Strawmanning Rape Culture (Part One)

[Content note: sexual assault]

Rape culture is a very difficult concept for many people to understand, perhaps because, like many sociological constructs, it works in such a way as to make itself invisible. Understanding rape culture, especially if you are someone who isn’t affected by it very much, requires a keen attention to detail and a willingness to examine your own complicity in things you’d rather not believe that you’re complicit in.

For a great introduction to rape culture, read the Wikipedia page and this Shakesville piece. If you’re not familiar with it, read these things before you read this post, because this is not a 101-level post. Here’s another definition, from the book Transforming a Rape Culture, that may be useful (although you’ll notice that I’ll expand on it a bit later):

A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.

Many people hear about rape culture briefly, perhaps online or in a text assigned in a sociology or gender studies class, and don’t really read about or grasp the nuances of it. This makes it very easy to strawman the rape culture argument, to reduce it to clearly absurd and obviously inaccurate claims that are easy to strike down–and, crucially, that nobody who claims that rape culture exists ever made to begin with.

Here are some common strawman versions of rape culture, and why they are inaccurate.

“So you’re saying that people think rape is okay.”

When many people hear “rape culture,” they assume this is supposed to imply that we live in a society where people actually think rape is okay and/or good. That’s an easily falsifiable claim. After all, rape is illegal. We do, in some cases, punish people for committing it. If someone is known to be a rapist, that person’s reputation often takes a huge nosedive. We teach nowadays that “no means no.” People obviously resist being identified as rapists, and they wouldn’t resist it if it weren’t generally considered a bad thing to be.

So how could we really have a rape culture? More to the point, if people who say we live in a rape culture are not claiming that people literally think rape is okay, what exactly are we claiming?

One way rape gets shrugged off and thus accepted in our culture is by constantly shifting the goalposts of what rape is. If you flirted with someone, it’s not rape. If you had an orgasm, it’s not rape. If you dressed sluttily, it’s not rape. If you’re a sex worker, it’s not rape. If it was with your partner or spouse, it’s not rape. If you’re a prisoner, it’s not rape. If you’re fat or unattractive, it’s not rape (because you must’ve wanted it). If no penis was involved, it’s not rape. If you were unconscious, it’s not rape. The fact that we have politicians debating what is and is not “legitimate rape” is evidence that we do not consider all rape to be legitimate. And, unsurprisingly, studies show that people will admit to having committed sexual assault provided it’s not called “sexual assault” in the survey.

Another way rape gets excused is through victim blaming, which I’ll discuss a bit later. Even when we admit that what happened to someone is rape, we still often blame them for it, thus implying that, in some cases, rape isn’t really so wrong because the victim was “asking for it.”

One more related way in which rape gets excused is through claims that rapists (male rapists, generally) “can’t help themselves.” By framing rape as the inevitable result of masculinity, hormones, sexual tension, and so on, we’re implying that rape is a normal part of our society that we’re not going to do anything about. The hypocrisy of a society that pays lip service to the idea that rape is bad while also suggesting that in some cases it’s not “really” rape and in some cases it’s just what you’d expect and ultimately it’s inevitable anyway is emblematic of rape culture.

Remember, though, that some people do actually think rape is good and/or okay. Some men do openly admit to wanting to rape women, and even if they’re attempting to make a so-called “joke,” their choice of joke says a lot about their beliefs about rape.

“So you’re saying that without rape culture, there would be no more rape.”

People also misinterpret the rape culture argument as a claim that all rape is caused directly by rape culture. While some people probably do believe that there would be no rape in a society free from rape culture, I don’t. I think that rape culture drastically increases the prevalence of rape by encouraging attitudes that lead to it, reducing penalties for rapists, and making it more difficult for victims to speak out and seek justice.

Strawmanning the rape culture argument in this way makes it seem patently ridiculous. After all, we don’t claim that there’s a “car theft culture,” but people steal plenty of cars. We don’t wring our hands over “identity theft culture,” but lots and lots of people fall victim to identity theft. Same, unfortunately, with murder. So if you think we’re saying that rape culture is the entire reason rape exists as a phenomenon at all, it’s easy to refute that claim by pointing to other crimes, and also by pointing out that people often commit crimes because it gives them some sort of advantage.

If rape culture did not exist, rape would still exist, but things would look very different. Rape would be much rarer. When there is enough evidence to show that someone committed rape, that person will go to jail. Although there may still a bit of stigma surrounding being a rape victim, that stigma will not be any greater than it is for being the victim of any other crime (right now, it’s much greater). Rape would not constantly be threatened and used as “punishment” for being queer, for being a woman who speaks out, and so on. There will still be researchers trying to understand what causes people to become rapists and activists trying to stop them from doing so, but the key difference will be that when someone gets raped, we’ll ask more questions about the person who raped them than about the person who was raped. We’ll ask what led the rapist to do such a thing, not what led the victim to be so careless.

