It seems hard to believe that rape culture really exists.
How could we live in a culture that passively encourages rape? I mean, rape is obviously evil, a violation of rights and dignity! But “rape culture” is something that celebrates it, embraces it, believes it should be normal! No culture so dysfunctional as to accept, if not condone, rape could possibly have gotten to where America is now! Right? …Right?…
And I’d love to agree with you. I’d love to just stop the article right here. But no: we’ve only just gotten started.
Part of what I do in these articles is break down the attitude in question. Dysfunctional cultural attitudes do not simply appear out of thin air; they are always evolutions of a belief that is (at least partially) benign, a belief that is (at least partially) reasonable. They become dysfunctional when they’re taken out of context or exaggerated to extremes, but they don’t start that way. (I mean, people are stupid, but they’re not that stupid.) And rape culture is no exception. When taken at face value, it makes no sense… because it was never meant to be taken at face value. Rape culture is a twisted outgrowth of some underlying cultural assumption. And we’re here to figure out what it is.
And, when you get down to it, that underlying belief is a simple one: “Men deserve sex and women should give it to them.”
A FUNCTIONAL BELIEF
On the surface, this statement doesn’t seem that bad — especially because there are contexts in which it is not controversial. Basically every culture on the planet recognizes marriage or something very much like it… And basically every culture on the planet acknowledges that sex is an important part of a functional marriage. (This is particularly true when you consider that since the purpose of marriage as a technology is to create a stable environment for making babies.) Assuming some basic standards of respect and affection between husband and wife, it is not unreasonable to say that humoring a husband’s desire for sex is not only sensible but morally appropriate. This is arguably even more true in the love marriages that have become so prevalent in Western culture, since (in an ideal love marriage) each partner can safely assume that their spouse is sexually attracted to them.
In an ideal (heterosexual) marriage, it should be true that the husband deserves sex… roughly speaking. It should not be true that his wife is obligated to have sex with him. What should be true is that, because he is a good husband, who provides for his wife inasmuch as she wants to be provided for, who treats her how she wants to be treated, who is her partner and her support, she chooses to give herself to him out of love and/or gratitude. So perhaps it’s better to say that, in an ideal (heterosexual) marriage, the husband should have earned all the sex he wants, which takes on the appearance of him deserving it.
But mark my words: this idea is dangerous. There may be situations in which it is not controversial, but there has yet to arise a situation on this planet in which it is, or has ever been, true.
A DYSFUNCTIONAL BELIEF
Now, as I said, there are contexts where this statement is not controversial. This implies that, conversely, there are contexts in which it is controversial. And, for a statement this loaded, it doesn’t take too long to find them. For instance, in the context of a marriage where the husband does not respect his wife — belittles her, abuses her physically or emotionally, deprives her of physical or emotional succor — the idea that his wife nonetheless should comply with his sexual desires is questionable. The fundamental belief at the heart of rape culture, after all, implies that a woman should surrender her sexual autonomy for the sake of her man’s pleasure. Again, there are emotional and social contexts under which this can be a virtue, in which a woman voluntarily submits to her husband’s desires as an act of love. (Almost every wife can tell you about a time she humored her husband’s erection, regardless of her own state of arousal.) But there are not many of them, and a lot more of them in which the belief is toxic.
A BELIEF OUT OF CONTEXT
One of the best ways to render a belief toxic is to take it out of context, and this one is no exception. Applying the “men deserve sex and women should give it to them” belief to marriage is already fraught with peril; what happens if we apply it elsewhere?
1 Much has been said about rape culture and how it implies that men are little more than animals. When presented with a sexual stimulus, men lose all self-control, or so it’s believed; the little head takes over, and the man must obey its desires to get the little head on the desirable woman (it’s always a woman in these stories; make of that what you will). This is why rape victims are asked what they are wearing and are told that they were probably asking for it: according to rape culture, a man has to be sexually attracted to any potential partner. He has no choice. After all, men deserve sex; why should he hold back? Therefore, if a woman is to avoid sexual harassment, her only option is to be unattractive.
2We also have a new understanding of how we treat rape victims. They are criticized for their actions (whatever those happened to be), for their attractive clothing choices (whatever those happened to be), for their unsafe behavior (whatever that happened to be). Women are constantly told that it is their own fault they’ve been raped. This not only reinforces the men-as-uncontrolled-animals narrative mentioned prior; it also allows people to criticize the women without saying what they actually think, which is: “The problem is not that you got raped. The problem is that you think getting raped is a problem.” If a man chose to enact his God-given right to sex upon this particular woman, then she has fulfilled her purpose. How dare she complain about it? How dare she go around demanding that she be allowed to — what’s that word? — consent? (Hell, remember the comments surrounding Bill Cosby’s rape trial? “That woman’s so ugly, she should be grateful Bill wanted to rape her.”)
3 The entire phenomenon of “catcalling” — men commenting, publicly and aggressively, on a woman’s sexual attractiveness — also falls into place. Men are always a little bit confused that catcalling doesn’t work. It’s because rape culture has promised them it will. “You are owed sex,” rape culture whispers to them. “If you express sexual attraction towards a woman, any woman, she will be so flattered that she will drop trousers on the spot and present for intercourse. Why would she do anything else? That’s what women are for.” It’s the only explanation that makes sense. If you go to a certain Instagram account where a woman takes selfies with the men who catcall her, you’ll notice something: they’re all losers. They haven’t a shot in heck with any woman, much less the (quite attractive) woman who is in the photos. But they think they do have a shot with her, because rape culture tells them they have a shot with anyone.
