Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Problem With "Rape Culture" and How to Actually Fix the Problem of Sexual Assault

Over the last few weeks, my research on developing the San Diego Man Camp has brought me to some interesting places. One of the most fascinating has been an exploration of "rape culture." While I've been aware of the idea of rape culture in feminist circles for a very long time, I did not follow recent developments by many of the the fourth-wave feminists. 

After doing a lot of reading, all I can do is shake my head and say "Wow." 

What is Rape Culture?

By definition, "rape culture" is:

A concept in which rape is pervasive and normalized due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality.

This sociological concept was first introduced in the 1970's as an effort of second-wave feminists to raise awareness of the prevalence of sexual assault in our society. Prior to their efforts, most Americans assumed rape was an incredibly rare occurrence. Further, most people did not understand that any nonconsensual sexual encounter constituted rape. For example, the ideas of "date rape" and "spousal rape"not only didn't exist, in some cases they were legal due to legal codification.

Needless to say, this effort was both virtuous and needed. And successful.

By the 1990's (when I started studying sex and gender), we had moved well beyond the overly-simplified societal construct of "rape culture" and started looking at individuals. The scientific community correctly identified a slew of antecedents to sexual assault and spend a lot of time and effort to continue digging deeper. Researchers were searching for more reliable and valid antecedents, searching for better triage methods to determine who could most benefit from intervention, and searching for more effective interventions.

By the late 90's, I was teaching high school psychology full-time and backed away from sex and gender research. I did, however, teach comprehensive units on anything and everything we knew about sexual assault and domestic violence. It was my attempt at making a difference.

Eventually I left teaching, traveled a bit, then started blogging about sex and gender here on the Sexpressionists blog. That eventually led to exploring the state of modern relationships. Using my background in second and third wave feminist theory, I started exploring the sex-positive third wave movement and how modern couples are really bad at keeping the spark of passion alive long-term, which led me to publish No Bone Zone. There were some weird gender role implications that didn't quite make sense, which led me to my recent exploration of how we treat gender roles as a society.

Eventually that led me to a few interactions with "rape culture" advocates. Based on their level of discourse and apparent knowledge of sexual assault, I dismissed them as naive people that got their information from memes more often than published literature. It popped up enough, however, to cause me to do a little more digging. That's the point where I discovered the fourth wave feminists, many of which were too young to remember the 90's. It became immediately apparent their concept of "rape culture" wasn't based on the science we've been collecting for years; it was based on vague sociological writings that were based off anecdote. 

My Theoretical Underpinnings

Before I get to the nuts and bolts of my discussion, it's important to lay out my exact current philosophical belief about sex, gender, sexual assault, etc. I'm a staunch supporter of equality. More specifically, I believe all of us, regardless of sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, marital status, body weight, breakfast cereal preference, or whatever other demographic grouping we care to create, all have a fundamental right to equal opportunity, equal possibility, and equal responsibility. 

This does NOT mean we give preferential treatment to one group over another group in a way that interferes with equal opportunity, possibility, or responsibility. This also does not mean all of us have a right to equal outcomes, nor does it mean everyone should be given equal resources. We have a strong, stable socioeconomic system in the United States, and we enjoy incredible political stability. Yes, we have a lot of crazy extremists all over the place, but the crazy balances out nicely. 

In regards to sexual assault - it's a horrible crime that all of us should work towards eliminating. It affects individuals in negative ways, most of the time devastatingly and profoundly. The ripple effects of sexual assault not only affect the individual, but everyone within that individual's sphere of influence. In short - it fucks people up, and it fucks our society up. HOWEVER, we also have to understand that we currently do not have the tools to completely eradicate sexual assault. No matter what we do as a society, we cannot control all of the worst offenders - serial rapists that have no conscience (those that are afflicted with antisocial personality disorder.) We have trouble identifying them, catching them, keeping them incarcerated, and fixing them. Unless we can develop and implement Gattaca-like technology, we'll always have wolves roaming among the sheep. Anyone that believes otherwise is woefully and dangerously naive. 

That last part is important because it gives us the rationale to teach people how to avoid being victimized, which is one of my big beefs with the "rape culture" advocates.

But Wait, You Can't Speak For Me!!!

When discussing this issue and taking a stance critical of rape culture, pretty much every opponent will play the "you're a straight white cis-gendered middle class male, you can't speak for me/ have an opinion/ not understand this issue!" My response to that?

"Fuck you."

