Further Adventures in ‘Rape Culture’

Posted: June 12, 2010 in Feminism

I didn’t enjoy being stalked by my ex boyfriend, and then having him break into my house, threaten to kill me, and then assault me so I needed to visit the hospital. I didn’t enjoy it at all. Sometimes I call that night over ten years ago now, as ‘the day I became a feminist’.

I was already a feminist. My Mum and her Mum were feminists. I was born into it. So I never really had to think too much until he was stood over me, his hands round my neck, squeezing, telling me what a ‘bitch’ I was.  I never had to think what ‘being a woman’ or ‘being a feminist’ means.  I will give him that. He and his violence really got me thinking.

After my assault, and my lonely journey through the legal procedure that followed, I naiively thought I might be able to share some sisterhood and solidarity with other women who’d suffered violent attacks, including domestic violence and rape. But when I have tried to connect with women who campaign on violence against women,  I repeatedly  get told  that because I have not been raped, I have no right to talk on this issue, or to try and empathise with women who have.  Rape seems to hold a special symbolic position in the minds of these feminists, and is treated as worse, but also somehow ‘better’ than all other violent crimes.

The term that is used to demonstrate the privileged position rape holds in feminist discourse, is ‘rape culture’. According to Melissa McEwan,

‘Rape culture is the myriad ways in which rape is tacitly and overtly abetted and encouraged having saturated every corner of our culture so thoroughly that people can’t easily wrap their heads around what the rape culture actually is’ (my emphasis).

Far more important than my own feeling of exclusion from feminist campaigns and groupings around gender violence, is the countless number of other people who get attacked and killed in our society, who are not acknowledged by the concept of ‘rape culture’. Have you ever heard a  feminist say we live in ‘transphobic assault’ culture? or ‘murder of young black men’ culture? or ‘homophobia’ culture? or even ‘domestic violence culture?’  I haven’t. Incidentally domestic violence is far more common than rape, and can also include rape. But it just doesn’t seem to impress the feminists who believe in rape culture. They are welcome to their victim top trumps, but I am not playing anymore.

When I say rape is ‘privileged’ in feminist discourse, I don’t mean that it benefits anybody. I believe that by focusing on the centrality of rape in our culture, feminists are actually making it more difficult for all of us to campaign against all forms of gendered violence in society.

Trying to work out ‘why’ these feminists do this is difficult. Maybe some of you can help me? My instinct is, that holding onto ‘special victim’ status has some pay offs for these feminists. They can continue to present gender politics as a binary opposition between ‘men’ (potential rapists) and ‘women’ (perpetual potential victims of rape). Basically, the concept of ‘rape culture’ is misandrist, and it does not allow for the fact that women are sometimes perpetrators of sexual assault, and men are sometimes on the receiving end.

I’d like to quote somebody who left a comment on a previous essay of mine about this topic. This woman is a survivor of rape, so the rad-fems won’t be able to dismiss her critique of rape culture the way they do mine:

‘This mythologizing of rape is still rooted in the whole “pedestal” complex, IMHO, and thus rapists are EVIL and women who get raped are spiritually/psychologically disfigured for LIFE and blah blah blah. The “rape culture” paradigm, while clearly meant as helpful critique and containing valuable cultural insight, seems to carry on that tradition’.

The term ‘rapist’ is one I am not comfortable with using at all, if I can help it. I know I am in a tiny minority, as I see the word splashed across the newspapers on a regular basis, and I hear it being used widely in conversations about rape. The reason I don’t like the word ‘rapist’, is that I think it serves to undermine our attempts to tackle rape and sexual violence. This is because it pathologises people who commit rape, portraying them in our culture as ‘monsters’ and ‘hate figures’. This leads to a situation where we place rapists pretty near the top of a hierarchy of evil characters (maybe just behind ‘paedophiles’),  so that in fact, it is actually very difficult to prosecute for rape. If ‘rapists’ are these inhuman monstrous characters, it is not surprising that courts up and down the country are reluctant to convict the thousands of people who commit rape each year.

I have received criticism for my view, particularly from feminists who argue that survivors of sexual violence need the term ‘rapist’ to enable them to name their attacker, proceed with seeking justice, and ultimately to get over their ordeal. But I believe that just as we have changed our terminology from talking about ‘victims’ to ‘survivors’ of rape, we also need to change how we label perpetrators. When I hear the word ‘rapist’ I think of a man, and not a man who is capable of change, of reflection. We have to speak about and talk to men as if they are able to change,  and we also must acknowledge men are not the only perpetrators, if we want to reduce sexual and intimate partner violence in society.

