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What Rape Culture? A Conversation with Kate Harding and Anne K. Ream

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Rape is everywhere today. Pick up any newspaper, any magazine—the new issues of Rolling Stone and In These Times, a recent Time magazine cover story, this publication—and you’ll see high-profile coverage of the rape-culture crisis in America. From the alcohol-saturated dormitories of our citadels of higher-education to the shadowy confessionals of a pedophiliac priesthood to controversies over HBO’s top-rated “Game of Thrones,” gender-based violence is certainly not a new issue. But perhaps the amount of attention being paid, not just from the media but even the president of the United States, an outgrowth of the unwillingness of its survivors to remain silent any longer, represents its twilight, or at least movement in the right direction. Anne K. Ream and Kate Harding are both Chicago writers, activists and, both rape survivors. Ream is the founder of the Voices and Faces Project, a nonprofit committed to documenting the stories of those who have suffered gender-based cruelties, and the author of the new book “Lived Through This: Listening to the Stories of Sexual Violence Survivors.” Harding is a prominent essayist and lecturer on body image and rape culture and the author of the forthcoming book this December, “Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It.” We conducted a spirited conversation over much of a week via email on this most universal and urgent of topics. (Brian Hieggelke)

“Rape culture” is a phrase that seems to have exploded into the collective consciousness in just the last few years. At first, it seems like it might be little more than an “extreme” renaming of the conversation about the objectification of women that’s been going on for decades. Can you elaborate on this, perhaps define what it means and how/if it differs from past readings?


Kate Harding/Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Kate Harding/Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

KATE: I’ll be honest: I first heard the phrase “rape culture” at some point within the last ten years, and my immediate reaction was, “Oh, come on!” That was before I started reading up on what people actually meant by it. Susan Brownmiller called it a “rape-supportive culture” in “Against Our Will” (1975), which sounds just as inflammatory at first, but points to what people mean by “rape culture.” More specifically, I’d even call it a “rapist-supportive culture.”

A culture in which most rapes are never reported, because victims know they’re likely to be ridiculed, dismissed, and/or raked over the coals by everyone from law enforcement to their own families, supports rapists. A culture in which a small fraction of reported rapes are ever prosecuted, and of those that are, a much smaller fraction result in a felony conviction, supports rapists. We’re literally signaling to criminals: Don’t worry about getting caught. The chances of anything bad happening to you are incredibly slim.

We also signal that there are unlikely to be any real social consequences. For as much as we claim to deplore rape and rapists, when it comes down to it, from Glen Ridge to Steubenville, from Kennedys to pro athletes to nobodies, we too often rally to defend men credibly accused of rape, and to smear their alleged victims as vindictive liars, golddiggers, and sluts. We act as though male victims of rape don’t exist, and women who report rape are just as likely to be crazy liars as they are to be genuine victims—even though the number of false reports is estimated to be between two and eight percent—which means that men who rape (because it’s nearly always men) always have a built-in defense: He wanted it, and she’s full of it.


Anne K. Ream/Photo: Nobuko Nagaoka

Anne K. Ream/Photo: Patricia Evans

ANNE: One of the interesting things about the phrase “rape culture”—versus the actual concept—is how largely unaware the vast majority of victims are of it.  Something that struck me during the nine years I spent interviewing survivors for “Lived Through This”—both in the US, and beyond our borders—was how our movement definitions and terms were often abstractions (if the women I interviewed had heard them at all). But the idea of rape culture was not. So survivors would speak to me at length about how they feared being disbelieved, and thus decided not to report. Or they would reflect on being deeply wounded by CNN’s coverage of Steubenville, which focused more on the “wasted potential” of the young men convicted of rape than it did on the grief and pain of the victim. But if, during my interviews, I referred to what they were describing as representative of “rape culture,” I would often be met with a blank stare. So I think one of the limitations of terms like this is that they can become opinion-class cliches very quickly, and seem meaningless to a large percentage of those in mainstream culture. This is especially true if we rely more on the phrase “rape culture” than we do on clear descriptions of the injustices that the phrase was originally meant to represent.   That is why survivor stories are so critical to this discussion, because the testimony of the women and men whose lives have been altered by sexual violence take the concept of rape culture and make it real—painfully real.  

