Challenging Our “Rape Culture”

Sexual violence against women remains a globally endemic problem, as demonstrated by recent high profile cases from Delhi, India to Steubenville, Ohio. In the United States, the official statistics are frightening. According to a recent estimation, one out of every six American women is sexually assaulted. Out of all the countries in the world that publish such statistics, the United States apparently has the highest rate. However, there is no way to truly know the number of rapes committed worldwide, as it is a notoriously underreported crime. What can we do to challenge this widespread and apparently deep-seated social pathology? 


There have been positive legal developments recently. For instance, in 2001 the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia amended a serious gap in international humanitarian law by including rape as a crime against humanity. Likewise, an encouraging example of domestic jurisprudence is the Violence against Women Act, a piece of federal legislation originally passed by the United States Congress in 1994 that was finally renewed in March 2013, providing important legal mechanisms to institutionally address sexual violence. And yet rape is still a depressingly prevalent reality. Despite these legal improvements, there are limits to what the law can accomplish. Considering how endemic the problem of violence against women remains, it needs to be culturally addressed in the form of sustained social discourse.


Hence, the term “rape culture” has emerged in order to raise awareness of the deep-seated legacy of misogyny, whereby women are objectified and perceived to be submissive and sexually passive, as well as to identify prevailing social expectations regarding hyper-masculinity, whereby men are expected to be dominant and sexually aggressive. The aim is to develop social conditions whereby young men are raised not to commit rape and to respect women as human beings.


Such sustained social discourse has come in many creative forms. For instance, the recent Canadian advertising campaign, “Don’t Be That Guy,” addresses the problem by shifting emphasis toward male behavior. Yet another example are “slut walks,” which are public demonstrations that counteract the charge that women are raped because of the way they dress, as if “they’re asking for it,” thereby undermining the tendency to blame victims. Similarly, the Ukrainian feminist group Femen provocatively protest while topless, attempting to reclaim the image of women’s naked bodies from patriarchal attitudes and behaviors.


Thus, in order to challenge our globally endemic rape culture, legal developments are necessary but insufficient. The problem has to be culturally addressed. There must be a sustained social campaign to overturn patriarchy altogether, thereby ending systemic relations of oppression and submission based on gender. Doing so will not only challenge prevailing public sentiments regarding the objectification of women, but it will also encourage men to redefine their gender roles away from the aggressive expectations of hyper-masculinity.


Submitted by Jeff Benvenuto


The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not represent the opinions of Rutgers University or the Division of Global Affairs.

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