‘Rape Culture’ and Other Feminist Myths

Posted: February 13, 2015 in Elly Tams, Gender Violence, Rape culture
Tags: , ,

I first wrote critiquing the concept of ‘rape culture’ back in 2010 when I still identified as a feminist, of sorts. Below is a version of one of my posts on the topic, published by  Arts and Opinion and  A Voice For Men in 2012. My thoughts on ‘rape culture’ have evolved since, but I stand by my main arguments. I will revisit the subject in the coming weeks, in the light of recent coverage of rape and ‘rape culture’ in the more mainstream media.


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. 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 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 naively 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 empathize 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 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.’

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 that 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. My instinct is that holding onto special victim status has some pay offs for 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 pathologizes 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 pedophiles), 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 who commit sexual assault 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.

‘Rape Culture’ is a myth. I reject it outright.

  1. Andrew says:

    It was only after I had just been punched in the face on the bottom of my left eye socket, narrowly missing the eye itself, and in the immediate aftermath, that I gave deep thought to the issue of domestic violence. I am a middle-aged man and the person who struck me was my now ex-girlfriend, a 5′ 10″ late twenty-something woman who gave a full swing of her right arm into my face. The punch had blind-sided me as I lay on the bed early one evening. She had walked into the room giving no indication of what was about to happen. The blow was made worse because it was so completely unexpected. I lay on the bed in complete shock for half an hour afterwards, saying nothing. I thought about how if it had been half an inch higher I could have been blinded in that eye. But mostly I thought about the absolute hilarity, the farce, it would be if I called the Police and reported my attacker for domestic violence. And does anyone reading this imagine that my unprovoked attack (my ex-girlfriend was reacting to some gossip she had just received about me by text) would have been taken remotely seriously be the authorities? I didn’t. And this made me mad.

    Imagine if the roles had been reversed and I had walked in and took a free swing at her left eye socket. We are of similar weight and height. But I’d be in jail. No (or very few) questions asked. She would get sympathy and understanding and support. Would I have? I think not. So what is going on here when men can be attacked and that attack not be taken seriously at all but reverse the roles and its a completely different story? Aren’t we all human beings, all equally in need of support if we are unlucky enough to be attacked? It would seem not and the reason is the toxic influence of certain feminist discourse on the subject, discourse which makes all men powerful, violent predators and all women innocent, vulnerable, potential victims. It is this discourse which means men will get no sympathy and support if they find themselves with a violent, abusive woman and, simultaneously, means that all women will be infantilised as victims in waiting at the hands of men who cannot be trusted and are always of the edge of violence. The discourse sets out roles and sets up expectations, in error I might add.

    That fixed model of discourse doesn’t fit my circumstances or, I argue, the world’s circumstances. It falsifies reality. “Tough luck”, these feminists would say. The agenda, it would seem, is more important than actual people. We must resist it.

    • s4r4hbrown says:

      I understand why you worried that people wouldn’t take the attack on you seriously, but I do think the situation has improved to some degree over the last few years, and that there is more awareness of male victims of domestic violence and rape. This is just one example


      • Henry says:

        Yes a lot of men (including me) have the perception that if they were hit or abused by a female partner, it would not be taken seriously. They then look at the demonising campaigns against domestic violence, the simplistic stereotyping of the situations in which violence happened etc*

        So are out perceptions correct? Well it would be worth asking police what their attitude is on this point – though I’m afraid it would be lacking in subtlety.

        There was an interesting youtube video by Karen Straughan (I forget which one) telling how in one US state the DV laws led to a huge increase in arrests of women for DV – leading to a hasty rewriting of the rules to make sure it was targeted at men again!

        * I saw a video on YT about how in one news report on DV, they had taken a graph with numbers of male and female DV victims, and simply airbrushed the figures for male victims out, so noone would see the full story. You hear story after story of blatant lying by these people.

      • lightstrider says:

        That page no longer exists, what a surprise!

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