I also think that navigating around the question of what is part of the rape culture, and what isn’t, can be very tricky from a representational standpoint.  I’ve heard people describe  the AMC show “Mad Men” as part of the rape culture, and I find that really problematic. I was talking to someone recently, and she compared that series to Scorsese’s “Wolf of Wall Street.” Well, “Mad Men” is a savvy, subtle critique of any number of “isms”—and a show that featured one of the most realistic, heartbreaking  representations of non-stranger rape many of us have ever seen—while “Wolf” feels like a celebration of the worst excesses of male behavior. That in some people’s minds they occupy a similar cultural space speaks to how unfamiliar we have become with a feminist critique targeted to a non-feminist audience—or critical representations in general.   

Finally, I think that in large part, we in the anti-rape movement have focused on what rape culture means for victims. I know that this is where I am most comfortable going, because the stories of victims are so close to me. But we probably need to start speaking far more loudly about the fact that a rape culture is not only an unjust culture for victims, it is an unsafe one for the general public. When women are afraid to report, and when men are implicitly or explicitly reminded that the consequences of committing sexual violence are limited (if they exist at all), rape occurs more often, and rapists are free to rape again and again. Do we really want to live in that world?

KATE: “So I think one of the limitations of terms like this is that they can become opinion-class cliches very quickly, and seem meaningless to a large percentage of those in mainstream culture.” This is a really excellent point, Anne. (And for the record, I am a survivor who didn’t hear the phrase “rape culture” until a decade or more after I was raped.) One of the things I’m trying to do with my book is translate this concept in terms people can easily understand, so it’s not so much about the shocking phrase as it is about the behavior and attitudes that occasioned it. At the same time, because it is a name for something that would otherwise go unnamed—and connects dots that might otherwise go unconnected—I do find it useful.

I haven’t seen “Wolf of Wall Street,” but I remember seeing Joan’s rape by her fiancé in season two of “Mad Men,” and thinking it was almost unbearably realistic. Then, the next day, the internet chimes in, and it turns out a lot of people thought the scene was ambiguous. Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan, has said she was shocked by that reaction as well—in her mind, and presumably in the writers’ and director’s, it was unquestionably a depiction of rape. (The character clearly rejects her fiancé’s advances, verbally and physically, before essentially resigning herself to it and going limp, staring straight at the camera.)

I think that’s a perfect example of what we mean by “rape culture,” right there. I can barely understand how anyone can watch a scene like that and have questions about whether it was a crime, but that’s what rape culture does: It obfuscates the issue of consent, and tries to make rape all about the intention of the aggressor, as opposed to the desires of the person being acted upon. So people think, “Are we absolutely certain he knew she didn’t want it? Is it possible it was just a miscommunication? Is he a dark and evil person, even if he seems so nice and normal otherwise?” But those aren’t the right questions. The right questions are, “Did she make a good-faith effort to communicate her lack of consent, and did he willfully blow right past her?”

I mean, whether a sexual act constitutes rape is really very simple: Did all parties agree to it? If not, it was rape. If so, it wasn’t. But rape culture teaches us that determining whether your partner has consented to sex is incredibly complicated and confusing. It teaches us that if the victim isn’t screaming “No!” and clawing at the perpetrator the entire time, any claims that she resisted are not credible. It teaches us that men are lust-addled buffoons who don’t have the social skills to understand non-verbal cues, or indirect refusals (as in, “Honey, not right now,” as opposed to, “NO! Back, beast!!”), even if they’re perfectly capable of nuanced communication in other parts of their lives. And it teaches us that women who typically enjoy sex—especially if they’ve been known to enjoy it outside of marriage or serious relationships, as Joan has—are generally suspect, and that rape cannot really occur between two partners who have had consensual sex in the past. So it’s not really a surprise that some people would interpret that scene as something other than a rape, but it’s still terribly disappointing.

ANNE: Kate, I so agree with you—those conflicting responses to the “Mad Men” rape scene are a great example of rape culture. That scene is also, by today’s standards, a clear representation of an illegal,  sexually violent act. I find it perplexing (and depressing) that the law is quite clear on what rape is and what it isn’t—but the culture isn’t. And because our cultural norms so often drive which rape cases are pursued in court (stranger/weapon) and which ones aren’t (non-stranger/alcohol facilitated), the legal advances that have been made on behalf of rape victims over the last thirty-five or forty years become, in practical terms, almost irrelevant. Or at least far less relevant than they should be.

