The Twenty-First Century Did Not Create Rape Culture (#Longread)

“Always reasoning,” he said. “I tell you, child, you cannot, you shall not reason. Repine in secret as much as you please, but no reasonings.”


“I will refer to females as ‘targets.’ They aren't actual people like us men. Consequently, giving them a certain name or distinction is pointless.”


The first quote is from an eighteenth century novel called Secresy: Or, the Ruin on the Rock by Frances Burney, in which the character Sibella’s uncle is telling her that her purpose is not to think because she is female. The second is from a 21st century frat email termed the “gullet report” circulated within the Kappa Sigma chapter at the University of Southern California, talking about women as the targets of sexual conquests and nothing more.


The time difference? A few hundred years. The ideological difference? Not much.


Although it sounds like a dated concept, the idea that women are inferior to men on the basis of their gender is not new. Evidence of gender inequality roots back to the Bible, and has been present in patriarchal societies since then. Like any novels, the conventions of British literature from the eighteenth century clearly demonstrate the societal climate in which they were written. And, terrifyingly enough, some of the modern conversation about rape culture doesn’t sound all that different from the obsession with women’s virtue that dominates many of these novels. (No pun intended, of course.)

What is Rape Culture?

Women Against Violence Against Women cites several definitions of rape culture that boil down to a societal climate that sexualizes violence, and normalizes rape in all different kinds of media, from TV and music to jokes and legal jargon. Normalizing rape makes it seem, to both men and women, as if it’s more of an inevitable part of life than a crime.


Marshall University lists examples of rape culture including: blaming the victim, trivializing assault by sayings like ”boys will be boys,” refusing to take rape accusations seriously, and reinforcing stereotypes that men must “score” and women shouldn’t appear “cold.” These examples don’t sound unfamiliar, because they’re not. How often have you heard a mother of a young child excusing any type of bad behavior with, “Well, boys will be boys!” If it starts when they’re children, what happens when they’re young men?


According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, one in six women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. It’s an especially prevalent issue on college campuses. Women who are 18-24 years old, or within college-age, are three times more likely than women in general to suffer from sexual violence. And sexual violence does not only affect women. One in 33 men has experienced a rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. Male college students are 78% more likely than nonstudents to deal with sexual violence.


If rape was a disease, by any measurement, this would be an outbreak. And it would be especially contagious on college campuses.

Modern Climate

If culture is determined by popular media, there are plenty of modern representations that glorify violence against women. The popular novel Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, also now a major motion picture, depicts a sexual relationship between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. The catch? Grey is interested in BDSM, an abbreviation for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission and sadism and masochism. Anastasia is interested in Christian, but isn’t necessarily interested in this culture—but goes along with it anyway. At various points in the work, Ana doesn’t want to give consent, but does because she’s afraid of losing him or is too afraid to speak her mind. BDSM can be practiced safely by consenting, mature adults; but the work doesn’t describe BDSM, it describes violence. It portrays BDSM poorly and romanticizes rape. After Christian emotionally abuses Anastasia, they end up married with a child. And now you can get a copy of the movie on DVD.


In 2013, Robin Thicke released the song “Blurred Lines” featuring T.I. and Pharrell Williams. Critics think that Thicke went way over the line, and it wasn’t so blurry. An article from The Society Pages compared lyrics from “Blurred Lines” to things that rape survivors had been told by their rapists. The results are shocking. Lines like “you know you want it” and “you’re a good girl” were quoted by multiple victims and show up in several refrains of the song. “You know you want it” assumes that the perpetrator knows better than to listen to the words coming out of a victim’s mouth.


This is what we’re reading, watching, and listening to. Is it any surprise that rape seems inevitable when it’s everywhere?


Expectations for sexual activity on college campuses are partially to blame for how rampant rape culture has become. To preface: not every frat boy is guilty of terrible, stereotypical behavior. In California, UCLA frat boys have been making a little girl with cancer incredibly happy by visiting her regularly and putting her name in lights on their house’s roof. It’s beyond adorable. Not everyone is guilty. But, on the whole, fraternities seem to have some of the most egregious, misogynist examples of rape culture.


The opening quote is from the “gullet report” at University of Southern California, circulated by the Kappa Sigma fraternity. The report goes on to detail women as targets to acquire, and encourages members to judge women on their appearance and sexual prowess alone. With both racist and sexist overtones, there aren’t many people that the e-mail wouldn’t offend in some capacity.


