How can we combat an issue we cannot see? First and foremost, we need to throw it out into the open and make it known. The insidious nature of societal problems like rape culture lies largely in that they remain invisible. “Rape culture is a mindset that condones, even if it does not always encourage, sexualized violence against women,” University of Florida Associate Professor in the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research Trysh Travis said.
Most people fail to recognize the everyday ways in which our society allows this violence against women. Whether through cat calling, online rape threats, objectification or some type of sexual battery, most women feel the effects of rape culture at one point or another. We need to stop this violence, but first we first need to break it down.
Rape culture hides in our everyday lives. “We see it in popular music, in film, in fan culture surrounding sports (both professional and amateur), and in small-scale interpersonal interactions between men and women that position women as objects for male pleasure and male predation, and position such predation as normal and okay,” said Travis. Think about it: Does Bella and Edward’s violent relationship in Twilight seem a little disturbing to you? Probably, but our culture portrays it as sexy and desirable. We’re constantly spoon fed images that we rarely second guess, but they point to a harmful cultural trend.
This operates on two levels: the public cultural level and the private personal level. In public we sing along as radio stations send out the message that “Blurred Lines” don’t need to be questioned. Then, it carries over into the personal. When we disrespect women for entertainment, we implicitly accept that degrading and dehumanizing women is okay. By normalizing objectification of and violence against women, we create a mindset surrounding sexual violence that seeps into our everyday interactions with each other.
Ladies, think. How many times have you expressed disinterest only to hear a guy say, “I know you want it”? Most of us likely lost count ages ago.
Besides the harmful messages from the media, this problem has more deeply embedded roots. We don’t talk enough about sex. As children we learn a script that shows us how to behave with each other, but we never stop to analyze those interactions. Girls learn that when a boy approaches them, the “proper” response is resistance, while boys learn that girls only resist because they are “supposed” to do so.
That’s why boys figure they should just keep trying until they achieve the result they want. “No” becomes a secret code for “try harder” instead of “stop.” This lays the groundwork for confusion in sexual situations. “The more you talk about [sex], the less mysterious it is, and when things are not mysterious, people are going to make better decisions,” said Travis. “The lack of those conversations in boys’ lives is what leads boys to feel like rape is okay.”
All of this manifests itself in things as simple as locker room talk. Young men sit around talking about what they would do to girls, given the chance. (I’ll leave this to your imagination.) Although they might not actually intend to do it, this still turns young women into objects to be taken rather than people to be respected. Worst of all, it feels normal and even acceptable.
Though #NotAllMen are dangerous rapists, #JustEnoughMen engage in sexually abusive behavior to make the world frightening. And sometimes “good” men have problematic ideas about how to talk to and treat women, making it impossible to boil rape culture down to a simple distinction between rapists and regular people.
“Men can participate in that culture and still be nice to their mothers and sisters and still love their girlfriends and their wives,” said Travis. “If it were simple, if every man who commented on a woman’s tits as she walked down the street were a rapist or a sexual predator, then it would be really easy to solve the problem. The fact that it is more complicated than that is what makes it really difficult to talk about and figure out how to address.” While it fills us with rage when we get honked at while walking down the street, denying the nuance of this issue solves nothing.
We cannot change what we heard as children, but we can confront the way we think as adults and challenge the messages we receive. We can and should think more deeply about those we put out into the world. We need to stop confusing each other and ourselves. Talking about our views surrounding sexuality, consent, objectification and gender roles is essential in breaking down the invisibility of rape culture.
Sexual violence is wrong. Point blank. However, that simple statement will not get us anywhere on its own. “We can’t solve the rape culture problem without dialogue between men and women,” said Travis. “As long as we agree that men are far and away the perpetrators in this, we are not going to be able to police them, we’re not going to be able to separate ourselves from them, so the only option is dialogue.”
We need to include everyone. We need to understand that nothing about rape culture is simple. We all need to listen, both to victims of sexual violence and to people who don’t want to be party to our confused cultural conversation anymore, but don’t know how to escape. We all need someone to throw us a line.
Changing ourselves now makes it possible that future generations of women won’t need to fear simply walking down the street. What I wouldn’t give to live in that world.