Perhaps that’s the other thing we need to acknowledge about rape culture—that it shapes our laws (or at least our legal outcomes, in so much as juries and judges have attitudes that reflect that culture). So we’re not “just” talking about the objectification of women in media, etc. when we talk about this. We are also talking about a social force that has legal justice implications.

KATE: Yes! Another point worth highlighting here is that women who make false reports of rape usually describe a stranger rape involving a weapon—because they know that’s what people, including law enforcement, are most likely to believe and least likely to blame them for. (Most of these women are looking for sympathy and attention, not trying to get anyone specific in trouble.) We’ve got it so backward as a culture that when people think, “What’s the most credible-sounding rape scenario?” the answer is: the least likely one.

In his June 6 column in the Washington Post, columnist George Will, a Cubs- and bowtie-loving conservative who heretofore seemed to reflect an older, more genteel brand of right-wing ideology, set off a tempest worthy of Rush Limbaugh when he took on the growing activism on campuses around these issues, most notoriously writing “when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate,” as if being raped was for social strivers like, say, wearing the football hero’s letterman’s jacket. The subtext of his argument seemed to be that an expanding definition of rape—he cited “nonconsensual touching”—has turned rape into another form of political correctness. Is there any validity to Will’s perspective? Are “the ambiguities of the hookup culture, this cocktail of hormones, alcohol and the faux sophistication of today’s prolonged adolescence of especially privileged young adults” being oversimplified?

ANNE: That piece felt to me like a failure of compassion and—probably more shamefully, from Will’s own perspective—a failure of critical thought (and a world-class example of snark). The idea that rape victimhood is a coveted status that gives us social capital is almost laughable—but we can’t laugh, because Will was given the platform of the Washington Post to express it.

Here’s the thing: Were victimhood as ideal a state as Will claims it has become, those who are raped would be coming forward at a much higher rate. Instead, according to the FBI—and FBI data is inherently conservative—only forty percent of rape victims ever report what has been done to them.  

What is problematic about Will, and an entire community of people who try to argue that we have an “epidemic” of false rape reporting, is that they use cases that are on the fringes—the very small number of unfounded rape cases that exist, a number consistent with false reports of other crimes—to co-opt and drive the conversation about rape more broadly. And while they are creating unreasonable fears that men and boys are at risk of being falsely accused,  they are silencing rape victims, who anticipate society’s disbelief, measure the costs of coming forward in the face of it, and then remain silent.  

One of the most striking things about working on a book about sexual violence is the number of times you hear people’s unsolicited testimonies—meaning that when I go to a cocktail party, or a dinner, or a The Voices and Faces Project event, it is very likely that at least one person will come up to me and say, “I never told anyone this, but …” And they will then talk about an experience with sexual violence that they have held very tightly, for a very long time. They didn’t report it to the police—in many cases, they haven’t even told their families or friends.   But they will tell it to me because there is the expectation that I will believe them.  

Someone recently said, after reading “Lived Through This,” that they thought it must be hard for me to get those stories and interviews out of my head. The truth is, it’s the stories of the women and men who have never come forward that haunt me. And columns like George Will’s make that sort of silence feel necessary to rape victims. So I read his piece and found myself wondering, does he get what he is doing? Or does he just not care? And how, in a world where one-in-three women is a victim of some form of gender-related abuse, do you call yourself a conservative of conscience and not care?

KATE: First, I’d like to point out that Will based that whole column around bad math, in an effort to debunk the statistic that one-in-five college women will be sexually assaulted. Christie Wilcox has a post at Discover Magazine’s blog breaking down why his numbers are wrong, but for those of us who also suck at math, the salient point is this: George Will is really invested in minimizing the issue of sexual assault, both quantitatively and qualitatively, regardless of the facts.  

He includes an anecdote, for instance, that clearly describes a woman saying no and a man refusing to listen, and takes it as we’ll all think it’s ridiculous to call that rape. (The ostensibly mitigating factors are that the man and woman used to date, and she willingly got into bed with him, wearing pajamas, to sleep.) This is also what Laura Sessions Stepp did in her infamous “Gray Rape” article for Cosmopolitan several years ago: both obscure the fundamental issue of consent by focusing on what the woman did to confuse the poor, hapless man during all the moments when she wasn’t saying, “No, I don’t want to have sex with you.”  