I can say with absolute certainty I've spent more time digging around the science of this issue than 99.9% of the people that buy into the modern idea of rape culture. I was trained as an experimental psychologist with degrees in psychology and history, both of which focused on sex and gender (the history degree focused on the social aspect of 20th century America.) I taught these concepts for over a decade, have read thousands of peer-reviewed empirical published studies related to sex and gender, and have written hundreds of articles about sex and gender. 

None of that really matters though. I'm human and I care about others. That's all the qualification I need to discuss the issue. If more is needed, this issue is personal. I have an uncomfortable number of people in my life that have been raped. As a parent of three kids, I need this to change. As such, I have little tolerance for dumbass ideas that aren't going to affect real change.

Lastly, the "you belong to this group, therefore your opinion is invalid" stance is hypocritical as fuck. That's doubly true if you're unfamiliar with the actual research that's been done on sexual assault and the antecedents and interventions that has been conducted over the last four decades. If you're supposedly supporting equality, you don't get to pick and choose which people have a "right" to speak. By playing that card, you're engaging in the exact same behaviors you're supposedly rallying against. If you do not understand that, it's probably best you stop talking about equality. You're doing more harm than good. 

What Does Rape Culture Get Right?

The idea of "rape culture" isn't entirely bad. In fact, many of the observations, on the surface, are accurate. The real problem comes from the explanation of the observations, which tend to be laughably inaccurate. But there are some rays of sunshine that poke through the clouds.
  • Our tendency to blame the victim. This is one of the most significant aspects of sexual assault. When we blame victims for the crime, it increases the likelihood of the perpetrator getting off with little or no punishment. Since most rapists tend to be repeat offenders, our failure to remove them from the population automatically makes the problem worse. The problem, which I'll elaborate on later, is that this idea isn't unique to sexual assault. We do this all the time with pretty much anything and everything negative.
  • Some populations do actually actively or passively encourage rape. The idea that our entire society condones rape is flat-out stupid. However, there are specific groups and populations that DO implictly or explicitly encourage rape. It doesn't take a lot of digging on the Interwebz to find these groups. I refuse to link to them for ethical reasons. 
  • Porn is a problem. I love porn. I think porn is a net win for society. Unfortunately, porn is just like violent movies and video games... it's rarely an accurate depiction of real life. The problem arises when porn consumers assume porn is real life. This is obviously a problem with rape-themed porn (which caters to the rape fantasy crowd which is sort of an offshoot of the BDSM community and very different than actual sexual assault.) Since porn is now ridiculously easy to find and view, we'd be well-served to start teaching our kids about porn in the same way we talk to them about media violence.
  • We need "consent education." Most people get piss-poor sex education, which leads to a lot of bad sexual decisions. The idea of consent is one such blind spot. While it's easy to assume people should know exactly what consent is and how it's applied, that assumption comes with some serious consequences. I believe we could eliminate a great deal of acquaintance rape if we did this. We NEED to teach everyone at a young age (I recommend 10) exactly what consent means.

