Sex is wonderful. It’s fun and relaxing and energizing and joyful. It’s so powerful and expressive. You can say a lot in sex without using any words. It’s astonishing. The way you can lose yourself in a sexual experience but at the same time have the clearest sense of your humanity and individuality and self. “Transcendent” is an inapt description of sex, I think, because it’s hard to think of a more real experience than really good sex — especially with someone you love.
Thinking about how to describe the profundity of sex calls to mind a scene from Ayn Rand’s We the Living in which Kira and her sister are at a play or a movie (It’s been a while since I’ve read it, so I am paraphrasing) and the sister remarks, “It’s so beautiful, it almost looks real,” to which Kira replies, “It’s so beautiful, it almost looks fake.” Life is beautiful like that. Sex is beautiful like that.
I assume everyone knows what I mean, so I assume we can all agree that rape is one of the most vile, disgusting, and despicable crimes that can be committed. In a certain sense, I think it’s worse than murder because the victim has to deal with the fact that a core part of their humanity has been violated.
Recently, I saw a thread on Facebook in which someone was satirizing — they say and I don’t think they grasped the irony — the concept of “rape culture.” To be clear, they weren’t satirizing rape culture, but the concept of rape culture. When confronted about it, they said it wasn’t a useful concept and they treated it with derision and contempt. And it brought to mind a poem I saw very recently that really opened my eyes about what rape culture means.
“Rape Joke” by Patricia Lockwood. I’m not going to excerpt any part of it because I think you should read the whole thing to get what I’m driving at here.
When presented with the reality of rape — or even story lines on Law & Order: SVU — I have always felt outrage and sadness. I am shocked and dismayed by stories where people suggest or even say the victim of rape was “asking for it.” I’m sent into a tailspin of anger when someone says that simply because someone has a drink or two with another in their hotel room they can no longer revoke consent to sex until that other is satisfied. When I watched the Sopranos and Tony’s therapist was raped, I really wanted her to tell Tony and have her rapist killed.
But I’ve made jokes about rape before. I’ve used references to rape in a light-hearted way, as a laughable hyperbole. That’s not because I’m a misogynist or because I think rape is in any way acceptable. It was, I think, because on some level rape wasn’t real.
That’s rape culture.
As I type this post and keep writing the word, it does seem strange and alien. Rape. Raperaperaperape. In Game of Thrones, they call rapists “rapers.” And it seems even more strange. I had to re-read and actually sound it out the first time I saw “raper.” Rape is a small word and it’s sort of like a slap, but only a very small slap. Not a slap that hurts. The sound and shape of it don’t even come close to capturing how devastating and terrible the crime is. You’d think the name of it should have more Ss, Ks, Gs, and maybe a Q or something. It should be unpleasant to even see, let alone pronounce. But it’s not. It’s just “rape.”
That’s rape culture.
No, logography is not rape culture. Rape culture is this hole in some people’s psyche about rape. It’s this cognitive dissonance. It’s the holding of two contradictory ideas about rape in your head at the same time.
Cops know that rape is terrible bad and wrong. But victims of rape still get asked if they were out drinking or if they were dressing provocatively or if they were flirting with their rapist before it happened.
It’s being completely terrified and desperate for Ripley when she is stuck on that prison planet and is nearly raped in Alien 3, but also saying, “I raped it,” to describe having done well on an exam or to joke that it raped you if you didn’t do well.
It’s nodding your head in approval at a Take Back the Night Rally — or maybe even going with your friends to one — but also kind of thinking that if you let him pay for dinner you owe him a handy J at a minimum.
I saw recently a manifestation of rape culture in the form of someone arguing that it’s like institutional racism and, in their eyes, white women can’t be raped because white women are in a position of power by virtue of their race.
It’s knowing you have friends and relatives and coworkers and acquaintances who are victims of rape and sexual assault but also thinking “rape” works well in hyperbole because it’s so absurd and rare and unheard of and far from home.
When someone says, “rape,” rape culture calls to mind a masked man grabbing a white woman who is out for a jog at 10pm and forcing himself inside her while ignoring the man who had too much to drink and wakes up in someone else’s dorm room praying that they used a condom because he doesn’t even remember taking his clothes off.
Rape culture is the way our society allows and even makes room for rape in a million little ways like this. Men and women alike contribute to rape culture. The victims of rape are men and women. Rape is far, far too common. And the concept of “rape culture” is coined to express how common rape is and how commonly our society glosses over and trivializes it. Remember: people live with this crime and with a not insignificant number of people suggesting it’s not even a crime sometimes.
Yes, there are a million “gray areas;” mitigating and exacerbating circumstances; plausible scenarios; and times when you can’t prove that a rape took place. That’s why we need to rail against the ways in which our culture allows, condones rape. Rape is a crime and it has to be proven in order to make a conviction, but we can’t keep allowing ourselves — people who love life and sex and justice — to be taken in by these she-said-she-said stories. We need to get better as a society, culture.
Some people would argue in a Popperian way that the concept of “rape culture” is invalid because they think rape culture begs the question, arguing against rape culture is a manifestation of rape culture. As illustrated above, I think we can safely come up with a million other examples of rape culture without pointing at those who say rape culture doesn’t exist as examples thereof. It’s a real thing worthy of discussion.
People often talk about creating a society that is sex-positive; one in which people are free to love their bodies and their partners as they see fit; a society in which the morality of sexual conduct is one of private personal conviction, but one’s individual right to one’s person receives public defense. But how can that ever really be when our society regards rape — an assault against the joy of sex itself — as joke-worthy?