As for the “ambiguities of hook-up culture,” I hope you’ll forgive a very mildly academic digression. Back in 1980, the sociologist Martha Burt first set out to measure our acceptance of “rape myths,” which she described as “prejudicial, stereotyped, or false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists” that contribute to an environment that’s “hostile to rape victims.” Many years later, psychologists Diana Payne, Kimberly Lonsway and Louise Fitzgerald, identified seven categories to which all of these myths belong: 1. She asked for it. 2. It wasn’t really rape. 3. He didn’t mean to. 4. She wanted it. 5. She lied. 6. Rape is a trivial event. 7. Rape is a deviant event.  

You can see how such myths drive skepticism among people like George Will—and police, and prosecutors, and doctors, and parents and peers—when a woman says, “I willingly got into bed with a man I’ve had sex with before, and I told him I didn’t want to have sex, but he forced himself on me.” I mean, you could apply any one of them, even if some contradict each other. She asked for it by getting into bed with him. It wasn’t really rape because she didn’t keep saying no and fighting after he started. He didn’t mean to, because he thought her lack of fighting meant she’d changed her mind. She wanted it, or she would have [not gotten into bed with him, fought harder, whatever]. Or maybe she’s just lying about saying “No” in the first place! Or, even if it went down like she said it did, it’s not like it’s the first time this guy’s penis was inside her—what’s the big deal? Finally, this can’t possibly be rape, because it all sounds sort of familiar and common, whereas real rape is both extremely rare and far more dramatic.  

As long as we keep all these myths in play, there is always, always a way to explain away a rape.  

The “hook-up culture”—i.e., young people having consensual sex for pleasure—actually has nothing to do with sexual assault and rape, except that it’s the present-day excuse for subscribing to rape myths. In George Will’s day, young women were widely believed to “play hard to get,” by saying no when they meant yes. They were also expected to be sexual gatekeepers who prized their own virginity above all, which created a good reason why they would say no when they didn’t mean it—and a double-edged sword: If they had ever had consensual sex, they were sluts who deserved whatever they got, and if they said “No,” they probably meant “Yes.”  

In other words, there could be no such thing as non-stranger rape, because there was always a plausible reason to believe the woman was lying and/or deserved to be forced.  

That kind of thinking still exists today—especially within the frightening purity movement—but thankfully, The Pill, the sexual revolution and a few new generations have relaxed the grip those particular myths used to have on most of American society. So now we pretend that “the hook-up culture” is at fault, because young women are having so much sex on purpose, it’s no wonder young men get confused when they say no! (As though having consensual sex is basically crying wolf.) But the basic premise never changes from generation to generation: Non-stranger rape can never be proven, because women are mercurial, confusing and untrustworthy. They always have a motive to lie, so how can we ever be sure they’re telling the truth? (Never mind that a man accused of rape surely has an excellent motive to lie.)  

And that perceived untrustworthiness brings us right back to the idea that women are claiming victimhood for the perks. I mean, it’s so ridiculous it’s hardly worth acknowledging, but here we go. As Anne and I both noted, yes, a very small number of women fabricate assaults for attention—just as a very small number of men fabricate muggings and beatings. (Men usually don’t make false claims of rape, probably because they know they’re even more unlikely to be believed than women are.) But any emotionally healthy, reasonable person can see there’s very little upside to faking a rape. The statistics and a mountain of anecdotal evidence tell us that women who report rape are often met with disbelief and derision; that perpetrators are rarely prosecuted, let alone convicted; that on campuses, the rapists are rarely kicked out and the victims often drop out. What’s the supposed benefit here? The warm embrace of your campus feminist group? You can get that by showing up with cookies and not being an asshole.

ANNE: What Kate is highlighting here is so important. Those who claim that most rape accusations are misunderstandings or acts of bad faith often cite examples that are, by American legal standards, clearly rape. So they’re not just questioning the motives of women. They’re saying that they are not comfortable with our current rape laws. Scratch the surface, and what they really want is to turn back time—to return to an era when rape was so narrowly defined, and victims were so silent, that we could almost pretend that it didn’t exist at all.  