  1. Jenny says:

    Why do these feminists do it? It’s that old ‘us and them’ problem again. “You can’t join my gang because you’re not oppressed/victimised/unhappy enough”. People need to draw lines around themselves to separate those within from those without. The line has to be somewhere. Rape is as good a place as any.

    But what is rape? The forcible penetration of female vagina or anus by male penis? This is fairly rare. But if it’s the act of sex where one party doesn’t really want it then that is really common and probably affects as many women as men as both perpetrator and victim. I have never been on the receiving end of the former but definitely have been of the latter and couldn’t say with any certainty I haven’t been the perpetrator too.

    I find the whole argument very difficult. It is true that male sexual or other domestic violence is more likely to be physical and is more likely to land you in hospital but psychological sexual or domestic violence fucking hurts too. And women can be just as good at that.

    It’s great that there are people out there working in this field, people looking after women who have been the victims of physical violence. The underlying problem though is not, in my view, divided on male/female lines, that’s too simplistic. It is about respect of your partner’s mind, body and personal freedom.

  2. HI Jenny thanks for your comment. There was a previous discussion on rape culture here, if you root around you will find it if you are interested.

    I agree with nearly all you say. I would stand by the idea that domestic and sexual violence is gendered though, and the worst excesses of it including psychological abuse are carried out by men on women. I just hate generalising to say that ‘all men’ are likely to be violent to women. It’s crap.

  3. Jenny says:

    You may well be right. I just hate the notion of ‘victim’ so much I tend to assign agency where it isn’t appropriate.

  4. I know what you mean. I prefer to think of it as always asserting our agency as people with the ability to challenge oppression and inequality wherever it may occur. We shouldn’t deny the incidences of violence against anyone, but neither should we deny people’s ability to recover from and then strive to eradicate that violence.

    Sermon over!

  5. Dominant4962 says:

    I’m not sure where it fits in, but its always bothered me thst a man who is raped by another man is always refered to as being a victim of”male rape” – isn’t rape rape, whoever the victim is? In the media it seems to be prtrayed as “even worse” that “normal rape” – and that seems wrong too.

  6. I agree. I think the radical feminist discourse of ‘rape culture’ also presumes the ‘rape victim’ is a woman, and denies male rape. The feminists would disagree, but the way they talk about rape culture is all about how women are objectified in our society, not men. It gets on my tits!

  7. A massive hidden problem is abuse within lesbian relationships (somewhere I read as many as 1 in 4 lesbian relationships are abusive) and a certain kind of feminist often believes (as do most of the general public I expect) that women *can’t* rape – but they can. You don’t need a penis to penetrate, and I expect you don’t need to penetrate to rape.

  8. Yes I agree. Though in law, rape IS penetration of vagina mouth or anus but it doesnt say what with. I think the laws need to change to make it clearer that anyone can sexually assault anyone else. I wouldnt mind if the ‘word’ rape got ditched like in Canada.

  9. laura says:

    “My instinct is, that holding onto ‘special victim’ status has some pay offs for these feminists.”

    I think the reason it happens is because of the value placed upon multiple deprivations in the kind of left-wing leftist culture that informs feminist separatism. The more minorities you belong to, the more you can claim to transversal political capital. But some values are so deeply seen as negative – such as being biologically male for example – they can never offset other deprivation factors. So a transgendered bioligical black male is intrinsically inferior in political terms than a biological female because of the assumed privilige attached to being male – ignoring other factors.

    One scary thing I heard from a local racical feminist doctor which scared even me was that the leader of our local rape crisis centre was telling victims who came for counselling that it was only to be expected, since he was a man!

    This woman I know from a lesbian separatist group which has had massive funding but until recently has keep a very dissociated, very separatist profile from the rest of the gay scene – making a claim to be the authentic voice for gay women while subtly excluding anybody who doesn’t share the ghetto mindset they represent.

    The problem for this kind of thinking, I believe, is that many women make themselves extremely vulnerable – by ignorance, choice or coercion – to male violence. Some women even enjoy violence. Erin Pizzey found herself ejected out of the 70s womens movement she founded for suggesting that some women who reported violence were themselves violent and addicted to a cyclic violence.