“So you’re saying that the fact that a given crime exists means that ‘[crime] culture’ exists. Why isn’t there a murder culture, then, huh?!”

Closely related to the previous one. The existence of a given type of crime is not sufficient to show that a “culture” exists that encourages and excuses that crime. The reason there is a rape culture but not a murder culture is because, overall, our culture does not claim that murder is acceptable, okay, inevitable, or even commendable in certain cases. Are there individual people who believe this about murder? Certainly. But for the most part, these people lack institutional backing. Police officers and judges and jury members are not constantly going on record saying that, well, it wasn’t really murder in this case, or the victim’s past behavior suggests they have a tendency to lie about these things

It’s still absolutely reasonable to say that we have a problem with murder or theft or [other crime] in our society without having to make the claim that a [crime] culture exists. These crimes do have sociological causes, not just individual ones. Economic inequality, for instance, tends to contribute a lot to these types of crimes; they are not simply personal failings as we often dismiss them to be.

Culturally, however, rape gets a lot more support and excuses than theft or murder do. Victims of rape are blamed to a greater extent than victims of any other crime; and not only that, but that blame is used by people in positions of authority to avoid finding, trying, and sentencing the rapist.

The second half of this post will be up tomorrow. If you have more strawmans to add in the comments, try to hold on to them until that post comes out and you see the rest of them.

Strawmanning Rape Culture (Part One)

25 thoughts on “Strawmanning Rape Culture (Part One)

  1. EEB

    Great post, overall, and I’m looking forward to seeing the rest!

    Two things that jumped out at me:

    If someone is known to be a rapist, that person’s reputation often takes a huge nosedive.

    Often being the key word, there. It’s astonishing to me how often rapists–not just accused, but even admitted, convicted rapists–seem to suffer few, if any, consequences for their behavior, from actors to politicians to professional athletes. Hell, the fact that a convicted rapist could go on to act in a sympathetic role on Law and Order: SVU (getting a hug from victims right advocate Mariska Hargitay) is my Exhibit A in the case of Rape Culture v. Skeptics.

    Police officers and judges and jury members are not constantly going on record saying that, well, it wasn’t really murder in this case, or the victim’s past behavior suggests they have a tendency to lie about these things…

    Unless the victim is a black teenager in Florida…

  2. 2

    I agree with most everything said there, but this part

    The reason there is a rape culture but not a murder culture is because, overall, our culture does not claim that murder is acceptable, okay, inevitable, or even commendable in certain cases.

    I am really not so sure about at all…. In fact, this part really bothered me…

    Now, keeping in mind that this example of “murder culture” in no way damages the explanations given in your post, and I am in no way saying this undermines this well thought out post…. I am inclined to vehemently disagree here.

    I come from a country that has been ravaged by a certain nation, where this nation’s entire culture is bent on ravaging my lands, my people, and the lands of others around me. US foreign policy is quite literally a policy of brutal murder and terrorism for much of Latin america, and much of the middle east. My family, directly coming from one of “Americas Colonies” gives me a different point of view when I attempt to understand American culture, and how insanely malicious and vicious it is when it comes to its imperialistic practices. To say that there is not, this culture, that does not promote taking of innocent lives…. to me, is wildly inaccurate. American culture routinely does just that.It routinely redefines the government sanctioned murder that goes on across the globe in america’s interests… and it ignores this body of evidence that suggest the media play a strong role in ensuring your average american citizen looks at other nations civilians with this subhuman like aura, that allows them to routinely support terror like policies across the globe.

    Now, I don’t mean to get personal, but my family comes from a country where american sponsored death regimes that ravaged my people… so it really rubs me the wrong fcking way when someone says there is not culture where murder is acceptable, commendable, or inevitable… because there is.. and it is american culture that fcking reeks of such things. I would not call it a “murder culture” or anything, but american foreign policies due stem from Americas racist imperialistic like culture – and it definitely does promotes murder.

    So, that one point just struck me the wrong way… maybe I missed something. But to me, and my family members that died, and live in terror, due to American sht culture that seeks to take away all of Latin Americas sovereignty… I kind of took offense, that anyone would say such things do not exist. I assure they do, and I assure you it is cultural.

