March 28, 2014

Jessica Valenti is the author of four books and a co-editor of “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape.”

There’s no arguing that America has a rape problem: Someone is sexually assaulted in the United States every two minutes. But the problem extends beyond the crimes themselves to the culture that allows rape to thrive.

We live in a country where a Texas defense lawyer called an 11-year-old gang-rape victim a “spider” luring men into her web. Where instead of helping a rape victim, high school students in Steubenville, Ohio, joked about the assault and took pictures. As feminist Thomas MacAulay Millar wrote, “It takes one rapist to commit a rape, but it takes a village to create an environment where it happens over and over and over.”

Which is why it’s so disappointing that the country’s largest anti-sexual-violence organization, RAINN, recently advised a White House task force that efforts to curb rape on college campuses should move away from the “unfortunate trend towards blaming ‘rape culture,’ ” because “rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.”

RAINN President Scott Berkowitz told me that the memo to the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault wasn’t meant as a thorough critique of sexual violence in America. He agreed there are systemic issues: from untested rape kits to justice system treatment of survivors. But he stood by the passage about rape culture, arguing that the term “muddies” the conversation about how to help survivors and risks alienating allies. “Many people interpret it — men in particular — as accusatory,” he said. “We need to encourage their good instincts rather than pointing a finger.”

Yet Tracey Vitchers of Students Active for Ending Rape says talking about rape culture has been instrumental to her work. “The concept of rape culture provides students with the language to contextualize what is happening and how they can talk to administrators and peers,” Vitchers says. “Rape culture speaks to the larger systemic problem of why bystanders don’t intervene, why victims don’t feel safe going to campus police and why you see such levels of PTSD among college survivors.”

Feminists have also taken issue with RAINN’s recommendation that colleges should promote personal risk-reduction messages. “We know that tips about traveling in groups, not wearing short skirts and avoiding taking a sip of alcohol” — messages young women have been given for decades — “just do not work,” activist Wagatwe Wanjuki says.

Wanjuki further questions RAINN’s criminal justice focus, given that the system can be sexist, racist and “a grossly inadequate venue to most survivors.” Instead, Wanjuki and activists like her focus on campus solutions, such as using the anti-discrimination law Title IX to pressure school administrations to handle rape accusations swiftly and fairly.

In its recommendations, RAINN insists that a focus on rape culture is misguided because most young adults know rape is wrong, thanks to “repeated messages from parents, religious leaders, teachers, coaches, the media and, yes, the culture at large.” But knowing that “rape is wrong” means little if you don’t know what rape is.

When one witness in the 2012 Steubenville rape case was asked why he didn’t stop the assault on a high school girl, he testified that he didn’t know the attack was rape: “It wasn’t violent. . . . I thought [rape] was forcing yourself on someone.” Earlier that evening, this teen took car keys away from a drunk friend. At some point he got the message that drunken driving is wrong, but never that penetrating an unconscious girl is rape.

Even some politicians don’t seem to fully understand what rape is. “Rape, when I was learning these things, was the violation of a chaste woman, against her will, by some party not her spouse,” Tennessee state Sen. Douglas Henry said in 2008. It was only two years ago that then-Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri suggested that “legitimate rape” doesn’t cause pregnancy, and the FBI revised its definition of rape, which had included only women (no mention of male victims) who had been “forcibly” attacked.

Talking about rape culture isn’t meant to shift focus away from rapists but to paint a fuller picture of how rapists operate and the best ways to stop them. RAINN — which works with Congress on policy and sets political agendas — should know this. And if it is worried about alienating allies, it shouldn’t dismiss the efforts of feminist activists.

I agree with Berkowitz when he says: “We all do this work because students deserve to be safe. Survivors deserve to be well-treated, and perpetrators deserve to be punished.” But ignoring the culture in which rapists commit and get away with crimes won’t stop rape. And it will hurt victims.

Twitter: @jessicavalenti

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