Rape culture is hard to deny.

I recently listened to an edition of “Q” on CBC radio, in which the question, “Do we live in a rape culture” was posed to two “experts” for debate. The interview was a disaster as one of the “experts”, Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute, hijacked the interview and used it as a forum to express her theory that rape is at least partly the fault of women who irresponsibly drink to excess. Too bad – not only for the fact that such shockingly wrongheaded propaganda could be given voice on public radio, but also for the fact that a chance for a good debate about culture failed to happen.

To see evidence of rape culture, we need look no further than popular motion pictures from my lifetime (I’m 49 years old).

Recently I re-watched the 1980s film, “Tootsie”. In the film, Michael Dorsey, unable to find work as an actor, dresses in drag so he can be cast in a female role on a soap opera. In one scene, a male actor, believing Michael is a woman, follows him home from the soap opera set, tries to woo him by singing to him from the street, and once invited up to the room for one drink, tries to force himself on Michael, not knowing that he is actually “going for it” with another man.

In the 80s there would have been few people who didn’t think this scene to be hilarious, due to the awkward case of mistaken identity, but in order to laugh, the audience had to accept that the only thing that made the scene unusual (and therefore funny) was the irony in the fact that the philandering character was trying so hard to get it on with a heterosexual man, not taking no for an answer. Otherwise, of course one would have expected this sort of thing between a man and a woman.

In light of 25 or so years of social enlightenment largely due to the feminist movement, one can now understand that the scene really depicts stalking and sexual assault that is all too common, and that certainly was (if it isn’t now) culturally accepted when the film was made. The smitten tried to rape his colleague, and we just laughed. It is quite uncomfortable to watch that scene now.

Similarly, many films eroticize sex assault. “The Postman Always Rings Twice” famously does so. In many films, the lead male kisses the lead female without her consent, and the audience watches as she progresses from surprised resistance to seduced capitulation (or at least curiosity). Obviously, she desired him all along and could no longer hold out. In such scenes we attribute to the woman (and by extension to all women) a latent sexuality that defies her intellect, and must be awakened in her against her initial reticence. These scenes certainly showed men and boys a perverse version of reality. The thinking goes, “If I just plant a good one on her, she’ll be mine.”

Interestingly, it was pointed out to me just this Christmas how “rapey” the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is (“What’s in this drink?”). And I confess, I didn’t want to hear this about a song that I thought was rather romantic.

We have fetishized the female body and mythologized female sexuality to the point where the knee-jerk reaction of young male students at University of Ottawa who are angry at their student president is to imagine her in rape scenes; or to the point where young UBC freshman participate glibly in rape chants just to “blow off steam”. Ask any man my age, and he’ll look both ways to see who’s listening before he tells you that such misogyny is not surprising.

We may not like the term “rape culture” because we don’t want to believe that “rape” is a defining feature of who we are as a people, but we certainly live in a culture that has not only failed to prevent rape, but has enabled it.

We need to face this fact, but it’s tough because to do so is to admit that most of us share at least a little blame in this phenomenon. Most of us know better now, so we need to put the past behind us, re-educate ourselves, and do better in the future, but we can’t put our heads in the sand and deny that our culture has problems.


4 thoughts on “Rape culture is hard to deny.

  1. I do attribute much social enlightenment to the feminist movement, which has brought information to light through painstaking peer-reviewed research and social activism. The media that feminists use is only the vehicle for their voice. The internet only transmits messages; it doesn’t create them.

    As for counter-arguments: I’m not sure why I should argue against my own thesis, but to address your question: I’m not commenting on what constitutes rape; I’m presenting evidence of rape culture. By presenting your question about consent between two drunk partners, you’re doing exactly what Heather MacDonald did on “Q”. You’re changing the subject.

    Lastly, I’m disappointed that my argument doesn’t convince you that rape culture exists. But one opinion piece on an unsubstantiated blog shouldn’t convince anyone of anything. If it piques your interest in further research, I’m happy.

  2. Feminist interventions are indeed responsible for developing language and legal consequences around sexual assault and violence against women. Why are you so reticent to associate feminist values with progress? Is technological advancement really responsible for a shift in how we view cultural treatment of women’s bodies? Your defensiveness on this point is telling, and supports the bloggers argument.

  3. How can you so readily attribute society’s “social enlightenment” over the past 25 years to feminism? Couldn’t it just as easily be attributed to the enhanced ability over the past 25 years for information to found (ie the internet)?

    Also you present no counter arguments. What if a woman and a man are both drunk and the woman drunkenly consents to sex? Is that rape?

    Furthermore you only use a handful of example to further your point and it sounds like when talking about incidents at the University of Ottawa or UCB that you attribute such acts to all males. Isn’t this exactly the kind of generalization feminists should avoid?

    I think there is an argument that we have a rape culture but this post doesn’t really convince me.

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