What Does Rape Culture Get Wrong

Almost all of the problems related to the belief of "rape culture" come from a misattribution of elements of sexual assault. This becomes problematic when we try to develop solutions for those various elements. 
  • Rape culture promotes the belief that we currently have the capability to end all sexual assault if only we could push through the appropriate agenda. This is one of the most dangerous failings of rape culture because it's often used as a rationale to avoid teaching people how to avoid getting raped. As I mentioned earlier, until we understand exactly what antecedents lead to sexual assault and develop effective interventions, we'll never completely eliminate rape. Given that about 3-4% of our population can be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, this shouldn't even be debatable. 
  • Blaming sexual assault on "culture" diffuses responsibility. Rape is 100% the fault of the perpetrator. The moment we say "we live in a culture that normalizes rape", we reduce that 100% number, thus giving the perps an excuse. "Hey, I can't help it. I was raised in a culture that normalizes rape!
  • Rape culture creates a generalized fear of men and situations, which severely handicaps our innate intuition to recognize actual danger. Gavin de Becker, one of the world's foremost experts on personal protection, wrote an excellent book called "The Gift of Fear." I HIGHLY recommend it to anyone and everyone. Basically, we get so many false positives, we can't respond when actual danger presents itself. This puts us in situations we'd normally avoid. Our intuition is our best defense against all forms of violence, including sexual assault. 
  • Blaming vague social constructs like "patriarchy" or "masculinity" without regard for specific dispositional characteristics, and automatically assigning these traits to all men while ignoring women that may have the same traits creates the very situation the first and second wave feminists fought so hard to fix. We have a pretty decent idea which personality characteristics are most often correlated to sexual assault, and they include hypermasculinity, hostile beliefs about women, a desire to be in control, and an acceptance of violence against women. Not all men possess these traits. Furthermore, some women possess them, too. We cannot solve the problem of sexual assault by relying on lazy stereotyping. 
  • "Rape culture" fails to identify actual antecedents to sexual assault. This is a severe problem with the entire field of sociology, which is why it's important to view social problems with multiple levels of analysis. This is glaringly obvious when rape culture proponents are asked for actionable, effective solutions. They come up with dumbass ideas like "let's start a petition" or "let's raise awareness." No, fuckers, we advanced past that point decades ago. Study the literature before you open your mouth.
  • The current paradigm limits prevention interventions to educating college-age males, usually about acquaintance rape. Because rape culture advocates fail to see the individual antecedents to sexual assault, they also fail to create interventions that work. While on-campus programs are better than nothing, we have a knowledge base that could be used to develop far more effective (and early) interventions. 
  • Victim-blaming, police indifference, or supporting the accused by friends and family are not unique to rape. Other ideas like slut-shaming and sexual objectification are completely misunderstood. We don't blame victims because we support rape. We blame victims because of the just-world theory. Police aren't indifferent to rape victims because they support rape. Police are indifferent because they habituate to the pain and suffering they see daily. It's a defense mechanism experienced by doctors, nurses, military personnel, even teachers. The friends and family don't support rape if they support the accused. That's just the human drive to protect members of our in-group. Slut-shaming? That's a strategy women use on each other to disqualify sexual rivals. Sexual objectification? That's our biological imperative; both males and females are physiologically-aroused by the bodies of the members of the sex we're attracted to. 
  • Conflation with Marxism. I can only assume this is a function of fourth-wave feminists learning their ideals from radical left-leaning college professors. This idea first came to light when I stumbled upon a blog post ranting about the dangers of rape culture... and the blogger had a picture of Che Guevara in the sidebar. If you don't understand the problem with this idea, check out some historical primary sources on the actual treatment of women in communist countries. 

