Rape Culture Explained: The Role of Toxic Blame

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According to Wikipedia, “rape culture is a sociological concept for a setting in which rape is pervasive and normalized due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality.”

Rape-culture attitudes/behaviors include victim-blaming, slut-shaming, sexual objectification of women, trivialization of sexual assault, denial of widespread rape, and dismissal of the devastating impact of sexual violence.

Image by Markus Winkler from Pixabay

The following comments embody rape culture in America:

“In MOST cases (not all), the women raped are hoes dressed in some sleazy material and whine about being taking advantage of later.”

“There is no rape culture. There is such a small percentage of men that rape women, there cannot be a culture. [Rape] isn’t even remotely common.”

“It doesn’t matter if you urge or try to teach [men not to rape], they are going to do what they are going to do. It’s best to be prepared, it’s that simple.”

“To make the implication that a woman can dress and act how she wants and not expect a wolf to find her… is just damn ignorant… you don’t go flaunting fresh meat in front of a primal animal and expect it not to attack.”


The above quotes (edited for spelling/typos) are statements from two middle-aged men in response to a Facebook post. The Facebook post proclaimed that women are routinely urged to cover their drinks, to not walk alone at night, to carry pepper spray, etc., and then posed the question, “CAN WE PLEASE URGE MEN TO NOT SEXUALLY ASSAULT WOMEN?”

Ironically, the very comments intended to disprove rape culture provided proof of its existence (and ugliness).


Rape Culture in America

“Women are no more important than any other potential victims, but we are the primary targets of the messages and myths that sustain rape culture. We’re the ones asked to change our behavior, limit our movements, and take full responsibility for the prevention of sexual violence in society.”

Kate Harding (Author)

How common is rape and/or sexual assault in America?

To start, what are the statistics on sexual violence in the U.S.?

Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted.

According to the 2015 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey:

  • 43.6% of American women have experienced some form of sexual aggression.
  • 1 in 5 women are victims of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.
  • Each year, there are an estimated 5,600,000 victims of sexual violence in the United States.

81.3% of women who experienced sexual violence said it first occurred prior to age 25.

According to the Association of American Universities (AAU) Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct:

  • 1 in 4 undergraduate women were victims of sexual assault while enrolled in college (compared to 6.8% of undergraduate men).
  • 41.8% of students experienced at least one incident of sexual harassment since enrollment.

Additionally, a 2015 study indicated that 20% of surveyed college men committed some form of sexual assault. Other researchers found that nearly 1 in 10 persons ages 21 and younger perpetrated some type of forced sexual violence.


According to the Uniform Crime Report from the FBI, there were an estimated 139,380 rapes (including attempted rapes) reported to law enforcement in 2018.

It should be noted that the Uniform Crime Report from the FBI under-represents actual incidents of rapes and does not account for other forms of sexual violence. Since most rapes are not reported to the police, the federal government relies on three data collection systems to measure sexual victimization: The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey, the CDC National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, and the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. (For additional sources of reliable data, look to peer-reviewed academic journals and credible sites such as RAINN.)

Per a 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Justice:

  • Only a third of all rape crimes are reported to the police.
  • Reasons for not reporting:
    • Fear of retaliation (from either the perpetrator or society)
    • Believing the police will not (or cannot) help
    • Believing rape is a personal or shameful matter
    • Not wanting to get the perpetrator in trouble

What’s more, reporting rape in itself can be traumatizing, a “second rape.” To avoid this, many women choose not to report.

The Impact of Sexual Violence

As reported by the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN):

  • Rape victims are at an increased risk for:
    • Experiencing PTSD symptoms during the two weeks following the incident (94%)
    • Contemplating suicide (33%)
    • Attempting suicide (13%)
    • Using illicit drugs
    • Experiencing problems at work or school (38%)
    • Experiencing relationship problems with family/friends (37%)

According to research and data from the 2011 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey:

  • The estimated lifetime cost of rape is $122,461 per victim, or a population economic burden of nearly $3.1 trillion over victims’ lifetimes.
  • Government sources pay an estimated $1 trillion (32%) of the lifetime economic burden.

What is rape culture?

The concept of rape culture was formulated in the 1970s as a feminist, sociological theory. Rape culture ideology explains how society normalizes male sexual violence while blaming the victim. Additional practices/attitudes that contribute to rape culture include slut-shaming, objectifying women, trivializing rape, denying that widespread rape exists, and minimizing the impact of sexual violence.

Normalizing Rape & Sexual Assault

“[Rape is] unfortunately the nature of the world we live in. Is it not?”

The above comment normalizes sexual violence – it endorses rape as an inevitable fact of life. As a result, emphasis is placed on teaching girls and young women self-defense, vigilance, and modesty. This allows for sexual violence prevention programs to teach “don’t get raped… instead of: don’t rape.” Meanwhile, preventative strategies such as early sex education and interventions for treating aggressive behaviors receive less attention.

For myself, I was taught to yell in a deep voice if assaulted and to not scream. (Supposedly, a high-pitched scream would sexually excite the perpetrator, but a low voice would turn him off.) Also, I carried my keys in hand at night… not so much as to open my car door in a rush, but to stab my attacker in the eye.

