Updated: Apr 13, 2021
written by Palwasha A. and Lamisa H.
Content warning: This article discusses themes surrounding sexual assault and rape extensively.
When sexual assault occurs, it’s always viewed as an isolated incident- the work of one or more disgusting individuals who are “sick in the head”. This, of course, is a best case scenario; some of the worst responses (public or private) turn the conversation against the victim, and move along the lines of, “well, you were…” and “maybe it wouldn’t have happened if you’d…” These responses are a symptom of what we call rape culture.
But what isn’t understood at all is that rape culture isn’t just the ignorance of an inhumane response. Rape culture is the greater social context that allows indecent assault to be viewed in a vaccuum, as opposed to something many of us perpetuate without even knowing.
What Is Rape Culture?
If you’ve been paying attention to the news recently, both Australian and more broad, you’ll have noticed that the hashtag #NotAllMen has begun trending on social media platforms (again). This is in response to the death of 33-year-old Sarah Everard, a woman from the UK who was simply walking home when she went missing.
What happened to Sarah caused an international outpouring of grief and rage from women, who began sharing the truly shocking ways that they were taught to defend themselves growing up, and the measures they have to take every day of their lives to avoid being assaulted or murdered.
Marshall University defines rape culture as:
“an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalised and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorisation of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.”
For a moment when I saw the reaction, I felt surprised. I read the details and it was a story that had been told so many times. This reaction in itself is a symptom of rape culture. To have surprise at the fact that so many people felt so strongly about the murder of a young woman, still, after so many decades of this happening to young women.
Do All Men Benefit From Rape Culture?
All men benefit from rape culture. For the average man, to hear that he in any way benefits from anything associated with sexual assault, is abhorrent. Though the topic is extremely uncomfortable, it needs to be discussed, openly, if there is any change to be made. The reason men feel so comfortable dismissing rape culture is due to their privilege as men: it is not an imminent threat to them. To be clear, this happens to varying degrees when taking in factors of sexuality, ethnicity, etc.
Rape culture keeps women fearful, subdued and ensures that they take less risks, that there are severe limits on their experience of life and the world. The imminent general threat of sexual violence means that women make compromises in their understanding of themselves and their dignity, in ways that cause stress and rage. If a woman is catcalled, she will often look away rather than put the person in their place, because she is aware of the threat of even greater retaliation from the harasser. If a woman speaks up about what’s happened to her, she has to consider that she likely won’t be heard. If a woman goes for a promotion too steadfastly at work, she may become a target within the workplace. If a woman is asked out by a man, even a well-meaning man, she fears his reaction to her saying no, or persisting until it gets uncomfortable.
When half the population is held back and subdued, by default it benefits the half that is not. In all cases of oppression, every member of the dominant group reaps the benefits, whether or not they personally agree with the treatment of the oppressed group. You can be a man disgusted by rape culture and still benefit from the position of power it puts you in over women.
How Our Media Perpetuates Rape Culture
Our pop culture and media set up our expectations for what is normal and what is abnormal when it comes to violence of a sexual nature. We are subconsciously conditioned to expect sexual violence to happen against women, whereas we expect physical violence to happen to men. A very interesting case study is the second season of ‘13 Reasons Why’. Viewers were shocked and enraged at a scene in which a male student is brutally raped by another male student. The conversation surrounding this scene was rightfully disgusted but the shock element had many interesting layers to it. Because the same show was known for its graphic depictions of two other sexual assaults, the outrage over this particular one was revelatory of a deeper unspoken cultural understanding. People were not used to seeing sexual violence like that against a man, even in a scene of high tension, whereas the exact opposite is true in scenes featuring women. In an excellent article dissecting the scene by writer Ariana Romero, she states, “We expect to see men get hurt, but only in ways that put their faces, bones and torsos in danger”.
The media we consume constantly sets up female figures to be put into positions where we are always expecting sexual, rather than physical violence against them, and time and time again have our expectations rewarded. Think of any horror movie: We expect all parties to be brutalised but, in our heads, we already know that the men are only ever in physical danger. How many times are you watching a movie with a scene featuring a female character, and the tension begins to heighten. There isn’t any explicit threat of sexual assault made, but you know to expect it, and so you change the channel for a minute.
What Role Does Toxic Masculinity Have to Play in Perpetuating Rape Culture
Recently, a criminal allegation was made against David Dobrik and his predominantly male and powerful group of friends, known as The Vlog Squad, who have become famous through his videos. The allegation was made by a girl known as “Hannah”, that in 2017 Dom Zieglietis, a member of David’s group, had raped her while she was blackout drunk, and the assault had been spun into a fun threesome “bit” for David’s vlog.
What made this case so particularly horrible was how easily it could have been prevented. Dom had previously been accused of sexual assault and had admitted to it. These allegations were widely known and the accuser, Ally Hardesty, endured an extreme amount of hate in response to outing her abuser. David publicly supported Dom, and then incorporated the assault allegations into his “character” in the vlog, wherein all the members of David’s group consistently made jokes about how Dom was a “predator”, a “pedophile” and a “rapist”.
One man here raped someone. The other gave him a platform, normalised his behaviour and projected it to an impressionable audience of millions. The rest co-signed by supporting it, treating the culture of the vlogs as normal and ideal and supporting the environment that allowed such an assault to occur. People who were fans of his vlog, myself included, supported by watching, sharing and following, and turning a blind eye to the obvious red flags. This case was emblematic of how completely rape culture is normalised, that an assault could be viewed and not questioned by so many.
How Do We Address The Root Cause
The David Dobrik situation was the first time that a conversation about rape culture was focused on a powerful group of male, mostly white friends whose privilege blinded them to the fact that the environment they had created was toxic to a criminal degree. They had normalised and perpetuated misogyny and toxic masculinity subtly, and projected it as the ideal lifestyle, resulting in rape culture being perpetuated on a huge scale.
The public also saw, for the first time we can remember, punishment not just for the person committing the crime, but the one who had created the environment in which it occurred, and refused to take accountability for it. We saw a girl brave enough to come forward with her story and out the people who had given her lifelong trauma. The only way that David could be held accountable was through the growing understanding of rape culture in the public eye, that projected the conversation into the news cycle, and told survivors that their stories would be listened to, and were impactful. David lost all his major sponsorships, his app and the monetisation of his Youtube channel, as well as his image as the loveable, naive, golden boy of Youtube.
We saw a man suffer the consequences of his actions enough that it forced him to finally confront the reality of his own involvement, and eventually sincerely apologise for it, and send a message to his fans not to support him in this instance, but to examine their own biases, and how they could be perpetuating a toxic culture.
The responsibility has always fallen on women to change the status quo, as though they are the perpetrators, but the problem remains ingrained in our society and in the behaviour of men. It is not a cure to arm ourselves, learn self-defense, become CEOs. it has been proven time and time again that these things are not a deterrent to rape or sexual violence. It is not the job of the oppressed group to work within their oppression. As the ones who directly benefit from rape culture, any man who is disgusted to learn of his own complicitness needs to actively fight rape culture. This is in confronting their friends, in the slightly off comments they make, by standing up for the women in their family, even something as seemingly small as questioning enforced dress codes for women. It is for men to reject toxic masculinity and have difficult conversations that will create real change. It is no longer acceptable for anyone to sit on the sidelines. By recognising that we are complicit, we have already taken the first step.