    I wonder does Pizzeys experience say something about the extreme defensiveness of such a group of feminists – why do they require such a particular set of experiences in order to legitimize the validity of their views? I think some of it is because, like the Candian situation you mention, I think the actual position with sexual violence is quite vague. Hetero friends talk a lot about how as young women they were coerced into sex, not unwillingly, but by boys just as young, and it didn’t fit the definition of coercion that the language of rape culture defines. Its rather like the woman who constantly has affairs with married men – they fundamentally challenge the idea that women might actually want and enjoy something normally considered to be deeply repugnant to women.

    By this I don’t suggest that women enjoy sexual violence per se, what I suggest is that some women are inexplicably bound into patterns of violence in their lives in which they both give and receive violence and this doesn’t conform to the traditional definition of rape. By reaffirming only the “pure” cases of rape under the traditional definition, it eliminates women who might not “help the cause.” Maybe I put it crudely, but perhaps the delegitimization of more grey cases of violence where women themselves are both victims and perpetrators is in the political interest of such women?

    • Jenny says:


      Thanks for posting that. I wanted to put something about it in my first comment but didn’t feel able to yet! My only experience of a physically abusive relationship, I know full well, I walked into with my eyes wide open. He told me very early on that he had been in prison for assaulting a previous girlfriend but I stayed with him. He never actually hit me but threw me around a bit once and was extremely abusive in other ways but I still stayed with him. I know I was getting something out of it. His behaviour was feeding something in me and I know my behaviour was feeding something similar in him. It was only when I was strong enough in myself to face up to whatever it was in me that needed that kind of relationship that I was able to get out of it.

      That’s why I struggle with the whole victim/agency thing.

  10. Gosh. I had not thought of that. Thanks for your comment laura, it is indeed food for thought. I appreciate you sharing your view here.

    Separatists go on about ‘safe spaces’ . I find that my blog is a place where it is ‘safe’ to say things that are just not accepted or heard elsewhere. For that I am very proud/grateful/humbled.

  11. JenniferRuth says:

    Okay – long comment ahoy! (thought I should give you fair warning)

    Firstly, if anyone is telling you that you have no right to talk about this issue because you haven’t been raped then they are wrong. You don’t have to listen to them. They are not worth any of your time! But it is also unfair to tell people that by talking about rape then they are doing a disservice to other issues. Your argument comes off as “why are you talking about w when x, y, z is so much more important?”

    “Rape culture” (or patriarchy or whatever you want to call it) doesn’t just effect straight white women. It effects men, it effects trans people, it effects everyone. No-one gets to live outside of it. It helps create the culture of assault and domestic violence and homophobia. I think that most feminists who talk about rape culture (such as Melissa McEwan) do a very good job of explaining how it all ties together. It isn’t just about rape, per say. Perhaps you are right and the words rape culture don’t really cover the topic very well since it is so broad but to say that talking about rape means it is more difficult to talk about gendered violence? How so? Would not talking about it make things better?

    Thirdly, it really made me cringe when you accused those that have been raped of holding onto “special victim” status. Everyone deals with things differently. Look, I don’t really want to go into the details because it bothers me to talk about but when I was a kid I went through some pretty fucked up sexual shit imposed upon me by teenage boys. And I am sooo fucking over it. Because that is how I dealt with it. It happened and there is nothing I can do about that and I don’t want to be tied down by it. There are a lot of people who can’t do that. That doesn’t make them “worse” than me or that they are making themselves “special victims”. It means that they need more support, for whatever reason. To criticise that is to criticise them for being raped/assaulted.

    I agree that for some of us we are not “spiritually/psychologically disfigured for life” – I’m one of them. But that gives me no right to tell any other person that they should be able to get the fuck over it the way I did.

    To critique rape culture is not man-hating or transphobic. It is the opposite of that. It is saying that the limited views of sexuality that are regarded as the “norm” damage us (and that is EVERYONE – not just women) in a myriad of different ways. I don’t think that is a bad thing to want to break down.