    Let me give you one example.. in the media especially, they are justifying mass murder all the damn time. I was reading Rolling Stones article on the Boston Bomber… Along with the article being massively islamaphobic, it was also, like most american news media, complexity biased and ignorant. During my disgusting time reading that article, the author, and I imagine this is your average american liberal idiot who knows nothing about american foreign policy, said that during the boron bombers trial the Muslim referenced that America’s foreign policy is killing innocent Muslims across the globe – this is why many of them commit terrorists acts, as he did. The reporter took that quote from him and called it “cliche.” Imagine that, he said that telling Americans that they are killing innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan is now a CLICHE talking point. As if this is some irrelevant detail… I could not believe what I read and I put that silly article down.

    My point here is that this is a widespread American cultural phenomenon, Edward Siad, phrased it best…. there are worthy victims and unworthy victims. Where there was what? 3 people killed in the bosom bombing?.. That was a national tragedy. But the hundreds of thousands of foreigners the US kills everyday…. man fck them… that is a CLICHE talking point.

    This is the kind of apathy that America is known for, and this is why most foreigners, including myself, HATE Americans for. So when someone says there is no culture promoting massive forms of murder.. I kind of… just want to scream… because there is, and it happens everyday. The phrasing just really annoyed me and I wanted to say something…

    Now I am not saying that this is what you are implying, neither am I saying this is a major point in the article… it is not, and I have no idea where you stand on the issues I am talking about. However, I just do not agree that there is not some form of “murder culture”.. because, to my eyes, and the people who die everyday due to US aggression, there surely is and it is stemming from mostly one place – american culture.

    1. 2.1

      Indeed I agree that we do have a murder culture. It’s not just Pakistani children or Honduran dissidents who we think deserve murder, either: look at George Zimmerman’s acquittal. I think you’re spot-on.

  3. 3

    I was going to write something similar to comment #2 and the end of comment #1 so I won’t repeat… But yeah, I think the assumption that there is no murder culture in America may come from a place of racial privilege. From my perspective, murder culture is real, in the same way that rape culture is real. It just doesn’t directly victimize the privileged class (middle to upper class white people). While it is not a sociological term, murder culture on non-whites, poor people, sex workers or drug addicts is actually institutionalized in America. It often is intertwined with rape culture. Here in Canada, it is easy to imagine that the investigation of missing First Nations women in Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhood would have been much quicker had they been white.

    1. 3.1

      Yeah, that would have been my example, too, the missing First Nations women in Vancouver. And worse yet, they’ve already convicted one serial killer who killed dozens of the same type of women in the same place, and they’re still going on anyway.

  4. Pen

    I agree with dezn_98. When you see what can quite justifiably be called a murder culture coming from outside it hits you in the eyes. And I’m not saying that my own society(ies) are free of it, but it isn’t to the same extent. I’d like to add that it works internally as well, think gun issues and associated depictions/discourse on American life (or death).

    I thought the discussion of rape culture was very interesting and I look forward to reading the next part.

  5. 5

    Aw man ,I have been holding onto this for so long, waiting for the whole “legitimate” thing to come back.

    See, the thing about “legitimate rape” is that the very phrase itself reveals that the person using it (unironically) does not know what they’re talking about. Legitimate. Means. Legal. It means lawful. It means okay.

    So when Senator Whatshisname talks about how women can’t get pregnant from ‘legitimate rape’, he’s right. Because (so far as I’m aware) in North America all forms of rape against women* that could result in pregnancy are illegitimate. So in the very narrow definition of rape he’s using, legitimate rape doesn’t exist.

    The scary thing is when you think that not all forms of rape are considered unlawful (I’m pretty sure about this, that the current legal definition of rape only covers penetrating the victim atm).

    *unclear how Sen. WHN would handle penetrative rape resulting in pregnancy in a trans man, except for ‘badly’

    1. 5.1

      I’m in no way trying to defend Senator Asshat, but I don’t think that’s what he was saying at all. Essentially he was claiming that most “rapes” (his irony quotes, not mine) are not really rapes, they’re actually consensual and it’s only afterwards that the woman claims to have been raped. He’s saying that true, forcible rape is actually very rare. This is a surprisingly widespread belief among right-wingers, male and female.
      His actual argument is ignorant, offensive and demonstrably false enough on its own; no need to straw man it.

      1. I’m fully aware of what he meant. I was drawing the line between what he meant – ridiculous and horrifying as that set of attitudes and beliefs are – and what he actually said. Pointing out the difference is not the same as strawmanning.

