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Home / Articles / In the News / What is Rape Culture?

What is Rape Culture?

6 everyday examples of normalizing sexual violence

What is Rape Culture?

This article was originally published in 2017. It was updated in 2022.

“Rape culture” is a term that’s as sinister sounding as its definition: to turn sexual assault, rape and other forms of violence against women into entertainment or to altogether ignore or trivialize these crimes. 

Rape culture happens all around us, every single day. You can find it every time you turn on the TV in how media characterizes sexual assault and rape as well as the victims and perpetrators. Movies utilize rape culture to create drama or illicit laughs. It’s used in advertisements to seduce you into thinking you need a product. Video games widely exploit it. And music blends it in seamlessly with its lyrics.

“We breathe in rape culture like air,” says Carolyn Levy, a professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. For nearly two decades, Levy has been immersed in the intense and often heartbreaking world of rape culture, educating future generations on how it permeates their daily life—many times, without them noticing.

She teaches a women’s studies class, "Living in a Rape Culture: What Are We Going to Do About It?” and, as the university’s theater director, she co-authored, “Until Someone Wakes Up,” a play centered on rape, now performed nationwide. An essay she wrote about the play can be found in the book Transforming a Rape Culture.

Rape culture is described as an environment in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies and the glamorization of sexual violence. Overall, this creates a society that disregards women’s rights and safety, putting them at greater risk of rape and sexual assault.

“Rape culture is a society that accepts sexual violence as the norm,” Levy explains. “It perpetuates models of masculinity which foster violence and normalizes these ideas that men are aggressors and females are victims.” She adds, unabashedly, “It’s a society where men who brag about grabbing women by the p*ssy can become President. You see yourself above the rules and your behavior is excused.”

The normalization of sexual violence and other forms of violence against women also places the burden of responsibility on women– questions like “What was she wearing?” or “How did she get herself into that situation?” are examples of rape culture in action. Society asks these questions instead of focusing on the perpetrator–“Why didn’t he take no for an answer?” or “Why did he put something in her drink?” are the questions we should be asking.

Rape culture stems from patriarchal power structures that were designed to benefit men, but rape cutlure still burdens and harms men. Rape culture looks at sexual violence from the lens of women-as-victims and men-as-perpetrators, ignoring that men are also victims of sexual assault and rape. This binary lens leaves out women who are perpetrators and men who are victims; making it much harder for male victims to find support, justice and legal protection. 

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What Does Rape Culture Look Like?

Rape culture is spread in a variety of ways, including how violent acts are portrayed by the news media, how the legal system judges victims and perpertrators, how society including schools and language tell women how they should act and dress and even how beloved songs discourage consent. The examples below demonstrate how desensitized society has become to accepting rape culture as, simply, culture

Six Real Life Examples of Rape Culture

1. The Sexual Assault of Chanel Miller by “The Stanford Swimmer” 

    In 2015, 22-year old Chanel Miller was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner, 19-year-old freshman at Stanford University. Miller was unconscious, unable to provide consent, and was found with dried blood on her hands and elbows and other significant trauma.

    Turner was convicted of three charges of felony sexual assault. Despite the fact that prosecutors recommended a six-year prison sentence based on the purposefulness of the assault, Turner’s effort to hide his assault, and Miller’s intoxicated state, Turner was only sentenced to six months in jail, three years of probation and registration on the sex offender registry. Turner later only served half of his jail sentence. 

    “The fact that we still refer to him as ‘The Stanford Swimmer’ and not ‘The Stanford Rapist,’ is an example of perpetuating rape culture,” says Levy. 

    Language used by the media often perpetuates rape culture by highlighting the accolades of well-known figures accused of rape and abuse, before mentioning the crimes of which they’re suspected of.

    2. The Widespread Public Blame of Amber Heard

      A particularly egregious example of media bias is the sustained and very publicized victim-blaming of Amber Heard. Between media coverage and the gleefully cruel, voyeuristic online following of the defamation trial between Heard and ex-spouse Johnny Depp, Heard was overwhelmingly more negatively portrayed than the man who abused her. Ingrained ideas about how women are supposed to act may have even contributed to her mostly losing the defamation suit, despite having won a similar suit in the U.K. previously due to evidence demonstrating Depp’s abuse. 

      “The crying, the facial expressions that she had, the staring at the jury. All of us were very uncomfortable,” a juror in the American defamation suit said.  “His emotional state was very stable throughout.”