“Rape is one of the most terrible crimes on earth and it happens every few minutes. The problem with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women about how to defend themselves. What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape. Go to the source and start there.”

Kurt Cobain

Years later, I took a self-defense class. It was both challenging and empowering. The instructor, before teaching any moves, stressed that to avoid being a victim, the best option is always, always… to run. Self-defense should be used as a last resort.

Self-defense may come in handy, but it’s not a solution to sexual violence. The ultimate goal is not to normalize or defend against, but to eradicate. Rape is not the norm.

Victim-Blaming & Slut-Shaming

“In MOST cases (not all), the women raped are hoes dressed in some sleazy material and whine about being taking advantage of later.”

In a single sentence, the above commenter blames the victim, slut shames, objectifies women (which he later refers to as “fresh meat”), and trivializes the harmful consequences of rape. He implies that “hoes” (i.e., women who enjoy frequent or casual sex) who wear immodest attire should expect or even deserve to be assaulted. He trivializes the harmful impact of sexual violence when he uses the word “whine,” as though rape is a detested chore, not a traumatic and life-altering experience.

Both victim-blaming and slut-shaming contribute to rape culture. What’s more, some women choose to not report sexual assault because they fear the backlash (being blamed or labeled as promiscuous).


Victim-blaming defined is the attitude that the victim of a crime, not the perpetrator, is responsible for the attack. It’s assumed that the victim did something to provoke the assailant or that they somehow deserved what happened (because of the way they were dressed, how they flirted, etc.)

“She told me that my rape was not my fault, that I should feel no shame, that – simple as it may sound – I hadn’t caused it. No one causes rape but rapists. No one causes rape but rapists. No one causes rape but rapists. It was true. And it had not been obvious to me. And hearing it from someone else, a professional, someone who should know, helped me believe that soon I would believe it.”

Aspen Matis (Author)
Characteristics and factors associated with blaming the victim include

Male characteristics:

  • Endorsement of traditional views of gender roles,
  • Acceptance of gender stereotypes (i.e., “It’s not ‘ladylike’ for women to desire sex” or “Women who resist are only playing ‘hard to get'”),
  • Conservative religious beliefs,
  • Politically conservative views,
  • Compulsive sexual behavior,
  • The belief that rape isn’t “real” if it occurs in a marriage or relationship, and
  • Believing rape myths to be true.

And other factors contributing to victim-blaming:

  • There is a perceived threat to the assailant’s masculinity,
  • The victim is wearing tight, revealing, or sexually suggestive attire,
  • The victim is viewed as promiscuous,
  • If either the victim or the attacker were intoxicated at the time,
  • It’s perceived that the victim did not resist or fight hard enough,
  • If the assailant uses little or no force,
  • Sexual objectification of women in society, and
  • The media’s portrayal of what constitutes “real” rape (i.e., “stranger rape” vs. date or acquaintance rape).

A more subtle form of victim-blaming is placing all the focus on victim with victim-focused (instead of perpetrator-focused) preventative tips. For example, if a woman is advised to avoid empty parking garages, never leave her drink unattended, etc., and then slips up (i.e., her appointment ran late and she has to walk to car alone or she leaves her drink when taking an urgent call during a date), she is faulted (and may blame herself) for her carelessness.

“Women don’t get raped because they were drinking or took drugs. Women do not get raped because they weren’t careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them.

Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women

Only the rapist is at fault for committing a sex crime, never the victim, regardless of circumstances.


The definition of slut-shaming is “the practice of criticizing people, especially women and girls, who are perceived to violate expectations of behavior and appearance regarding issues related to sexuality.”

Slut-shaming seeks to humiliate, admonish, or degrade a person. Women are harshly judged for so-called loose sexual behaviors while men are not held to a similar standard.

Women as Sexual Objects

Objectification of women reduces them to sex objects that exist primarily for sexual pleasure. Interpersonal objectification is commonplace, and occurs in the form of unwanted body evaluation and/or advances (i.e., catcalls, leering, sexually suggestive remarks about a woman’s appearance, etc.) Sexual objectification also occurs in the media when women are depicted as sex symbols. Sex objectification is both harmful and dehumanizing.

Men who view females as sexual objects have a diminished ability to feel empathy for them and an increased rate of aggression towards women and girls. Research also indicates that men who objectify women or see them as animals are more likely to rape and sexually harass women. They’re also more likely to have negative views of female rape victims.

What’s more, women who are objectified may experience increased rates of mental illness; including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders; shame; and reduced productivity.

The Denial of Widespread Rape

We routinely reject unpleasant truths and information that threaten our worldview. This allows for the dismissal of commonplace rape and sexual assault in America. It’s easier to view rape as a rare and/or fully preventable occurrence.

Moreover, humans require more information to believe in something they do not want to believe. For example, if you deny widespread rape based on FBI stats alone or personal experience, you may not accept the reality without multiple, additional sources of information. And due to confirmation bias, you are unlikely to seek it out.