Now, George Will may be an outlier in that he is a reactionary opinion page writer who is playing to his base, but it does seem that a less extreme version of that thinking is fairly commonplace. More than forty years after the advent of the rape crisis movement,  criminal justice outcomes for sexual assault crimes remain static. Successful prosecutions of non-stranger rape cases are quite rare—even in Cook County, on the watch of a State’s Attorney who has done very good work in other areas related to women’s rights. And victim civil rights are often unprotected, which of course is why the “Know Your IX” movement has sprung up on so many college campuses.  

In other words, the legal advances that have been made over the last four decades are pretty breathtaking. But those laws are enforced so rarely. In part, this is because most rapes go unreported. But to a larger degree, it is because enforcing those laws means holding perpetrators accountable for what they are doing—perpetrators who may look like, or be, the boy/soldier/priest next door. Or a family member we love and trust. 

I can definitely see tangible evidence of cultural progress in my adult lifetime, most noticeably in the area of LGBT issues, where the recent wave of gay marriage approvals and cultural acceptance is almost astonishing. How are we, specifically in America, doing on this issue over the last twenty years? Better, same, worse?  A related question is we’re seeing a media onslaught (which we’re contributing to) on this topic recently. What’s driving this, do you think? Is it a good thing or are we risking topical fatigue and a backlash?

ANNE: I had a conversation recently with a friend who is a former prosecutor, and he noted that one of the hardest parts of his job was sitting down across the table from a young woman he was certain had been raped, and having to tell her that her case was “un-winnable” because the perpetrator had been a prior boyfriend, or someone who didn’t fit the profile of a rapist that jurors are comfortable with. His point was that however clear the law may be, the public’s attitudes—and juror attitudes—have not caught up with the law. And this is why the question of rape culture matters so much—because culture drives the law as much as law drives the culture.  

Judge Richard A. Posner, the University of Chicago legal theorist, had a fantastic piece in The New Republic about a year ago, one in which he argued that it wasn’t the courts that made marriage equality possible or inevitable—it was the culture. That effectively, when an entire generation grows up exposed to positive or at least normative media representations of gay and lesbian Americans, they think differently about that community and its rights. But Posner makes one other point that is instructive for the anti-rape movement, which is that when more and more gay and lesbian Americans began to come out, they created a “cycle of growing acceptance”—an understanding of the realities of gay lives, a sense of how American laws were failing those lives, and a public desire to be a part of changing that. The gay rights struggle ceased to belong to someone else—it began to belong to all of us. And as hard as it is for me to say this, that has never been true of the anti-rape movement.  

That is why sexual violence survivor stories—connected to real names and faces—are so critical. They break through resistance—to understanding, to compassion, to legal reforms—in ways that data and facts can’t. When we as victims come forward in large numbers, there is a good chance that someone, somewhere, will see themselves in us and recognize that they, too, are vulnerable to the threat of sexual violence. And also vulnerable to the victim-blaming and shaming that can follow it. We stop being that nameless, faceless “other” George Will writes about with so much scorn.  

During the last presidential election, I spoke alongside the author Marina Nemat (“Prisoner of Tehran”), an Iranian survivor of rape and torture. We were at a Republican women’s event in the Orange County area—they call that region “The Place Where Good Republicans Go to Die,” by the way—at the invitation of a moderate Republican who is active in  Amnesty International. And I watched Marina argue against political torture in a room full of Mitt Romney supporters, armed with nothing but the moral authority of her story (she received a standing ovation when she sat down). We need more of those moments in the anti-rape movement—moments when we get out of our comfort zones and share our stories in communities where there may not be consensus on how to address rape.  Where we may find ourselves challenged in ways that, say, Kate and I may not challenge one another (because we are already fairly aligned). That sort of active outreach is part of culture change, too—arguably, the most important part.  

Regarding “topical fatigue or a backlash because rape is getting so much coverage.”  I think your question somehow mirrors a broader idea, which is that women’s rights are a “soft issue”—nice to pursue after we’ve solved the world’s real problems, and therefore only allotted a certain amount of cultural attention or space.  

The issue really isn’t the amount of coverage but the type of coverage: Are the right questions being asked by the media?  Are the voices that should be heard being heard?  How much space is being given to the George Wllls of the world (in mainstream media) or the sensationalistic rape story lines (in TV and film), versus thoughtful perspectives that reflect a real understanding of the victim experience? For that matter, are we reporting victim’s stories in a way that shows that they are dimensional people shaped, but not defined, by the violence that has been done to them?  

