Think Rape Culture Exists? You’re Hysterical!

Conservatives claim fighting rape culture is bad for—wait for it—VICTIMS. Now who’s hysterical?

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Last week Caroline Kitchens published an essay on the Time magazine website entitled, “Stop the Rape Culture Hysteria.” The essay was responding to a statement released by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault addressing the epidemic of rapes on college campuses. In their statement, the Task Force pointed to “a culture of passivity and tolerance in this country, which too often allows this type of violence to persist.”

In response, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), the leading advocacy group for victims of sexual assault in the nation, who has expressed their support for the task force and many of the administration’s initiatives, had some concerns: “In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming ‘rape culture’ for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campus. While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important not to lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.”

This was a shock to rape activists who have long looked to RAINN as a stalwart force in educating and supporting the rights of victims of sexual abuse.

It was like Christmas in March for those in the Conservative Republican party, among them Kitchens who crowed, “The nation’s largest and most influential anti-sexual-violence organization is rejecting the idea that culture—as opposed to the actions of individuals—is responsible for rape.”

Of course individuals are the ones guilty of rape. In the same way that we can’t blame violent video games, misogynistic music lyrics, or hard-core pornography for an increase in violent crimes, what we do know is that in excess, these things diminish our ability to feel empathy. A lack of empathy is one of the hallmarks of the new radicalized Republican party. Compassionate Conservatism—that’s a joke.

Perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that Kitchens is a research associate for the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative right-wing think tank, and one of the oldest and most influential neo-con bunkers in the country. Former trustees include former vice-president Dick “Axis-of-Evil” Cheney and Kenneth Lay, former CEO of Enron—or as the Bush family calls him “Kenny Boy.” The AEI think tank is where the Board of Directors including CEOs of ExxonMobil, American Express, and Dow Chemical hunker down and ruminate on how to best combat those folks who wish to save the oceans and penguins and the air. And, How do you solve a problem like Maria?

The great irony, while the GOP wages war on deregulation, they are aggressively working to regulate the female body.

What is to be done with all these hysterical women?

The ones who get hysterical when GOP lawmakers suggest rape victims have a way of “shutting it down” so they can’t get pregnant? Who advise women who can’t escape their rapist to “relax and enjoy it”? Who insist that not every rape is a “legitimate rape”? Those hysterical women?

Kitchens title might have been in that radical-conservative bunker. It seems tone deaf, if not just flat-out offensive to use the words: “rape” and “hysteria” in same sentence. Although, given her politics, citing a term that was popular in the 19th century—the era when women were often diagnosed with this phony disorder—seems fitting. The symptoms of “hysteria” (from the Greek hystera meaning womb) included anxiety, irritability, bloatedness, increased appetite, decreased appetite, a sex drive, no sex drive, insomnia, being a mouthy bitch. Labeling a woman hysterical was the best way to fast-track a bad girl who was not behaving into a sanitarium, and a fine way to justify slapping a sobbing woman across the face.

From the start Kitchens seeks to marginalize those who have come forth in recent years to bring the taboo subject of rape out of the closet and into the forefront.

Kitchens’s assertion that “rape culture theory has migrated from the lonely corners of the feminist blogosphere into the mainstream” speaks volumes about her respect for the feminist movement. Kitchens’s tone—from the lonely corners of the feminist blogosphere (wait, let me put in my retainer), a dark place full of dying jade plants and trash cans overflowing with brassieres, came the homely, unpopular and confusingly named “rape culture theory” intent on entering the mainstream. It was so much nicer when “mainstream” people didn’t talk about rape.

“Twenty-first century America does not have a rape culture; what we have is an out-of-control lobby leading the public and our educational and political leaders down the wrong path. Rape culture theory is doing little to help victims, but its power to poison the minds of young women and lead to hostile environments for innocent males is immense.”

I am certain that Kitchens is intimately familiar with “out-of-control lobbies”—gun, tobacco, oil—but she is wrong here. Her argument that feminists, student activists, college leaders, the Obama administration, a cabal of rape-culture theorists, and it would appear the entire faculty and student body of Wellesley College who want to discuss rape and the societal factors that might be contributing to sexual assault will “poison the minds of young women” and worst of all create “hostile environments for innocent males” is hard to fathom.