        1. Oh crap, that is strawmanning it. Lol brain fart.
          That said, I still disagree. Pointing out the problems with another’s position is how debate works, *especially* when that position is based on faulty premises and failures of logic. How are people – who do not already hold the position – supposed to come to the conclusion that an argument like “legitimate rape” is faulty by nature if no one actually says why? Some people need a helping hand along the way in subjects they aren’t familiar with.

  6. 6

    @5 I doubt Sen WHN would even acknowledge there is such a thing as a trans man. According to Christian fundamentalists there are no such thing as transgender people, only confused cis-gender people. Except, of course, a fundementalist would never use the word cis-gender.

  7. 7

    Most rape culture deniers I run into notice the things we’d consider part of rape culture but just deny the connection. I’ve even had these people tell me that sexual harassment and groping aren’t part of rape culture for some strange reason. Some of the same people also think that you can make lots of racist jokes and that they have no connection to real racism.

    On murder culture – sex workers seem to be a group where the whole rape and murder culture intersect as sex workers are at a high risk for both rape and murder, and that murders of sex workers get a different sort of attention than murders of others. Concern over violence against sex workers also tends to be problematic for more reasons than I could address properly at this time.

    I think murder culture may just be less universal than rape culture, which is why it hasn’t maybe gained as much prominence as a term. I recall someone once telling me about places that are *dangerous for white people to go* (kind of a retort that Black people were at elevated risk for violence.) I had to point out that any place where Black people live where it is dangerous for white people to go is already just as dangerous, if not more so, for the Black people who are living there.

    Speaking of the idea that rape victims aren’t believed whereas victims of other crimes don’t get the same treatment, there was a rather obnoxious guy who I used live near. After carelessly scratching his own car, he decided to call the cops and allege that it was vandalized (I don’t know what the real insurance issue was or what was going on.) I sat around watching an actual police detective take multiple shots from multiple angles of a scratch on a car that was less than 20cm long and not even that serious. Putting that in perspective with how I’ve seen police handle cases of rape definitely shows me that rape culture is a real thing.

  8. 10

    “Understanding rape culture, especially if you are someone who isn’t affected by it very much, requires a keen attention to detail and a willingness to examine your own complicity in things you’d rather not believe that you’re complicit in.”

    The language you use implies rape culture is a demonstrated fact, yet you deny the very means by which to ascertain its existence by claiming it is “invisible”?

    How would you give justification that your reader is complicit when this complicity is but a feminist construct? The whole tone of the article attempts to discredit criticism via calling such criticisms “denials”.

    There is a burden of proof, and this proof prevents false accusers from simply making things up.

  9. 11

    Re: The discussion around a “murder culture”. I would definitely say that the way George Zimmerman’s choice to murder an unarmed teenager has been defined as not-murder strongly reminded me of the way rape culture functions.

  10. 13

    yet you deny the very means by which to ascertain its existence by claiming it is “invisible”?

    Invisible in the same sense that institutional racism is invisible to members of races unaffected by it. Not invisible in the sense of gods, as you seem to be claiming.

    Its existence can very well be ascertained, despite it not being self-evident to those mostly unaffected; the linked Shakesville article has plenty of good links to help establish that.

  11. 14

    I too think there is a very strong case for the existence of a murder culture here in the United States. Our society holds the right to arm ourselves and use whatever force necessary, especially killing, to defend lives and property as sacred. Those who we perceive as killing in defense of life or property are held up as hero’s, no matter how sketchy the justification. A recurring theme in entertainment is justice via murder, the more bad guys murdered the better.

    People who voice opinions against these ideas are often labeled as weak, willing victims, and traitors to the most basic founding principles of our nation.

    I could be wrong, but that sounds kinda like murder culture to me.

    1. 14.1

      but who is committing all that murder? not to blame men, but it seems like it’s men. could it be a problem with the way we as a society define “masculinity,” and teach it to young males, rather than some “murder culture”?

      I similarly think that “rape culture” as defined above can be thought of as how we define masculinity and maleness, manliness, in the dominant US culture. we teach boys that their worth is defined by their sexual competence and “success.” Recently watched The Incredibly Goofy Movie, a cartoon movie for kids, where success for college-age men was defined firstly by their athletic ability, but secondarily by their “success with” the women in the movie (the movie didn’t pass the Bechdel Test)

  12. 15

    It’s an interesting thought, looking at “murder culture” as a result of hyper masculinization, but it doesn’t address the reality that women commit crimes too, violent ones, even. It’s possible that women, too, are affected by the hyper masculine image of men – as I child, I certainly felt that violence was the only way to make my brothers listen, because “boys will be boys” amirite? So I think the idea has some merit, but… Defining rape culture through a lens of masculine teachings, though, erases both male victims (to a certain extent) and female perpetrators entirely. It’s absolutely true that men are taught that their value as people is dependent on their sexual prowess, but in the same token, men are taught that to be seen as weak damages their masculine identity, so crimes against them – particularly by women – go unreported, or worse, reported and then not taken seriously. The best guess estimate I’ve been able to find on female rapists is 40% of all rapists, committing 80% of male rapes. There was no clear estimate that I remember on how many men have been/will be raped in their lifetimes (like we have statistics for women), but I do remember a compelling argument that any statistic is likely going to be unreliable due to the severe underreporting.