Meanwhile, in other areas of the country: at Yale in 2011, the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity walked around freshman women’s dorms at night, chanting “no means yes, and yes means anal.” A second chant was, "My name is Jack, I'm a necrophiliac, I fuck dead women and fill them with my semen." The fraternity was banned from Yale for five years. In 2014, the Phi Delta Theta fraternity displayed a banner reading “no means yes, yes means anal.” That chapter was also suspended.


Fraternities do not provide the only college examples, despite being a hotbed for these issues. In 2012, a flyer was found circulating in men’s dorm bathrooms at Miami University in Ohio entitled “Top Ten Ways to Get Away With Rape.” The flyer was reported to local authorities.


Given the societal standards for gender norms and behaviors and a pack mentality, is it any surprise that things like this keep happening?


In a qualitative study by Kristen N. Jozkowski, women said no to sex based on trying to preserve their reputations. In 2014, college women reported refusing “vaginal-penile sex” during a hookup because they didn’t want to be perceived badly. The study also found that women who wanted to be sexually active but avoid a poor reputation were willing to stay in romantic relationships that they didn’t want to be in.


            Those fraternity brothers at Yale certainly believe that women don’t have the right to say no, because it only means yes when they do. Jozkowski argues that women themselves don’t always feel like they have the right to say yes when they want to. If women can’t say yes, and they can’t say no, what sort of jurisdiction do they have over themselves and their bodies?

Examples in History

Many people blame the digital revolution, the Internet, the texting age or even hook-up culture for these advances. Some of those arguments may have merit, but rape culture is not new to the 21st century.


            Way back in the era that the Bible was written, there were strict codes of hospitality. If someone showed up at your home, you were to let them in and treat them as your own. In Judges 19:22-26, a man has a visitor staying with him, and the men of the city ask the master of the house if they can take the visitor outside to rape him. Naturally, this is against the code of hospitality. (It’s not generally good manners to let your guests get raped.) Instead, the master of the house offers his daughter and the man’s concubine instead. Depending on the edition, sometimes it is the daughter who ends up being thrown outside, sometimes the concubine. In some of those editions, after being tortured all night, the woman reaches her fingertips over the stoop of the house, and dies there.


            Because the father has control over his daughter, and the man has jurisdiction over his concubine, they assert the authority to control what happens to the bodies of these women. And this happens what is most likely the oldest and most widely circulated text in the world.


Eighteenth century British works kept up the tradition. According to eighteenth century tradition and protocol, a woman was legally under her father’s control until she was relinquished to her husband. The only way that a woman had any legal standing unto herself was if she was widowed. A societal requirement for women, whether or not they actually were virgins, was that they had to appear as such.


In Love in Excess; or, the Fatal Enquiry, women’s virtue determines their fate throughout the novel. For some reason, at least six women throw themselves at Count D’Elmont, who for all intents and purposes is a total jerk. However, their approaches and attitudes about virtue ends up determining their fate in the work.


One of these women is Amena. She is in love with Count D’Elmont, and they begin to court each other at the beginning of the novel. Her father forbids the courting to continue without a proposal of marriage, because men and women were forbidden to interact before they are officially betrothed. D’Elmont and Amena sneak around and are seen. Although no intercourse occurs and Amena’s virtue is not compromised, she is seen sneaking around with a man, and her reputation follows that she may as well no longer be a virgin. She’s sent off to a convent.


Ciamara, another character in the novel, also loves D’Elmont. She takes a different approach, first posing as another character, Camilla, in order to try to seduce D’Elmont, begging him to be physical with her. D’Elmont is repulsed by her immoral behavior, and Haywood writes, “this sort of treatment made him lose all the esteem, and great part of the pity he had conceived for her” (224). In a last desperate attempt, she eventually opens her robes in front of him. He’s still upset by her immorality, but can’t help but be attracted. He had been told by a friend that he was “the most excellent of his kind, yet, he was still a man!” (225). By the end of the novel, Ciamara is dead.


Melliora, whose name literally means “better” in Latin, loves D’Elmont, just like everyone else, but continually turns him away in the name of her chastity. Although, in the name of his passionate love, D’Elmont almost ends up raping her, she remains celibate until the end of the novel, and they end up getting married. Happily ever after, the end.


The happiness of the women’s fates directly correlates to their virtue, and what the novel determines that they deserve. What message was the work trying to send to the contemporaries? The lusty one is killed, the one who is seemingly immoral ends up in a convent, and only the chaste ends up alive and happy. Maintain your virtue, be chaste, be “better,” and you’ll end up married and happy in the end.


