Why Rape Culture is Literally Killing Us
Let’s face it, “literally” is the new “like” – it’s a filler word that gets used incorrectly. “I literally can’t even…” Is the battle cry of your average 20 something’s speech pattern. So please understand, when I say “rape culture is literally killing us” – I am not using it lightly. I mean it literally.
Sorry to be a downer here, but it’s physically killing us. We are dying.
“So far today, thanks to the war being waged on the female form, approximately 560 women in the U.S. have been sexually assaulted. If you’re a math whiz and you’ve figured it out already then congratulations, you’re right — that is indeed one woman every 90 seconds. Good job. If you’re still good at math, then you’ll have also just figured out that also means another 400 women are due to be sexually assaulted today. Oh, have I brought the mood down? Bummer, because it doesn’t get any prettier from here. Three women are also expected to be killed today. Most likely by their current or former partner. With a gun.” – Laura Louise.
Don’t believe me? Type “man kills ex-girlfriend” in Google News — just news, not even a general Google search — it brings up over one million results. You can also read a highlights reel of rape culture based murders here (and a great article with it.)
But it’s also killing us psycho-emotionally. To quote Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object:
“We know that direct violence causes trauma – We have shelters for it, counselors, services. We know that children who live in violent neighborhoods are more likely to develop PTSD, the daily fear changing their brains and psychological makeup so drastically that flashbacks and disassociation become common. We know that those who are bullied get depressed and sometimes commit suicide.
Yet despite all these things we know to be true – a preponderance of evidence showing the mental and emotional distress people demonstrate in violent and harassing environments –We still have no name for what happens to women living in a culture that hates them. We are sick people with no disease, given no explanation for our supposedly disconnected symptoms.”
Imagine walking around with the symptoms of a cold, or the flu, or a broken leg, but not knowing what was wrong with you. Eventually you might even think that the thing that was wrong was you. You might feel crazy, less than, or broken, on top of the symptoms of your unacknowledged disease. The results would not be pretty, and yet they are exactly what we demand women live with every day.
And when we do find reasons for our symptoms: street harassment, sexual assault, rape, murder – we are given the blame and told to change our behavior so it doesn’t happen again.
“Every day, men are assaulting, raping and killing women, and then whining about how it wasn’t their fault. Then whose fault was it? Apparently — according to these abusers, rapists and murderers — it’s usually the woman’s fault. Sure buddy. It’s our fault that we tricked you into developing immediate and intense physical and/or emotional feelings for us, and then it’s our fault that we turned you away. It’s our fault that we hurt your feelings, it’s our fault we provoked your bad temper, it’s our fault we bruised your fragile heteronormative hyper-masculine male egos. It’s out fault that we don’t understand how badly you want us, it’s our fault when we don’t explain to you that wanting us doesn’t grant immediate access to our vaginas. It’s our fault when we don’t give you our bodies, it’s our fault when we don’t give you our number, it’s our fault when we don’t give you a smile.
It’s our fault when we don’t give, give, give.
We don’t give, because we owe you nothing.
And somehow that ends up being our fault, too.” – Laura Louise
To make it worse, our tolerance for living in these conditions is so high most of us don’t even notice it. In fact, most of us don’t even know what rape is because we don’t know what consent is because we are so rarely given opportunities to express it. Most of us were raised in the “No Means No!” area of rape prevention. While we’re not transitioning to “Yes Means Yes!” we’re still figuring out what exactly that means.
As explained on “The Birds and the Bees” episode 557 of This American Life, “We need to redefine our image of a rapist. It’s not just the scary stranger, mad man, in the alley. It’s also the guy who wakes up the next morning and thinks, ‘was she actually into that?’ and is wrong.”
As women we are culturally expected to be polite, givers, gracious, empathetic, understanding, and above all, not confrontational. We are taught that the best thing we can be is not a problem for someone else. Reframed with this idea, Amy Schumer’s joke stings with truth: “we’ve all been a little raped.” In her stand-up set she describes waking up hung-over in the morning and being surprised by who is lying next to you, something male comedians have referenced for years, but goes on to note that what just happened was “not totes consench [consensual].” Not totally consensual. Rape.
Yes, penetration of an intoxicated person is rape. Penetration of an unconscious person is rape. Penetration without a clear and enthusiastic “YES!” is not “gray area,” it is assault. No matter how confused, drunk, in love at you, or nice of a guy your assailant’s friends say he is. Just look at the Brock Turner case.