  13. 16

    I do wish that some would have a go at doing even some BASIC homework and research (Disappointing to see a BA Psychology not only failing a basic Quality Test for academic referencing, but also falling into traps and “Confirmation Bias”, “Groupthink”, “Belief Perseverance” and “False Paradigm”. … you couldn’t make it up! P^)

    If you are interested in the truth of the origins of rape culture the following links to Academic References and sources are invaluable. All URL’s are left raw so that they destination can be seen – Webcite is of course the recommended resource for academics and professionals obliged to refer to web content over hard copy – full details can be found at

    Rape culture is a concept of unknown origin and of uncertain definition; yet it has made its way into everyday vocabulary and is assumed to be commonly understood. The award-winning documentary film Rape Culture made by Margaret Lazarus in 1975 takes credit for first defining the concept.

    Williams, Joyce E. Prof, Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, 2007, Page 3791 Edited by: George Ritzer, doi:10.1111/b.9781405124331.2007.x, ISBN-10:1405124334, ISBN-13:978-1405124331, eISBN:9781405124331 –

    The film is listed at the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDb) under Ref No 0156938 –

    Contemporary coverage and comment of the film can be found from January 1975 in Norsigian, Judy, Women, Health, and Films, Women & Health, 20 January 1975, Vol 1, issue 1, 29–30, doi=10.1300/J013v01n01_07
    Page 1=
    Page 2=

    Footage from the film can be viewed on Youtube –

    Contemporary report of events leading up to the making of the film can be found in Follet, Joyce, Interview with LORETTA ROSS:Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA 01063, 2004–2005, 122–124, –

    The (Oscar Winning) film makers, Cambridge Documentary Films, have details of the film on their website

    The historical record is also held in the Internet archive – including:

    “Rape Culture” was first produced in 1975 and then revised in 1983. It helped to shape consciousness about sexism and violence against women. The term Rape Culture is defined for the first time and the film has played a major role in the emerging movement to combat violence against women.

    This documentary examines classic films, advertising, music and “adult entertainment,” and documents the insights of rape crisis workers and prisoners working against rape.

    Full details and references are held on multiple Wiki’s including Wikipedia –

    I have to ask – is the denial of reality by US Feminists caused by the fact that the film deals with the lived experience of BLACK men in prison – working with Black Women from the DC Rape Crisis Centre (Loretta Ross, Yulanda Ward and Nkenge Toure.)? – by the way that Loretta Ross is THE Loretta Ross –

    #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen ?

    The blanket denial of the roots of the term Rape Culture by White US Feminists just shows how long the racism issue and negation of WOC has been going on for at least 40 years – and don’t forget that denial in this case includes the Men Of Color Too! You can’t get more racist that that – sex is not a factor just skin pigment and privilege.

    Get the basic facts straight and then you can deal with Strawman Fallacies.

    Other sources and relevant content is also available from pages in Google+ including links to additional sources such as
    1) Anonymous Author for the Black Panther Newspaper
    2) FARR (Feminist Alliance Against Rape) and Aegis Magazine
    3) Crime and social justice, Issues 1-8, 1974
    4) Women’s Studies Online Resources (University Of Maryland)
    5) Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Abolitionists, Fay Honey Knopp, Barbara Boward, Mark Morris, Morris Bartel Schnapper, Prison Research Education Action Project, 1976
    6) “Prisoners Against Rape: Capitalist Economics Breeds Rape, Robbery, Murder, All Other Crimes” – William Fuller, Larry Cannon – published Washington DC, 1974 – World cat Ref: 62755882.

    If you have time you may like to look at the issues that have arrisen from Listed Witnesses and Evidence for RESEARCH INTO VIOLENT BEHAVIOR:
    OF THE
    JANUARY 10, 11, 12, 1978

    It may not look very fascinating, except for one oddity – the submission to congress by Prisoners Against Rape – the guys who’s work inspired the film Rape Culture ….. it’s missing from the Congressional record … and oddly It’s the ONLY thing Missing form the whole set of hearings.

    You can see it listed –

    You can read more here –

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