There are many things that people find challenging about feminist activism, but rape culture continues to be one of the most confronting and difficult topics. Although the number of people prepared to accept that rape culture exists is growing, there are still far too many who wilfully resist understanding the concept altogether. Reactions prompted by discussions of rape culture invariably include exclamations like “rape culture doesn’t exist!”, “how can anyone be taught to rape?!” and “rapists are considered to be the scum of the earth!”
But as feminist writers continue to reiterate, rape culture isn’t the simplistic notion that sexual assault is somehow being taught as part of the HSC. It’s far more subtle than that, and refers to a state of existence in which the impact and reality of sexual violence is minimised while the perpetrators of it are supported by a complex system built on flawed human beliefs, mythologies about gender, and good old fashioned misogyny.
The offering of “boys will be boys” in response to coercive sexual assault is a good example of this, not to mention the frequency with which the female victims of such behaviour are dismissed as “sluts” who “should have known what they were getting into” with men who are described as “good blokes” who let things “get out of hand”.
Rape culture isn’t just about the impulse to excuse or deny perpetrators’ actions. It also manifests in the way people – many of them in positions of power in their own communities – will bend over backwards to defend and diminish culpability of perpetrators, despite recognising the reality of their predatory and violent actions.
Consider the recent case of the Utah judge who was allegedly on the verge of tears as he sentenced a man found guilty of sexually assaulting two women.
Judge Thomas Low described Keith Vallejo, a former bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as being “an extraordinarily good man”. Vallejo had been convicted of two separate assaults dating back to 2013, because apparently “great men sometimes do bad things”.
Imagine having to sit in court as the person appointed to impartially adjudicate on your case describes the man found guilty of raping you as an “extraordinarily good person”.
This is rape culture. It’s the casual ease by which even those people employed to enforce the law are able to assess rape and sexual assault as being somehow separate to a person’s character: they are a great bloke, a good friend, an upstanding teammate, an “extraordinarily good person”, and raping someone else is just a separate mistake they made that shouldn’t be held against them.
But rape isn’t something that otherwise good and decent people just stumble into. Someone who makes the choice to rape or sexually assault someone isn’t acting out of character – rather, they are expressing a central part of their character that all too many people seem willing to overlook in their desires to have these people continue to be “good”. The part of their character that believes they are entitled to use women’s bodies against their will, to dominate and hurt women for their own gratification.
When people say of a known rapist that they are a “good” person, what they mean is “they are good to me”. Yes, defendants and their lawyers are entitled in our legal system to mount a defence that includes character testimonies – but I contend that a law predominantly written and enforced by men (and men of certain, privileged backgrounds) is fundamentally flawed in its ability to deal with the impact of sex crimes that are mostly perpetrated by men against women.
It shouldn’t matter that someone has an exemplary record of community service or workplace success, because their ability to treat other people with respect in public doesn’t and shouldn’t negate their willingness to assault a single person in private.
And yet time after time, these caveats are offered as some kind of explanation or plea against overly harsh punishment. The Steubenville rapists were good boys with “promising [athletic] futures”. The Stanford rapist was a “swimming star” whose life didn’t apparently deserve to be ruined because of “twenty minutes of action”. Oncologist John Kearsley drugged and sexually assaulted a female colleague, but he had given “extraordinary service to the medical profession”.
The men who rape and sexually assault women are considered by all too many people to have merely “made a mistake”, and one that they deserve to be given opportunity to fully recover from. And the recovery of their victims? Well.. he said he was sorry.
And this is also rape culture: the belief that sexual predation is the domain of loners and social misfits, and that an outward appearance of goodness is a talisman against abusive behaviour.
It is possible for many predators to appear as upstanding members of their community, good blokes and charitable women, kind hearted, salt-of-the-earth types who know how to have a laugh and get on well with everyone. Not all people who commit sexual assault are charming – but charm has always gone a long way to allowing sexually abusive people to hide in plain sight of communities that will overwhelmingly testify in their favour.
As writer Lauren DeStefano tweeted following the Brock Turner sentence, “if someone’s a rapist and an athlete, they’re not an athlete who made a mistake, they’re a criminal who can also swim.”
I’m tired of having to list these examples in order to prove to people that rape culture is real when the evidence continues to pile up. We have schoolboys sexually assaulting their female peers and sending video footage of it to friends who laugh about it, and these schoolboys are then defended by the adults in their communities as “good boys” while their victims are shamed and cast out as troublemakers.
Rape culture might not be about instructing anyone on how to rape someone, but it certainly is about reassuring through example that those who do won’t necessarily be held to account for it, if there’s a way their victim can be blamed instead.
Because rape isn’t always (in fact, it isn’t even mostly) the result of inherent evil. The culture we live in has proven itself willing and eager to side with men who harm women, even while pretending not to excuse the “mistakes” they make.
Overthrowing rape culture won’t just save women from being victimised by it – it will also save men from being conditioned by it. And if someone you know is opposed to either one of those outcomes, then I have news for you: they are not the good person you think they are.