In The Duchess, a film depicting eighteenth century life starring Keira Knightley as the Duchess of Devonshire, also depicts some problematic elements present in the culture. It’s based on the true story of the Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, and her husband the Duke, who she married for convenience and status and ultimately, with the goal of bearing him an heir. He has an affair with her friend Bess, and Georgiana can neither convince her to stop nor convince him to kick her out of the house. She, however, has been in love with Mr. Charles Grey since the very first scene of the movie. When she asks the Duke if she can have an affair with Charles, he chases her through the house, pins her on her bed, and rapes her, over her protesting, screaming, and crying. Not only is this a double standard, because he’s having an affair but won’t allow her to, but he uses sex as a vehicle to assert his power. After he’s done, he stands up and reminds her that her purpose is to give him a son.


Back across the pond, marital rape has only been illegal in all 50 states since 1993.

What’s Changed?

            Many people say that we’ve achieved equality in the United States. Women can vote, and it’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender.


            But have we really improved that much? Love in Excess’s Amena was sent to a convent for appearing less than chaste, even though she was; girls now are still afraid to say yes to something that they might desire, for fear of their reputation. Somehow, society’s opinion of a girl’s worth, whether for the purposes of marriage or interpretation of her morality, is still contingent on what she is or is not doing in the bedroom.


            The novel’s portrayal of Ciamara as immodest because she undresses for D’Elmont is not dissimilar from how the media talks about women on the red carpet who are perceived as dressing immodestly. It’s not dissimilar from girls who are too forward are called desperate.



I’ve seen women who try to argue with this culture and the patriarchal system be dismissed with the classic stereotype that women are hysterical. The idea of women’s hysteria roots back to the Greek root “hyster” meaning womb. The removal of the uterus is called a hysterectomy, derived from that root. Hysteria, defined as an uncontrollable outburst of emotion or fear, or even a psychoneurotic disorder defined by emotional outbreaks, also developed from this Greek root, implying that hysteria is a women’s thing. Whether it’s the chicken or the egg, this was caused by and continues to create the stereotype that women are overly emotional and crazy by nature, and therefore incapable of logic. This etymological development of the word happened over several centuries—many blamed the events of the Salem Witch Trials on hysteria.


Although it seems antiquated, this perception is not entirely gone. I’ve seen this in conversation on campus, in chat rooms, and in the media. Certain groups will argue that it seems that the ladies are upset about nonsense once again.  Return of Kings, a website that claims to be for heterosexual, masculine men, recently published an article advising that men never date a woman who claims to have been the victim of a rape.


This is just another example that the rabid “feminazis” are finding something else to whine about. The louder the opposition to present structures, the more perpetrators can dismiss it as violent hysteria. And around and around we go. This is the clearest example of exactly what the women are fighting against, but because of it, arguments will fall on deaf ears.  Those who need training on consent, or education about systematic societal oppression, most will probably be the ones who dismiss it most. In the words of Stuart Chase, “For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.”

So What’s to be Done?

            Rape is not a women’s issue. Men can be raped, too. And it’s not up to the victim to prevent assault.


            The first step is awareness. What does sexual assault constitute? What does consent mean?


            Fraternities at many schools, like Muhlenberg College, have started to take the #ItsOnUs pledge to combat the stereotypical idea of the frat boy and take on the onus to be part of the solution. Many celebrities have taken up the cause, campaigning for everyone to intervene where necessary and create environments where sexual assault doesn’t happen.


            But it’s not just on them. It’s on all of us.


            It’s on sex ed programs to teach about consent, not just how to put a condom on a banana.


It’s on parents to teach their sons not to rape, not their daughters not to get raped.


It’s on men not to rape.


It’s on women not to rape (because yes, that can happen, too).


It’s on everyone to understand what consent means, and make sure that both parties give it before engaging in sexual activity.


It’s on everyone to not be a bystander: call people out on making rape jokes, and if you see something, say something about it.


The prevalence of rape is steeped in centuries of attitudes that permit it. If a large enough contingency stops permitting it, maybe it will become less prevalent. Maybe, someday, we’ll be able to say that these patriarchal attitudes are in the past, back in a time when anyone perpetuating rape culture was just on the wrong side of history.



TL;DR: Rape culture is rooted in centuries of patriarchal ideas that still impact how we see gender relations now. It’s everyone’s responsibility to acknowledge the perceptions that exist and try to enact change, no matter how small a scale it’s on.