The Real Solution to Sexual Assault

At the most basic level, I'm a pragmatist. If there's a problem, I want to solve it. I have zero interest in creating and continuing problems just to fuel a greater agenda. That inspired my opinions about sexual assault when I first studied sex and gender in the 90's, and it still inspired my opinions today. We know far more about sexual assault than the rape culture advocates state, which means we have the ability to develop far better intervention strategies to actually reduce the instances of sexual assault. Here are a few of my recommendations:
  • Teach age-appropriate comprehensive sex ed starting in elementary school, complete with a discussion on consent, the different types of sexual assault, the warning signs, methods to avoid it, and pornography education (treat porn like video games.) Americans, as a whole, are sexual morons. Personally I blame abstinence-only sex education programs. If we taught a huge swath of our children about the topics I just listed, we'd immediately see a significant drop in sexual assault. 
  • Teach everyone self-defense, including situational awareness and basic physical self-defense. This does not mean we're blaming the victim if they get raped. We know rapists prey on the weakest members of the herd, most notably those that are unlikely to fight back, are chronically oblivious to real dangers in their environment, and those that lack the assertiveness to say "no." Shit, we could cut the numbers of rapes by 80% if we did this. I would go as far to say that advising people to avoid learning to defend themselves should be considered criminally negligent. Aside from reducing the number of rapes, it would dramatically reduce the number of potential victims that DO NOT have the capability to learn to defend themselves, which makes it a whole lot easier for the rest of us to protect them. Let's assume there are 100 million people in the US that we could identify as being at high risk of sexual assault. If we train them in self-defense using a program like IMPACT, we could dramatically reduce the number of people at high risk. 
  • Teach us how to understand inter-gender communication better. This is actually addressed in the IMPACT classes I mentioned above, and I've written about it here on the blog. Men and women are really, really bad at understanding each other's communication methods. It's not a mystery, but we have to be willing to do the research. It's what inspired my series on understanding females and a major reason I started the San Diego Man Camp
  • Acknowledge that alcohol is a huge problem, then devise strategies to mitigate it. Much like porn, I love alcohol. A lot. But it's also a factor in around half of all sexual assaults and affects both the perp and the victim. It clouds our ability to communicate, impairs judgment, and lowers inhibitions. I don't like the idea of outlawing shit (that's my libertarian leanings rearing their ugly head), so I'd fully support adding discussions on alcohol to comprehensive education programs for kids. I'd also support teaching ideas like using designated sober people to watch over drunk friends in situations where sexual assault could be a possibility. 
  • Fund research to further understand the genetic and early life correlational and causal antecedents to sexual assault (like history of physical, verbal, and/or sexual abuse, ADHD, conduct disorder, hypersexuality, sociosexuality, impulse-control, antisocial behavior, hostility toward a person's preferred sex/gender), and continue to develop early intervention strategies. We can't change genes and have limited ability to influence biology and personality, but we may be able to prevent them from influencing us from committing sexual assault if we can influence the negative environmental influences that cause the gene expression. In other words, we need to abandon culture-blaming and focus on individuals.
  • Understand the actual purpose of gender roles in sex and relationships and work to preserve them, not extinguish them. This involves reassessing the idea that patriarchy developed because of male power versus a mutually-beneficial protection paradigm (to be discussed soon in another blog post.) Feminism has done a lot of great things for our society and other societies around the world. Feminism hasn't been infallible, though. There are some abysmal failures, and almost all have to do with messing around with attempting to change gender roles. Here are a few things we need to change:
    • We can't stop "objectifying" each other without stopping our sex drive. Scantily-clad women cause men (and the reverse, too) to become sexually-aroused. No amount of shaming or "educating" changes that. We could change it... if we also eliminate our desire to reproduce.
    • The more we require a mechanization of sex, the less people will buy into the ideas that are sold. Sex is fun. If it's consensual, it should be fun for all parties involved. I've come across people that suggest we use formal contracts before any sexual encounter. I've also come across people that suggest positive consent be required for every single sexual act, so Sally would be required to say "May I kiss your lips? May I stroke your arm? May I fondle your genitalia?" Those are noble ideas. They're also idiotic ideas that ignore how people actually have sex.
    • Vilifying masculinity and insisting men act more feminine will never work as long as women are sexually aroused by masculinity. Hypermasculinity IS an antecedent to sexual assault, which has led to a widespread belief that we can make the world safe for women by killing masculinity (the gender role, not "kill all men".) This is almost always expressed as a call to redefine masculinity, which is essentially turning men into androgynous beings or feminized men. Either way, this is incredibly damaging to any man that doesn't naturally gravitate towards a feminine gender expression (which I fully support, by the way... that's a freedom I demand based on my concept of equality.) This idea not only undermines how interpersonal attraction functions, it's horrifically unethical. Saying we'd solve a lot of problems if only men would act more like women is exactly the same as saying all black people could solve their problems by acting like white people. Masculinity isn't the problem. Rapists are the problem. Conflating the two because of a correlation is flat-out stupid.
    • Seduction is not egalitarian, and men aren't always in the driver's seat. This is a tricky problem that has to do with our inability to communicate. Seduction involves some sort of pushing and pulling with one person taking the lead. Based on my own observations, younger people today are really, really bad at flirting, mostly because men are hyper-vigilant about pursuing if a woman uses any sort of coquette-like seduction strategy. This has given rise to concepts like "friend-zones", white-knighting, and a host of other weird interpersonal relations. Telling people to not engage in seduction is about as effective as telling people to stop using drugs, stop having sex, or stop breathing. The only viable solution here is to educate people on inter-gender communication so men get better at discriminating when a woman is seducing versus being nice and women get better at discriminating when men are being assertive or giving off signals that indicate they're probably a rapist. 
  • Keep both fathers and mothers in the picture unless they're shitty role models. This idea can be extended to gay or lesbian couples, too. In my Utopia, all kids would have great role models that would give them a framework to understand whatever gender role they associate with. Ideally, their parents would also provide great role models for a solid, healthy romantic relationship. Unfortunately, less than 25% of families fit that mold. Keeping decent relationships together was a major motivator for writing No Bone Zone, and my borderline-militant support of gay marriage serves the same purpose. Kids need role models, and this is probably more significant today for males. If a relationship is toxic, it needs to end... but far too many people throw in the towel for silly reasons (like "the sex got boring".)


The persistent belief in "rape culture" not only is bad science, but potentially harmful. We need to closely examine how and why we buy into this idea, which includes carefully examining the available research. I intentionally left out most links to the published research because I write colloquially, not academically. For those that insist on data, Knight, Knight, and McBride provide a phenomenal overview of the data that can be found on the National Online Resource for Violence Against Women website

Rape is a ridiculously damaging crime that requires a level of discourse that goes far beyond the trivial nature of "rape culture" proponents. If you're not convinced, dig though the VAW link above. Educate yourself and be skeptical of topical dogma. Don't just be an advocate that raises awareness. Holding up a hand-written sign for a social media selfie, contrary to popular belief, doesn't actually solve problems.  Actually do something to make a difference.


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