The writer Jamie Kalven, who is a friend and mentor, once said to me that he thought we needed a “literature of rape” that was akin to the “literature of war”—a multitude of diverse, not always aligned voices and testimonies that together paint a picture that more closely approximates truth.  When I consider the media coverage given our last two wars, and veterans of those wars—and I do not begrudge that media attention, it is absolutely vital—and compare that to media coverage of the issue of sexual violence, it is hard for me to accept that we are running the risk of overexposure. I mean, by the most conservative estimates, rape directly affects one in six American women—and hundreds of millions more worldwide. So if backlash or issue fatigue does occur, we need to ask ourselves why that is so.

KATE: You know, when I sold the proposal for “Asking For It,” back in late 2012, we all had the sense that rape was having a moment, as it were. We planned to get the book out by early 2014, in hopes that we could beat the inevitable topic fatigue.  

That didn’t happen (because it turned out I had far more to say than I could address by the original deadline), but the interesting thing is, my agent, editor and I realized we could afford to wait, because for once, this topic wasn’t going away. Here we are, almost two years after Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” remark and the gang rape in Steubenville, and rape culture is still in the news almost daily—whether it’s George Will talking smack about victims or President Obama taking colleges and universities to task for their inaction and lack of transparency. After all the years of silence surrounding rape, it seems as though it’s officially Something We Talk About now.  

I was in college in the early- to mid-nineties, and I feel like we started a national, mainstream conversation about rape and sexual assault back then, but it fizzled out so quickly. (I’m sure feminists who were active in the seventies feel the same.) What I find (tentatively) exciting and hopeful right now is that the conversation just keeps going this time, and there are new voices added every day. I think part of that can be attributed to the internet’s ability to connect us all and expand the conversation, and part of it, surely, must be the cumulative effect of forty years of anti-rape messaging. We have a long way to go, but this is the first point in my adult life where I feel like the messages are really sinking in, which means we might be in a position to enact positive change on a larger scale, in a shorter amount of time.  

ANNE: God!  That “rape is having a moment” thing.  You just ride it out, when you are working on these issues, because you know that the “moment” is more like a wave—another one is always going to follow right behind it.  

I think Kate is right about the role that social media plays here. And perhaps what is unique about our current conversation is that it is not being driven by a single, high-profile rape case —or a stupid, Akin-esque public statement—but instead by a whole series of events: outrage over sexual violence in the US military, the demands being made on college campuses, a growing understanding of the problem of sex trafficking, a large-scale, UN-driven effort to address sexual violence as a tool of war or political oppression (which has become Angelina Jolie’s focus)—the list is pretty long.  

The conversation will continue as long as the problem continues—but how do we make that conversation as public and inclusive as possible?  

Regarding your point about the early-to-mid nineties: There was a lot of mainstream media coverage then, and a lot of it was pretty good, or at least sympathetic:  Time and Newsweek both ran cover stories on rape, HBO did a series called “Cries From the Heartland,” Anna Quindlen (then at the New York Times) called her own paper to task for its victim-blaming coverage of a high-profile rape case. And also—and for me, this was huge—you had Anita Hill testifying at the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings, where she spoke so eloquently about what we are now calling rape culture: the ways and places that women are sexually threatened, or degraded or marginalized—particularly at work. And even if there were some people who didn’t believe Professor Hill, there were millions of women watching this on TV, and then turning around and saying: “I have a story like that. Let me tell it to you.” It was a little bit like a pre digital-era version of #YesAllWomen, when I think about it.  

All of this was happening not long after I was a victim of sexual violence (in the early nineties). So I sort of came of political age during that time, and my strong feeling is that those national conversations shaped me, and gave me the sense that individual stories could have far-reaching power—that our testimonies can serve as a window into the world of other women’s experiences. I suspect that there is a direct line from that cultural moment  to my writing, years later, “Lived Through This.” So Kate’s point, that we never know what these public conversations or political events can unleash in someone, very much resonates for me.

We’ve been analyzing the problem the last few days, but how about solutions? What can we as individuals do, as well as as a society? President Obama recently became, astonishingly, the first president to ever address sexual violence as a problem. Is that what we needed?