I will agree that the minds of young women are being poisoned and that hostile environments on and off college campuses abound. We live in a culture that doesn’t take rape as seriously as other crimes.

Witness the growing acceptance of rape humor mocking the victim, the introduction of lingo that makes a joke out of rape: A pretty girl is “rapeable”; a not-so-pretty girl, “rape pretty”; a girl in revealing or tight clothing is wearing “rapewear”; a girl who has the bad fortune of passing out is offering a “rapevitation” to the men around her; however they best be careful lest they set off her “rape alarm” and wake her up. Can you blame the 25 percent of college women who are raped, 90 percent of them familiar with their rapist and more than three quarters of them drunk for not reporting the crime? No woman wants to be “that girl.” No one wants to be “the victim.”

I agree with RAINN and Kitchens that “rape culture theory” is doing little to help victims. Theory is nothing without practice. Help needs to come from educators who teach people what rape is and isn’t and how to prevent it, and from lawmakers who press for stronger, better laws to prosecute rape on and off campus.

Perhaps Kitchens’s problem is that she has a very narrow perspective of “rape culture” suggesting that, “By blaming so-called rape culture, we implicate all men in a social atrocity.”

I don’t see how acknowledging that rape is an issue in our culture—and one that should be discussed—is implicating men in a “social atrocity”?

Rape is an act of sexual violence. Some victims recover, some never fully, and others are destroyed. It is a crime, but to call rape an “atrocity” is to engage in disingenuous hyperbole that trivializes sexual violence and its victims.

This sort of language links to the larger point RAINN is making, which is that focusing criticism on “rape culture has the paradoxical effect of making it harder to stop sexual violence, since it removes the focus from the individual at fault, and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions.”

Blaming the culture at large is to defuse responsibility for the actions of a few. However it is impossible to deny that a culture that not only tolerates but appreciates jokes that make light of rape or mock the victims; that lobbies against equal pay for women, the rights of women to have access to reproductive health information, birth control, and abortion; ridicules and demonizes victims of rape, male or female preferring them to keep quiet—all of these factors feed a climate which communicates that there is a segment of the culture that doesn’t take rape seriously. Who doesn’t see rape as an act of violence, but equates it with sex. A topic that is shrouded in shame and guilt.

The conservatives don’t take rape seriously enough and they don’t want to discuss the culture’s role in shaping our attitudes about sexual violence because it disturbs the patriarchy and forces us to confront our puritanical hypocritical notions of what constitutes healthy human sexuality.

As much as it galls the right wing, talking about rape and sex are essential to stopping rape. Let’s be real, taking responsibility for one’s sexuality in a culture that sexualizes young girls then punishes them for having sex is hard. What we need to do is stop making girls who want to have sex feel like criminals and whores. Stop making “being taken,” being so hopelessly in love a young woman can’t stop herself, be the only way girls can allow themselves to have sex. What we need to realize is that if you raise young men to feel that because of their elevated status they are entitled to sex, or if they buy a girl drinks or dinner, or drive her home they are owed sex, they will behave accordingly. When we tell rape victims that they don’t matter as much as the men raping them, and allow young men to get away with rape, we are feeding the beast.

As with any social movement there are those actions that go too far. I agree with Kitchens that the actions of a group of student activists at Boston University who protested having Robin Thicke play a show, alleging his song “Blurred Lines” promotes rape culture are misguided. However, I champion their activism. (And I am all for protesting Thicke because his music is godawful.) But save your energy for the bigger battles, like taking on right wing politicians and conservative writers like Kitchens who attempt to pass themselves off as part of the forces devoted to protecting the rights of women.

I leave you with her parting words: “College leaders, women’s groups, and the White House have a choice. They can side with the thought police of the feminist blogosphere who are declaring war on Robin Thicke, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, male statues, and Barbie. Or, they can listen to the sane counsel of RAINN.

In other words, stop being hysterical, stop behaving badly, and do what we tell you to do.

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