose careers might not have happened without MZB’s help, and our genre is better for many of them. But it’s also important to acknowledge that predators exist. They may be in positions of power and influence. Sometimes, they’re people who have done good work for a community. They often have very smooth, well-practiced tactics for defending or excusing their actions.

When we ignore ongoing harassment and abuse, when we belittle efforts to create harassment policies, when we respond to people speaking out about their own abuse and harassment by accusing them of starting “lynch mobs” and “witch hunts,” we’re teaching predators that fandom is a safe hunting ground. We’re teaching them that they will be protected, and their victims will be sacrificed so we can cling to an illusion of inclusiveness.

We need to work on teaching a different lesson.

LC on Rape and Self Defense

ETA: Conversation seems to be going nowhere, with people repeating the same points, desperately trying to get the last word, or just insulting people they disagree with. I don’t see much in the way of productive comments/discussion at this point, so I’m turning off the comments. There may be a follow-up post if I have time, or there may not. Depends on deadlines…


So apparently Miss Nevada said something about the importance of awareness and self-defense for women, some people responded with varying degrees of anger on Twitter, and Larry Correia chose to respond with a blog post called “The Naive Idiocy of Teaching Rapists Not To Rape.”

I’m not gonna waste a lot of time here, and I’ll preface this by noting that as someone who studies and teaches self-defense, I have nothing against people learning to protect themselves.

  1. Self-defense isn’t and can’t be the only answer. If it is, we’re basically telling everyone who isn’t physically or emotionally capable of fighting off every attacker, no matter how much power that attacker might have over them, that they’re on their own. Sucks to be them, eh?
  2. How many self-defense courses teach that you’re vastly more likely to be raped by a friend, acquaintance, or loved one? How many courses actually prepare you to use the kind of force you need to use against someone you like or love?
  3. To LC’s claim that rape culture is a myth and we’re just dealing with individual, isolated criminals, and that all of those studies have been debunked (in which he omitted any links or citations to the alleged debunking … strange, considering how grumpy he is about people supposedly “ignoring reality”):
  4. Finally, on the “naive idiocy” of teaching men not to rape, I’m gonna just quote from an old blog post:

Correia is right that there are a lot of different kinds of predators out there. When it comes to sexual assault, the majority of them are men, and they’re far more likely to be someone the victim knows. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, yet for as long as I’ve been working with rape survivors and speaking out about rape, there have been countless people insisting that the Only True Solution is to turn all women into gun-toting ninjas.

I don’t understand the fear some people — again, this seems to be primarily men — have when it comes to looking at other solutions. Instead of reading the research, they just proclaim that education will never work, because reasons. They ignore the pervasiveness of rape myths, the myriad approaches to things like bystander intervention, the utterly broken way our legal system treats rape, and all of the other factors that contribute to the prevalence of rape in our society.

There’s nothing new in LC’s rant. It’s the same attitude we’ve seen for ages, an attitude that conveniently puts the burden on victims to end rape, oversimplifies the problem, and allows the rest of us to look away and pretend there isn’t a real or widespread problem here, despite countless studies showing otherwise.

Some of you are aware of the current conversation in SF/F fandom about several Big Names who sexually assaulted hundreds of children, and how fandom stood by and let it happen, despite there being multiple eyewitnesses to these assaults. Call me a naive idiot, but I wonder how many children would have escaped those assaults if others in fandom had intervened or reported them or enforced any kind of consequences, anything to teach the perpetrators that this kind of behavior was unacceptable.

I wonder how many victims we’re continuing to turn our back on today because we assume there’s no point in doing anything to intervene.

RAINN on Rape Culture

Will Shetterly wrote a blog post asking if I had addressed “RAINN’s refutation of ‘rape culture’” yet. I’m writing this less to respond to Shetterly and more because I think there’s some good conversation to be had around RAINN’s recommendations. But I should warn folks that by invoking his name and linking to his blog post, I’m basically guaranteeing that Mr. Shetterly will show up in the comments. To Will and anyone else, please remember that trolling, refusing to respect boundaries, and general dickishness will get you booted.

The Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN) released 16 pages of recommendations to the federal government. In his blog post, Will chooses to quote a TIME Magazine article by Caroline Kitchens about “Rape Culture Hysteria” that references a few select paragraphs from RAINN’s recommendations. Kitchens claims that by blaming rape culture, we “implicate all men in a social atrocity, trivialize the experiences of survivors, and deflect blame from the rapists truly responsible for sexual violence.” She talks about the “thought police of the feminist blogosphere,” and how the concept of rape culture poisons the minds of young women and creates a hostile world for young men.

I’m glad to know Mr. Shetterly is looking for good, objective reporting to validate his crusade against those he dubs “social justice warriors.”

Let’s look at the primary source and talk about what RAINN’s recommendations actually said, shall we?

The paper opens with a discussion of how rape is alarmingly underreported on college campuses. Rape culture is mentioned on page two:

“In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming ‘rape culture’ for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses. While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.”

I absolutely agree that it’s important to hold rapists accountable for their choice to rape. I’ve been saying and emphasizing and teaching that for decades. I think it’s absurd to claim an individual has no responsibility for their crime … but it’s equally absurd to claim that crime occurs in a cultural vacuum, or that these two ideas are mutually exclusive.

Most of the time, when I see rapists being excused with little more than a wrist-slapping for “cultural” reasons, it’s judges and police blaming victims, or the old “boys will be boys” attitude that minimizes the severity of the crime and the responsibility of the rapist. Which is exactly what so many conversations about rape culture try to point out.

RAINN says it’s important to remember that the rapist is responsible for the choice to commit rape. I agree. They do not say that the concept of rape culture is invalid, only that it shouldn’t overshadow the need to hold individuals responsible for their crimes.

RAINN recommends a three-tiered approach to reducing rape on college campuses:

  1. Bystander intervention education: empowering community members to act in response to acts of sexual violence.
  2. Risk-reduction messaging: empowering members of the community to take steps to increase their personal safety.
  3. General education to promote understanding of the law, particularly as it relates to the ability to consent.

Bystander intervention includes educating people about what rape is, helping them see beyond rape myths and victim-blaming narratives, sharing the research that explains how the majority of rapes are committed not by strangers, but by people the victim knows, and so on. (Strangely enough, a lot of the points I made in a blog post about rape culture a few years back.)

RAINN acknowledges the difficulty in separating risk-reduction from victim-blaming. Personally, I have very little problem with a risk-reduction approach. I do have a problem when that’s the only approach, which seems to happen all too often. When people focus solely on what women/victims can and must do to reduce rape, then we put the responsibility on them. If your only idea about reducing rape is to tell women what to do differently, you’re the one who doesn’t understand that rapists are responsible for their decision to rape.

I’ve been pushing for education for ages, including education about the laws. And for improvement in those laws, based in part on a better understanding and definition of consent. Unfortunately, a lot of people have a very poor understanding of consent. We encourage things like getting prospective sexual partners drunk, pursuing reluctant or uninterested partners, and the myth that you should just magically know what your partner wants. (It’s almost like we have an entire culture that doesn’t really get how consent works.)

On the legal side of things, RAINN stresses that college advisory boards aren’t in a position to be deciding rape cases. I agree. I worked as part of a student justice program at Michigan State University. Rape cases went to the police. We tended to work with things more on the level of catcalling from the street, trying to intervene with behaviors and attitudes before they escalated to more serious crimes. The goal was early intervention and prevention.

But there’s also a culture (oh look, there’s that word again) of secrecy around sexual assault and abuse, and I certainly understand that many institutions do try to bury rape reports and pretend it’s not a problem for them. Steubenville is a good, well-known example.