“The Brock Turner case highlights an important truth: Perpetrators can seem like good guys and they often receive more support than their victims, who generally remain anonymous out of shame and fear. It is not unusual for perpetrators of sex crimes to appear to be people of strong character. They are likable. They hold positions of responsibility within the community. They are trusted. When community members hear one of their own is a sexual predator— perhaps a swim coach, teacher, or star athlete— they respond with shock and disbelief. “He seemed like such a good guy” is a common refrain.”” – Dani Bostick, Huffington Post.
And so, because these guys aren’t strangers, because they’re often ex-boyfriends, because we’re just so used to prioritizing others, because “it’s fine,” “I’m fine,” most of the time we don’t even think of it as rape.
Or even if we do understand it as rape, as Turner’s victim did, we are shamed for daring to accuse such a “nice guy” for being a rapist. And even when we don’t, we have all the symptoms of assault survivors – including this big one: denial. We look at the unthinkable horror stories, the brutal assaults by strangers, at gun point, rapes that are also murders, and we think because “mine’s not that bad!” therefore… it really isn’t rape?
It’s a common thought process for women: the idea that we are perpetually not enough. It takes different forms: our careers, love lives, identities, achievements… Formally it’s called Imposter Syndrome and is prevalent among high achieving women.
“For young women, this research can’t come soon enough. Girls are achieving more than ever before – they regularly outperform boys in the classroom and at university. Yet they still feel they don’t belong. And a recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies put the gender pay gap for graduates in the 10 years after leaving university at around 23 per cent. Ouch. This all goes well beyond false modesty. It comes down to confidence. Countless pieces of research have told us that women undervalue themselves. It’s why we’re so poor at asking for pay rises. It’s why we don’t go for that new job unless we’re absolutely certain we’re qualified – where men just wing it.” – Claire Cohen
I think just by the daily endurance of rape culture, we all have it a little. The more you know about something, the more you know how much you don’t know. Then there’s always someone who is better at it, or has it worse, or by comparison could potentially invalidate you or your experience.
After the Orlando shooting I read a poignant piece by a bi-sexual woman, “Biphobia and the Pulse Massacre” on how she felt this “not enoughness” takes form in her own life.
“That’s where the guilt enters in. The deep, deep isolating guilt that comes from internalized bi-phobia.
Am I allowed to feel this devastated, this full of rage?
Am I gay enough to be this upset?
Am I appropriating the grief of real gay people?
It hurts. On top of the pain and grief of loss, on top of the “that could’ve been me, that could’ve been my friends”, on top of the psychological terror, there’s also the sinking feeling of self-doubt.”
This “sinking feeling of self doubt” she so perfectly describes, is yet another manifestation of the not-enoughness. It’s a chameleon of a parasite, changing forms to best hide within its host. Sucking the life out of the person, invalidating their experiences, accomplishments, and sometimes very right to existence. The result? A quiet, self-loathing, population living in fear and unworthiness.
Another common example of this not-enoughness is diet culture. Anorexia, bulimia, exercise addiction, the need to shrink your body, take up less space, to be enough. As Naomi Wolf puts it:
“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”
If you think about it too much (as I have) it’s so overwhelming. It’s unbearable. Because it’s everywhere. It’s so ingrained in us that you can’t even say the words “rape culture” without someone interrupting you to yell “Not all men!” Isn’t it interesting, men hurt us by raping, murdering, harassing, discrediting, and shaming us. And we hurt them by suggesting that it might not be our fault.
Let that sink in.
I think, sadly, Amy Schumer is right. We’ve all been a little raped. The power then comes from realizing the validity of your own experience. Name it, say it aloud, tell a friend, there’s power in speaking your truth. I don’t care if it isn’t the world’s worst sexual assault story. Your truth does not invalidate someone else’s. We shouldn’t feel like we’re playing “Oppression Olympics” – where only the heaviest stories count. Your experience is yours. Your assault, harassment, or rape is real, and it was wrong. You are not an imposter assault victim, and it is not “fine.” You are worthy of being treated with respect at all times. Your consent matters. You matter. You matter drunk. You matter sober. You matter asleep and awake, in dark alleys, in classrooms, on subways, in stillettos, in sweats, at bars, on dates, riding solo, at work, with your ex, and in your own home.
You matter. You aren’t making it up.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.