When I was a college freshman, one of the first things I remember being told was not to walk across campus alone at night. At the time, this made perfect sense; after all, a solo teenage girl heading to her dorm in the dark was subject to all manner of horrific fates, most notably sexual assault.
Of course, a few weeks into the semester, I found myself walking home alone quite frequently—from the gym, the library, the newspaper. I knew I was taking a chance, and I did my best to walk with confident strides, keep my eyes and ears open, and be ready to run, scream, or defend myself with whatever resources I could muster. I knew that if something did happen, I would have brought it on myself by taking this risk of being a woman alone in the dark. Without realizing it, I had become part of rape culture.
The concept of rape culture pervaded the news this past March, after the verdict in the Steubenville, Ohio, case in which two high school boys raped an incapacitated girl and then went online to brag, post photos, and otherwise degrade their victim. Much of the media coverage of the verdict focused on the ways the boys’ lives had been altered forever, their names tarnished, and their futures ruined. The female victim? Lost in the shuffle.
If Steubenville seems like an extreme case of gender-based injustice, it’s not. It’s simply one of the most publicized. The fact is women continue to be second-class citizens in the United States and around the world, marginalized politically, socially, and domestically in ways both big and small. These acts are not always rape, but they absolutely are a part of rape culture.
We’re well versed in the physical aspects of rape, and fortunately there is increasing awareness of the emotional and spiritual consequences. But what remains lacking is the acknowledgment that those outcomes—humiliation, intimidation, feelings of shame and worthlessness—are perpetuated every day as part of a culture that routinely tells women they are weaker and less valuable than men.
Take the college-campus example. How many freshman boys—no, young men—are told not to walk alone? How many are made fearful of what might happen to them after the sun goes down, or if they’ve had too much to drink? How many have been explicitly told that a teenage girl is a holy creation that should be not only respected but treasured? How many teenage girls have been told that? The fact is, we teach girls how not to be raped and spend a lot less effort teaching boys not to rape. And almost none of that teaching, on either side, relates to the core issue of why all of this matters: the essential God-given dignity of a human being. After all, as stated in Genesis 1:27, “God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (NRSV).
A Pervasive Problem That we even still talk about these topics in the context of “women’s rights,” and not just human rights, is telling. We have made a distinction and created a paradigm in which our culture seems inexorably stuck. When Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and thus one very influential woman, wrote Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, her promotion of the book quickly morphed into a defense of it. She made people uncomfortable with the observation that women sometimes don’t pursue business success as aggressively as their male colleagues because when women act as strong leaders, they tend to be deemed “bossy” for the same behavior that lands a man a promotion. That reality is part of rape culture. The fact that women still earn about 77 cents to the dollar a man makes is part of rape culture. Obviously, the hypersexualization of women in the media is a huge part of rape culture, but not everything is so blatant. When politicians and activists spew rhetoric about women, reducing half the population to a bargaining chip, that’s rape culture. (And both pro-life and pro-choice advocates are leaders of the pack on this front.) When a parish prohibits girls from serving on the altar during holy days or special occasions, even though it technically is within their rights to do so, that’s part of rape culture.
Jennifer Scroggins, F R A N C I S CA N M E D I A. 0 R G, JULY 2013