(We also learn, rather disturbingly, that catcalling is essentially a form of rape. The fundamental attitude behind both — “You owe me some portion of your sexuality” — is identical; the only difference is the portion being claimed.)
4 Rape culture demeans men by declaring that they are (or should be) mindless animals, slaves to their own urges. It also demeans women by declaring that they are… Well, “whores” is actually not the right term, because you pay a whore. No, women are (or should be) robots, accessible to anyone who happens to have the PIN code to their pussies. Press her buttons the right way (hur-hur), and you’re in.
5It puts the phenomenon known as “Nice Guy syndrome” into perspective as well. For those unaware, the premise of “Nice Guy syndrome” is that many self-proclaimed nice guys are actually just timid or insecure, and act politely towards women solely to increase their own sexual attractiveness. (This premise is true. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.) A third-wave-feminist interpretation of this attitude is that these nice guys believe that their actions entitle them to sex. When put alongside rape culture, we see that the third-wave-feminist interpretation is absolutely correct. (American) Men are typically socialized to believe that there are two ways into a girl’s pants: either be the bad boy, attractive despite (or perhaps because of) his inattention to women, or be the boy next door who is polite, attentive and gentle. But both methods, society claims, are equally effective. It doesn’t matter which you choose; either of them will earn you sex. Hence, Nice Guy syndrome: a frustration that society’s implicit contracts have been broken, a frustration that a tactic which has been all but shilled on TV is not effective.
6 It damages relationships between men and women, even consensual and romantic ones, by creating a sense of entitlement. If a man is entitled to sex, then he shouldn’t have to work at earning it, right? So any sort of action or activity that involves pleasing his woman, whether emotionally or sexually, is seen as unmanly. Foreplay? Romance? Flowers? Sensitivity to her feelings? Only for pansies. (And — I should be able to assume that everyone knows this, but the fact is that I can’t, so let me say it out loud — a woman is more likely to sleep with you again if you make sure she enjoyed doing so.)
7 It devalues the act of sex by allowing people to take it for granted. In general, people enjoy things more if they don’t assume they are owed that thing. Disneyland, for instance: for most human beings, Disneyland is a treat, something that they visit rarely and only on special occasions. The same approach will improve your sex life. You can make sex better by simply reminding yourself that the term “getting lucky” is less a euphemism and more a literal truth.
8 And finally, rape culture has a damaging effect on the act of sex itself. Sexual intercourse is frequently held up in American culture as the absolute apex of romance. Not only should it be a mind-blowing physical experience, but it is also the most intimate way in which a couple expresses positive emotion towards each other. (Both of these beliefs are damaging in their own way, but that’s another essay.) Sex is the ultimate way to show love. …Unless you believe in rape culture, which reduces sex to a purely physical transaction. How could it not?, when any man is entitled to stick his dick into any woman he desires, without regard for her feelings or pleasure? To rape culture, the only valuable component of a woman is her vagina; to rape culture, a “woman” is just a pocket pussy on legs (link leads to Wikipedia) (yes, they have an article on that). You don’t form emotional bonds with a disposable sex toy. Rape culture has no place for love.
Are we starting to see how rape culture is built now? It’s based on a systematic misinterpretation of what sex is and how it should work. It’s based on the mistaken premise that men are entitled to sex.
And that’s how we get things like the Steubenville rapists being treated sympathetically by the media, with reporters talking about how sad they looked when the penalty of law, a penalty they deserved, was handed down to them, and what a shame it was that their lives were now ruined. This is how you get Brock Turner, who was deliberately given a(n extremely) light sentence so that his life wouldn’t be ruined. That’s how you get Bill Cosby being acquitted of sexual predation despite admitting to sexual predation in a legal deposition. That’s how you get the Iowa Supreme Court upholding the decision that a (male) employer is allowed to fire his (female) employee because she is attractive to him. That’s how you get this pushback in Alaska against a new bill, with cops asserting their right — not the legal or procedural necessity, their right — to have sex with prostitutes while undercover to catch them. These men may have violated the law, but under the standards of rape culture, they did nothing wrong. They were simply helping themselves to what they deserved: sex.
And the most terrifying part is that rape culture is widespread, a fundamental part of America. We know this because of the above injustices. We know this because people insist on making excuses for rape. It’s not just that Bill Cosby believes he’s entitled to sex; so did at least half the jury, leading to a deadlock, a mistrial and the need to do the whole damn thing again in November 2017. I repeat: Cosby has admitted, on record, to sexual assault. The fact that he broke the law is not — no, strike that, cannot be — in question. What is in question is whether he did anything wrong. After all, those laws hold men to unrealistic standards. Declaring rape to be illegal? Why, it’s almost as though the law is built on the (utterly preposterous) assumption that men don’t deserve sex.
Well, folks, I’ve got news for you: Men don’t deserve sex. I know a lot of men who would be happier if they did, but I’m thankful that I also know a lot of men who understand what they’d be giving up if their lovers were reduced to extremely elaborate Fleshlights. They do their best to treat their wives and girlfriends well every day, in as many ways as they can, and they don’t complain (too much) if the reward isn’t quite what they were hoping for.
Men do not deserve sex. Men, for that matter, cannot earn sex. It’s something that can only be given freely, and the only criteria for it occurring is that their partner wants to have sex with them. Sex is not a transaction, it’s a gift. And the sooner we embrace that idea, the sooner we can pull the bloodstained thread of rape culture out of our nation’s tapestry and start to ravel up the mess it left behind.