    I’ll tell you what the worst thing was about my sexual abuse. It wasn’t the abuse itself. It was when my family and the abusers families found out about it. Yeah, I was 10 but I remember every single damned excuse that was made for what had happened. No-one wanted to deal with it. It was easier to say “boys will be boys” and “they were just experimenting” than to deal with it. No-one ever asked me how I felt about it. No-one ever asked me if I consented. No-one ever took into account how much older than me they were. It was just brushed under the carpet. Because it was easier. And y’know, I get that, I do, I do, but it doesn’t make it any less WRONG. I wonder, sometimes, if those boys did go on to assault anyone else. I mean, they were told that they were just doing what came naturally….boys will boys, right? To me, this is rape culture. It’s isn’t the assault, it isn’t the rape, it is the normalisation of this kind of behaviour that makes people feel that it is fine not to get consent, it is fine to pressure someone into giving it up, it is fine if the victim is drunk or asleep or drugged. Well, I don’t think it is fine.

    The sexual stuff. Yeah, I am over it and I haven’t let if effect my sex life one iota. Because, fuck that, y’know? But I do remember how I felt it was all my fault and how I had embarrassed my family. And that? That’s rape culture and that is fucked up. It’s fucked up. I don’t want anyone else to feel like that but they do – every day. So yeah, I really, really feel that it has to be talked about. For the sake of everyone. Not just white, straight, cis women.

  12. HI jenny thanks for your long comment. I am glad you felt able to say it and challenge me!

    I just want to clarify: I didnt say people who have been raped hold onto ‘special victim status’: I said certain radical feminists hold onto ‘special victim status’ . There is a big difference.

    I don’t think Melissa Mckewan is helpful in ‘tying it all together’ either: as I don’t think all the things we have talked about here DO tie together neatly at all. I stand by my belief that rape culture is not a useful concept.

    But in doing so I no way wish to diminish the experience and trauma of rape/sexual assault. If I have done that with my wording I am really sorry. I am going to go back to read the post and your comment to see if I think i have been unclear or suggested what you think I have!

    Thanks for such an honest comment.

  13. JenniferRuth says:

    Hi again!

    Hey – I didn’t mean to make it sound like I thought you were “attacking” rape victims or anything. I was just trying to explain why I think it needs to dealt with. And I couldn’t really do that without talking personally. But honestly, don’t worry about me – I promise I am a-ok! Also, I didn’t mean to make out like I was attacking you or I think you’re a big evil meanie or anything like that 🙂

    I do have a question though. Is it the term “rape culture” the thing you object too rather than the concept? Because I don’t really get how talking about how we construct sex, sexuality and consent can be anything other the valuable. Also, I don’t get how talking about one thing can diminish the validity of anything else.

    Also, it’s not like there is one sort of continuum on which everything occurs. I meant that rape culture is but one thread that overlaps with and “ties in” with all sorts of different things. For example, aspects of rape culture has a lot to do with trans hate-crime, rape and sexual assualt and there are a lot of trans blogs that talk about this.

  14. quietriotgirl says:

    Hi Jenny
    You ask some very good questions! I will go and reflect and get back to you.

    Take care

  15. Quiet Riot Girl says:

    I just don’t think ‘rape culture’ exists. I think rape occurs within ‘gender cultures’ which also produce domestic violence, poor treatment of women in court, rape of men in prison, transphobia etc. But I don’t think rape has a culture of its own. I think it is a violent crime. I don’t think it is to do with sex and sexuality so much as gender and power.

    does that help?

  16. JenniferRuth says:

    Yeah – that makes sense. Although I think the conversation is the same, it is just that the name is different. Perhaps “gender culture” would be more accurate.

  17. Quiet Riot Girl says:

    Yes I prefer it. Gender is an analytical term whereas rape is a violent attack. I know which one sounds more useful when I put it like that!

  18. Jenny-thanks me too. I think many many abusive relationships involve some kind of investment/pay off for the person being abused. It sounds harsh to put in those terms as obviously there is no real benefit to being in that situation. I have had a comparable experience. But the only problem I have with emphasising this, is that it can somehow let off the normally men who abuse and hurt women they purport to love and care for. These men need to be accountable and to be encouraged to change!

  19. Laura says:

    ‘safe spaces’ – good point – trouble with them in my own experience is that they are only safe to say/do those things that are acceptable in those territories – if you don’t suit the ghetto you will either be blatantly or subtly ejected. “Safe spaces” have their own politics which I do think easily turns into a territorial claim.
    I’m not a fan of ghettos, for the simple reason that they make it easier for external abusers to identify and victimise members of the ghetto. Thats a separate point.