The report then goes on to talk about:

  • The need for more education for everyone about rape
  • The need for the legal system to respond more seriously to rape cases
  • The need to provide support services to victims
  • The need for more research

In RAINN’s 16-page report, we find a single mention of “rape culture,” which is part of a paragraph stating that rape culture shouldn’t be used as a way to remove responsibility from the rapist. Sorry, Will. I see no “refutation of rape culture” here, just a call for a balanced approach, one which I generally support and agree with.

I get that Mr. Shetterly is mostly just interested in scoring points against those he deems “social justice warriors.” My advice to him would be that if your knowledge and understanding of rape is such that you believe “saying no usually works” to prevent it, maybe you should try talking listening to rape survivors and learning more about the topic before you try to have this kind of conversation.

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.

How Old Should My Child Be Before I Start Teaching Him/Her About Rape?

I’ve seen variations of this question come up in the wake of Steubenville. I’ve said several times lately that it’s important to educate boys and men about rape, because we do a piss-poor job of it. We do teach girls and women, but we present a very slanted, one-sided, and often harmful picture of what rape is and who’s responsible. We need to do better.

So how old should your child be for you to start teaching them about rape?

I don’t understand the question. How old should they be before you start teaching them language? Before you teach them about love and respect?

How long should I wait to start teaching my son that women are people?

I haven’t sat down with my eight-year-old son to discuss the horrifying details of what Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond did to their victim and why it was wrong, nor have we talked about the witnesses and everyone who tried to ignore or cover up the crime.

On the other hand, my son struggles with awareness of personal space. For years, we’ve been working to teach him that he can’t touch other people without their permission. That lesson can begin as soon as they’re old enough to comprehend it.

I’ve tried to teach both of my children that they have the right to control their own bodies. As my daughter approaches her teenage years, she doesn’t always want hugs from me, and that stings. But I’ve tried not to push the issue. I want both of my children to understand that not even their parents have the right to hug or kiss them without their consent.

How old does my son need to be to learn about bullying, and that when he sees someone being hurt, he can go and get help?

How old do kids need to be to learn that the word “No” means no, and that whining and wheedling and arguing with Mom and Dad isn’t a good way to get what you want?

There are twisted people out there who will molest children of all ages. How long should we wait before teaching our kids that they can say no, that it’s not okay for anyone to do this to them, and they should tell us if something happens? That if they see a grown-up or another kid doing something that seems wrong, they should tell.

How long should I wait to start modeling a loving, respectful relationship with my partner?

I think a lot of us underestimate how much our kids pick up. I certainly wasn’t expecting my son to ask about sex as early as he did, but I did my best to answer honestly. (I’ll admit to being both entertained and pleased when he made a face and said, “Gross!”) I suspect there are an awful lot of conversations that, if we wait until we’re comfortable and think our kids are ready, we’ll have missed the boat.

Rape is one of the most common violent crimes out there. It comes up in the news and in movies and TV and video games and books… There are countless opportunities to start that conversation with your children. To find out what they understand and what they’re confused about. To clarify misunderstandings and provide facts to dispel the various myths.

In my opinion, it’s never too early to start teaching your child about rape. It’s a conversation that will evolve over time as their understanding develops and their social life becomes more complex and confusing, but it’s a conversation that needs to begin early, and to continue. It’s a conversation we have to have with our sons, not just with our daughters. It’s a conversation both parents should be involved with, when possible.

It’s not a conversation most of us particularly want to have. But we’re parents. This is our job.

Related links (standard warning about not reading the comments applies here):

Steubenville’s Promising Young Rapists

Earlier this week, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl. The media coverage of this case has been…honestly, it’s been pretty much what you’d expect, given the way we treat rape in this country. That coverage is being justifiably condemned for the pathetic, victim-blaming, rape-apologetic bullshit it is.

Trigger warning for rape and lots of Jim swearing after the cut…


Preventing Rape

Today’s rant began with a quote I saw on linked from Facebook.

If you’re promoting changes to women’s behavior to “prevent” rape, you’re really saying “make sure he rapes the other girl.” -@itsmotherswork

Personally, I think that’s a pretty powerful message. And then I read the comments…


Jim C. Hines