KateHarding bookcoverKATE: I’m of two minds on the question of solutions. I mean, I’m writing a book with “and what we can do about it” in the subtitle, so I believe there are steps we can take, at the individual and community level, to effect change. (And I think the president addressing the subject is a wonderful symbolic step forward, if nothing else.)

We can be cognizant of those rape myths, and call out people who propagate them. We can organize and put pressure on everyone from elected officials to advertisers to The Washington Post when they actively participate in rape culture. Those of us in the media can be circumspect about our language and biases. And we can all make an effort to listen to survivors—through projects like Anne’s or any number of books, documentaries, websites and news outlets—until it sinks in that rape is not just exceptionally bad sex, but an act of violence meant to humiliate and punish the victim. Then we can reflect on the fact that too often, our responses to victims involve more humiliation and punishment, rather than justice or support.  

On the other hand, I don’t for a second believe there are any simple or easy solutions, so maybe what we need most right now is to continue this awareness-raising, descriptive stuff before we move on to prescriptions. So many people still balk at the phrase “rape culture” and can’t imagine what it has to do with them, as long as they never rape anyone. If people don’t even get what the problem is, how can we expect them to care about solutions? Or even to avoid being part of the problem—e.g., echoing rape myths and blaming victims—themselves? So, even at the risk of outrage fatigue, I think there’s a great value in having a nuanced discussion about what we’re actually up against before we strategize about fighting it.

Oh, and one more thing about just carrying on the conversation. I spoke yesterday with someone who worked with RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, during the period after the Jerry Sandusky news broke. RAINN has a hotline for survivors, and this person told me the volume of calls increased significantly as the story continued to dominate the news—not even just from male survivors, but everyone. The more we hear about sexual violence in the media, the more people feel empowered to come forward and tell their stories—and as Anne said, those stories are crucial to dismantling the myths and moving toward justice for victims. So that alone is a reason to keep talking about it until we’re blue in the face.

AnneReam_bookcoverANNE: That is really the critical question, isn’t it — what we can do about this.  

In the seventies, the writer Audre Lorde gave a rather famous talk where she asserted that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Lorde was actually speaking about the importance of women supporting each other—not modeling our behavior with one another on the behavior of those in power—but her words are sometimes used to justify remaining outside of the system when it comes to changing things. My personal feeling is that we need to start accessing the master’s tools. Because we can’t take back the culture without creating new culture.  

I’m a huge music lover. Every now and then—and I most often hear this from people on either the feminist far left or the conservative right, which is interesting in and of itself—someone will tell me that they blame sexual violence on hip-hop, or rap, or rock music  (mostly the former two, actually). Setting aside the racial dynamics that are probably at play there, it just seems insane to me: you’re going to condemn an entire musical medium because you don’t like the way it is being used to express an idea?     

The blame-it-on-rap thing is also a very first-world critique. When I traveled throughout Senegal with Sister Fa—a West African hip-hop star using her music to fight gender-related violence—I watched her sing about race, class, poverty and female genital cutting, while bringing out thousands of people every night. It was actually a tour partially funded by the UN, because in West Africa, hip-hop and rap are recognized as a way to educate and engage people politically. As an activist, I loved seeing that. But you know what? I loved it even more as a music fan—seeing someone reject the paradigm we are familiar with (rap = babes + bling) and turn it on its head is so great.  

Similarly, when The Voices and Faces Project first proposed creating an advertising campaign that addressed sexual exploitation in Illinois (on behalf of the End Demand Illinois Coalition), there was hesitation among some of our allies—questions about whether advertising, which has so often portrayed women in ways that are bad, could ever be a force for good. But we found smart private-sector partners, brought them in the room with very outspoken advocates and activists, and went on to create a media campaign that made 400 million impressions in the fight to end sexual exploitation and trafficking in this state, while contributing to changed Illinois law.  

My point is this:  Over the last forty-plus years, the anti-rape movement has invested heavily—as it should—in legal advocacy and direct services. I think it needs to start investing far more heavily in communications, and the people creating them. Because the story is being told in the media. We’re just not often enough the ones telling it.

3 Responses to “What Rape Culture? A Conversation with Kate Harding and Anne K. Ream”

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