    Great points from Jenny – and I get what you mean. I think most people – gay/straight and male/female – have experience abuse of some form in relationships – subtle coercion on an emotional level being the main form (because its socially expected). Physical/sexual violence is less common but to value it higher tends to devale other forms of abuse.

    I was once in an extremely emotionally manupulative relationship and like yourself I went right in with my eyes open. I wonder sometimes do we put ourselves through these experiences because of a sense of social obligation – for example my ex was a serial sex abuse survivor, been on the streets, came from a violent family background – something in the mindset of the tradition I was part of at that time taught me that I had no right to judge that person. This made me deeply vulnerable to abusive relationships because I had learned to “tolerate” people whose backgrounds were abusive because somehow it wsa “ok” for them to be victims.

    Nearly 10 years later, I can see both the folly of my thinking and also how it pervades the liberal mindset. That guy is a waster or loser – but who am I to judge? You are not taught to think of your own safety first – you are supposed to embrace his/her victimhood because they “can’t help it.”

    Then I met many people who had grown up in awful backgrounds, and guess what, they were not wasters or victims of circumstance. That was a deep learning process. A lot of life is about choice and being a victim or a recovered survivor is one of them.

  20. ‘A lot of life is about choice and being a victim or a recovered survivor is one of them’.

    I think that is a very thought-provoking point and I know where you are coming from.

    I really relate to what you say: I think many middle class ‘liberal’ women have a sense of wanting to ‘rescue’ men from difficult backgrounds but like you say, that does not mean those men should necessarily be violent.

    I guess I still don’t want to reject the discourse of men being violent to their women partners as I think this is an endemic problem, and it is a problem for men and masculinity to sort out as much as but probably more than women, no matter how deep our sense of social responsibility!

  21. Dan Holloway says:

    Ally, this is a fascinating topic, and fits in with an interview I just did with the author Julie Enszer
    One of the things we discussed was the difference in focus between US and continental European feminism (how one was more practical, the other more analytic, and how this may have emanated from the milieu in whcih they found themselves operating), and I was aware at the time that the UK was somewhere between the two.

    I think many areas of “feminism” have moved on from this model, and I think it’s the transphobic element that has compelled them to do so – in particular the realisation that many white women have, historically, been in positions of power and abuse in relation to men of colour (and in many places still are). This undermined the whole notion that one form of difference is somehow more privileged than others, and has forced much of theoretical feminism to re-examine itself (the same has happened recently in Queer Theory, as many theorists have sought to point out that violence exists within the LGBT community and is not specifically something that comes from outside).

    I thik what we are seeing here absolutely typifies the interface between the pragmatic-focused elements of a movement and the theoretical, and the friction comes as they start to leech into each other – people who work with women who are victims of rape on a day to day basis will naturally have avery specific goal for all they do, which is to eradicate all such violence; on the other hand those engaged in discussion will have a similar aim of seeking to place themselves within and in a harmonious relation to, a global dialogue. Each will, of course, see the other antagonistically because what they see about the other is someone who is diverting energy and attention “away from what really matters”.

    Where understanding and synthesis will eventually break out, though, is precisely at that interface – in particular through people involved in both research and action, and also in those areas where there are many issues – I think it’s so important for community action groups not to ghettoise themselves but to work with other groups in the community (those supporting victims of racial hatred working with those who have been victims of homophobia) so that the commonality of the problems they face becomes apparent (of course this has to be done first amongst practitioners, and not by putting those who’ve suffered vilence in situations with whcih they are unhappy). From those clusters, outreach and networks can happen that will moce into communities where the demographics mean problems are more specific.

  22. Hi Dan
    Thanks for your comment. The quality and thoughtfulness of comments on this thread has been outstanding. I am going to go away and re-read the post and the comments and come back to you all. Thanks!

  23. lissy says:

    Trying to work out ‘why’ these feminists do this is difficult.

    Very Cynical View: After many years my conclusion is that feminists are no more immune from the patriarchal concept of hierarchy than anybody else. The simple answer is our culture teaches us to feed our egos by eating other people’s… and one way to do that is to create hierarchies…

  24. That makes sense Lissy. Thanks. I think the term ‘patriarchal’ in lowercase is useful in trying to understand how power functions in society. What I don’t like is when it becomes Patriarchy, the noun with a capital P! The big bad wolf coming to eat us poor little women up.

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