Rape culture normalizes sexual violence as a fact of life while at the same time dismissing how commonplace its occurrence is.

Trivializing Rape

Rape jokes and sexist humor trivialize sexual violence and encourage victim-blaming. Research indicates that exposure to sexist jokes may increase a man’s proclivity for rape. While no one is suggesting that rape jokes cause rape, they do contribute to rape culture.

What’s more, sexist humor may be a way to express real aggressive tendencies or prejudices against women under the guise of a joke.

Rape culture also trivializes the devastating impact of rape. To refer to rape as “just sex” or to tell someone to “get over it already” minimizes the severe consequences of sexual violence.

Traits Associated with Rape Culture

The acceptance of rape myths, which are damaging and unfounded beliefs about rape and sexual violence, contributes to rape culture.

What are some common rape myths?

Rape myths

  • It’s the victim’s fault due to her actions or appearance. (This is victim-blaming.)
  • Men rape women due to sexual desire and the need for sexual gratification.
  • If the woman is drunk or high, it isn’t rape.
  • Women who dress in revealing or tight clothes are “asking for it.”
  • If the woman doesn’t fight back, it isn’t rape. (In reality, severe trauma may cause a “freeze” response.)
  • Individuals that commit rape are unable to stop themselves (due to uncontrollable lust).
  • Most perpetrators are strangers.
  • Women commonly falsify rape out of spite or to get revenge. (An estimated 2-10% of rape allegations are false.)
  • Women frequently lie about rape to get attention.
  • Women frequently lie about rape when they regret having sex with someone.
  • Women secretly enjoy being raped.
  • Women can prevent rape by avoiding dangerous areas.
  • Only certain types of women get raped.
  • “Good guys” don’t rape.

“They are all innocent until proven guilty. But not me. I am a liar until I am proven honest.”

Louise O’Neill, Asking For It

Furthermore, there are certain assailant characteristics/beliefs that contribute to misconceptions about sexual violence, promoting rape culture.

Research indicates that the following traits/views/behaviors are linked to rape myth acceptance:

Rape Culture and Sexual Violence

How does rape culture contribute to sexual violence?

For one, men who subscribe to rape misconceptions are more likely to be perpetrators of rape. Research indicates that the acceptance of rape myths is a risk factor for sexual violence. Furthermore, researchers found that justifying a sexual assault with rape-supporting attitudes predicted future incidents of sexual aggression.

Sex objectification, specifically, is linked to increased incidents of rape and acceptance of sexual violence. What’s more, rape culture in the media predicts the frequency of rape and even influences the criminal justice system.

Bottom Line: Rape culture promotes sexual aggression. And if you contribute to rape culture, you’re contributing to sexual victimization in America.

“Standing behind predators makes prey of us all.”

DaShanne Stokes

Anti-Rape Culture

To create a culture of anti-rape, we must eradicate rape culture beliefs, practices, and attitudes. Furthermore, we must find a solution-focused approach that aims to eliminate or reduce sexual violence.

Empowerment/assertiveness, sexual assault resistance, and self-defense training programs for women can help to reduce incidences of rape and other forms of victimization. Learning self-defense can also help to increase confidence levels.

Additionally, anti-violence education plays a crucial role in dismantling rape culture. Evidence suggests that early education and strength-based prevention strategies, including school-based, community-based, and parent-based interventions, are effective at reducing sexual violence. High-school programs that provide social support may help to reduce incidences of sexual assault. However, research suggests that for prevention programs to be effective, they must be theory-driven and comprehensive with varied teaching methods.

For young adults (post-high school), ongoing educational strategies effectively reduce rape myth acceptance and sexual aggression. Educational training programs for college-aged men have successfully changed harmful attitudes and rape-acceptance beliefs that contribute to rape. One study found that web-based trainings aimed at college-aged men reduced campus rape. Moreover, bystander intervention programs may help to reduce sexual assault. College courses specifically focused on violence against women may also be effective at changing attitudes of both rape and rape victims.


According to the CDC, strategies for ending sexual violence include the following:

  • Promote Social Norms that Protect Against Violence
  • Teach Skills to Prevent Sexual Violence
  • Provide Opportunities to Empower and Support Girls and Women
  • Create Protective Environments
  • Support Victims/Survivors to Lessen Harms

An integrated approach that combines early prevention strategies, sex education, ongoing educational programs, and self-defense and empowerment training for women may be the key to creating a counterculture to rape culture, and ultimately eliminating widespread sexual victimization in America.

Image by Markus Winkler from Pixabay

Conclusion

In sum, sexual violence against women is commonplace and underreported in America. Rape culture contributes to this issue by normalizing male sexual violence, victim-blaming, slut-shaming, sexually objectifying women, trivializing rape, denying the existence of widespread rape, and minimizing the harm caused by sexual violence.

As a way to reduce sexually violent crimes in America, we should focus on strategies that dismantle rape culture, target potential perpetrators, and teach women empowerment and assertiveness. An integrated approach is needed to eliminate rape and sexual assault.

In the very least, take a stand, educate yourself, stay informed, and don’t participate in rape culture!


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