      Users on social media dissected and analyzed every day of the very public trial, while much of the news media focused on Heard’s emotional state, claims that Heard was simply giving a performance (though both Depp and Heard are actors) and even what Heard was dressed like at the trial

      This bias against Heard and in favor of Depp shows how the perpetuation of rape culture doesn’t just affect what we see and TV and movies, but has actual, real-life ramifications. Ramifications that, in this case, ruined the life and career of a woman simply trying to be believed as a victim and survivor of domestic abuse. A woman who didn’t even name an abuser in the op-ed she wrote not about the abuser but about her struggles and survival. 

      3. FKA Twigs Questioned Over Not Leaving Abuser Shia LaBeouf

        In December 2020, British singer FKA twigs filed a civil lawsuit against her ex-partner, actor Shia LaBeouf. The lawsuit details a number of abuses from LaBeouf, including multiple incidents of strangulation. FKA twigs has also publicly discussed other forms of LaBeouf’s abuse, like love bombing, verbal abuse, and sleep deprivation.

        Despite private and personal mediation failing, leading to FKA twigs filing the lawsuit, LaBeouf appeared to take some level of responsibility–unusual for an abuser, though potentially part of a larger public relations strategy. LaBeouf responded to the lawsuit by saying, “I’m not in any position to tell anyone how my behavior made them feel. I have no excuses for my alcoholism or aggression, only rationalizations. I have been abusive to myself and everyone around me for years. I have a history of hurting the people closest to me. I’m ashamed of that history and am sorry to those I hurt. There is nothing else I can really say.”

        Despite other celebrities like Sia and Olivia Wilde showing support for FKA twigs and confirming LaBeouf’s (already well-known) unstable and abusive behavior and LaBeouf’s public acknowledgment of his abuse, it was twigs who was questioned about staying with the actor. One of the most common questions when it comes to domestic violence and a question that is firmly rooted in rape culture is “Why didn’t she just leave?” This question aligns with the fundamental basis of rape culture in placing blame and accountability on the victim, rather than the perpetrator.

        FKA twigs, however, wasn’t having it. Appearing on CBS This Morning for the first televised interview she had after filing the lawsuit, twigs completely refused to answer Gayle King’s repeat of the badly-informed question, “Why didn’t you leave?” 

        "I think we just have to stop asking that question," FKA twigs answered. "[...] I'm just gonna make a stance and say that I'm not gonna answer that question anymore because the question should really be to the abuser, 'Why are you holding someone hostage with abuse?' You know?"

        Demonstrating how rape culture influences how the public blames the victim and not the perpetrator, twigs followed up by saying, “People say, 'Oh, it can't have been that bad or else she would've left. It's like, 'No. Because it was that bad, I couldn't leave."

        Victim-blaming is key to rape culture. Victim-blaming excuses the perpetrator of their actions by focusing on the victim and their so-called “complicity” in their own violation or assault. 

        4. The “Friend Zone”

          How often have you heard a friend or seen someone on social media talk about being “friendzoned” by a woman they want to be with? This saying implies that it’s somehow bad or wrong for a woman to only want to be friends with a man–that because she pays attention to him, she also owes him sexual attention. This, of course, boils women down to nothing but sexual objects as opposed to people with their own needs, desires and agency.

          The popularity of both the phrase and its meaning casts a negative light on a woman saying “no” instead of questioning why the “friendzoned” man is unable to simply be friends with a woman who isn’t sexually interested in him. 

          Chris Rock (likely inadvertently) described how the concept of the friend zone fits into rape culture in a 1996 sketch. Rock claimed that women have male friends but these men are only friends with women they "haven't f*cked yet." He further stated that men only have platonic female friends accidentally – and that being friend zoned is because of a "wrong turn somewhere.”

          5. Body-Shaming School Dress Codes

            Most school dress codes focus almost exclusively on the clothing most commonly worn by female students. Common dress code items include:

            • Skirts or shorts must extend below the student's fingertips when the student's arms are extended at her sides.
            • Shirts that reveal bra straps or shoulders are not allowed.
            • Leggings are frequently banned unless worn with a long shirt or dress.
            • Many schools prohibit necklines that expose cleavage regardless of the student’s body type or build. 

            While on the surface, rules encouraging modesty may seem appropriate for school, the problem comes in when these rules are more commonly enforced on female students and are described as prohibiting “revealing” or “distracting” attire. 

            For example, in 2021, Florida high school student Riley O'Keefe found that her school yearbook picture had been censored with a black rectangular bar across her chest without her knowledge or consent. 80 other girls’ photos had been censored. No pictures of boys had been altered, including a picture of the swim team where the male students wore Speedo bathing suits.

            When school dress codes are designed around not “distracting” young men and boys, there is a missed opportunity to help teach these same young men and boys not to be distracted by the clothing women choose to wear (by respecting female bodies instead of sexualizing them) – and instead, again, puts the burden on women. 

            These rules also shame young women and girls about their bodies, teaching them they are a distraction to be kept from men and boys who aren’t expected to control themselves. In a viral video posted to Tiktok, high school student Anastasia is shown putting her school administration on blast for not just the dress code, but the way it is enforced at the school.

            “I’ve heard more girls with the bigger cup sizes get dress-coded. It’s completely sexist and biased and not OK,” Anastasia said in the video. 

            She’s right. That bias teaches not just young women, but also young men, that female bodies are sexual objects; especially when such attitudes are being enforced by the adults around them.

            6. Sexualized Halloween Costumes for Women and Girls

              When a boy wants to dress up as a police officer for Halloween, he’ll be able to get a shirt and pants and look like a tiny law enforcer. But when a girl would like to emulate the same profession, she’s often offered a short dress best described as “sassy” and at worst is directly sexual in nature.

              Take this example of two costumes from Halloween 2022, offered by leading national costume shop Spirit Halloween. The boys’ “Swat Costume” has a padded, full coverage vest, leg armor, pants and a helmet and visor. The girls’ “Swat Costume” includes a faux-leather skirt, hat, T-shirt, and fashionable armbands. 

              While there’s no reason either child couldn’t wear either version of the costume, the more stylized and sexualized version is listed under the “girl’s costume” section of the online shop, while the more realistic version is listed in the boy’s section.

              Rape culture includes demeaning women into sexualized objects and victims, as opposed to fully-realized people. And it starts at birth.

              7. Baby, It’s Cold Outside

                Even holiday classics aren’t exempt from rape culture and the normalization of gendered violence. The 1944 holiday standard “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” portrays a woman trying to leave for the evening while the man pressures her to stay. Furthering the implications of pressure and not taking “no” for an answer, the score even refers to the male singer’s role as the “Wolf” while the woman’s role is called the “Mouse.”

                The lyrics of this often-played winter tune include:

                Mouse: Say what's in this drink?
                Mouse: I ought to say no, no, no sir
                Wolf: Mind if I move in closer?
                Mouse: Ah, you're very pushy you know?
                Wolf: I like to think of it as opportunistic
                Mouse: Say, what's in this drink?
                Mouse: Okay fine, just another drink then
                Wolf: That took a lot of convincing!

                The 2014 cover of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Idina Menzel and Michael Bublé even demonstrates how rape culture begins at a young age by portraying the Mouse and Wolf as children, with the Mouse dressed in a flapper-style dress with bright red lipstick.

                Love the holiday standard but hate the sketchy lyrics? Check out 2019’s cover by John Legend featuring Kelly Clarkston, which reframes the classic with lyrics emphasizing consent and respect without losing the charm.

                What Can We Do About Rape Culture?

                Just acknowledging rape culture is a start. Notice rape culture, says Levy. “Just acknowledge it exists. Be aware and talk about it, especially with your kids. When you see a movie with your kids, talk about what scenes might be problematic. If violence is celebrated, discuss why. Ask kids to be more critical when they listen to music. If the song is about hoes and b*tches, what is that saying?”

                Think critically and discuss media, especially messages about women, men, relationships and violence – especially with kids. Even when reading fairy tales, says Levy, discuss what they’re teaching. Should the prince have kissed Snow White without her permission? Critically considering and discussing media doesn’t mean you have to stop watching it, though with a deeper understanding of what rape culture does and how it impacts all of us, you may begin to take a more nuanced view of both your favorites and newly viewed movies or TV.

                Speak up and speak out. It’s easy to uneasily laugh away an inappropriate and offensive joke. But good comedy doesn’t “punch down” on marginalized or victimized people or trivialize something as serious as rape. Treating sexual assault and rape as jokes normalizes it—which is exactly how rape culture wins. Simply pointing out that a rape joke isn’t funny can be enough to stop someone from making that joke again; rape culture is such a fundamental element of modern society that many people need to have it pointed out to fully understand and realize their complicity. 

                Levy also encourages men to get involved. “Rape culture has long been seen as a women’s issue and that cannot be. Doing something to stop it has to involve men talking to other men.” When men leverage their social power for good, they’re acting as strong allies to women and helping to stop the rape culture that also harms them. Are you a man who’d like to learn more? Watch Tony Porter’s powerful TED talk about redefining what it means to “be a man.”