ActivismFeminismPoliticsPop Culture

Confronting Rape Culture

I’ve recently had a spate of upsetting experiences at my college campus that demonstrated to me how alive and well both sexism and rape culture are, as well as the attitude of victim blaming. One of my professors outright dismissed any feminist criticisms of the fact that the Bible appears to condone wife beating, and my class as a whole seemed to agree with her on the grounds that “as long as the man (or God) apologizes, it’s ok”. Far worse, some acquaintances put a white board in a dorm hallway that suggested men should emotionally abuse and manipulate their significant others, and that if they can’t get a date they should use drugs or alcohol to get sex. This was posted in a public hallway. When I mentioned it wasn’t funny, I was accused of being a “humorless tightass” who wanted to censor them.

I think all of us can see what’s wrong with these behaviors: they make light of problems that are already not taken seriously, tell women that their bodies are the site of someone else’s power and pleasure, condone harming another person, and stand as a huge trigger risk. Hundreds of other people have identified why things like this constitute rape culture and why they are harmful and create an atmosphere that leads women to a state of constant discomfort. What is not talked about nearly as often is what to do when we encounter it.

I’m going to admit straight out that I don’t have huge amounts of experience with confronting those who perpetuate rape culture, and I’m still trying to sort out how to react to these incidents. Part of writing this has been for me to sort out my thoughts, and hopefully those thoughts can help someone else make more sense of similar situations. Additionally, I hope that this can start a discussion or that anyone with experience of pitfalls and success will speak up in comments.

So how do we react to people that blatantly perpetuate rape culture? The first possible reaction is to remain silent. This is completely understandable. One of the purposes of rape culture is to intimidate and silence, and often if you speak up you will be vilified or accused of being wound too tight, overly sensitive, crazy or overly angry. I don’t think anyone ever has an obligation to call others out or to speak up in a situation in which they feel uncomfortable. Keeping yourself safe is extremely important, and sometimes staying silent is the best way to do that. However if you do tend to do this, it is quite possible (and likely) that you will continue to have to hear people who will say and do offensive, triggering things. I don’t generally recommend silence because I feel that it’s extremely important for women and allies to be vocal about what is unacceptable if rape culture is ever to change, but self-protection is a priority and there are some situations that call for it.

Another possible reaction is to do what I did: I anonymously called them out. Unfortunately this option is not always available, and sometimes your identity will become known (as mine was), and then you have to deal with all of the problems associated with straight out confrontation, with the additional difficulty that some people may now judge you to be a coward. However if this is an option (for example online), it seems to be a good balance of protecting yourself and calling attention to the problem. Your anonymous comments may be attacked, but no one can attack you personally if they don’t know who you are and you are still free to say whatever you like about the inappropriate nature of a behavior. There are some downsides though. Anonymous criticism is easier to dismiss, and when people attack some on anonymous, they can be really nasty. On the flip side, it can also be very easy to go overboard when you are anonymous, and in all of these cases it’s important to remain calm and present a good face (we don’t want to perpetuate “feminazi” stereotypes. Sadly we have to be the adults here). So as an anonymous criticizer you have to be more careful to self-censor and be aware that your the impact of what you’re doing could be lessened by the fact that you’re anonymous.

What may seem to be the most obvious way to react is direct confrontation: telling the perpetrator they did something wrong and why. I personally feel this method requires you to gauge your audience: there are many people who rejoice in getting a rise out of others when they say something offensive and will take it as an opportunity to continue to ridicule and use your behavior as evidence that women are irrational and oversensitive. However if you think the person is actually open to hearing a new viewpoint, go for it. Here again, we have to take the high road and remain calm and rational. One major problem with confrontation, and the reason I hesitate about doing it myself is that it can result in personal attacks, anger on all sides, drama, potentially the loss of friends, and sometimes can make others thinks badly of you (because for some reason identifying yourself as a feminist or as someone who doesn’t take kindly to rape is viewed poorly in our culture). Confronting people on sensitive issues is difficult. It requires courage and commitment to your position, but it is also one of the strongest ways to effect change, especially if more people were to do it.

A final method that may be appropriate in some circumstances is seeking the help of an authority (a mod online, an administrator at school, etc). This is especially appropriate if you feel that the incident could fall under the category of sexual harassment. A major problem here is that it rests on whether or not the authority sees the problem in the same way as you do, so it can be a gamble, but it does have the benefit of real consequences for the offending party and an authority voice on your side. It can offer you some protection, but requires you to do the work of having evidence and an argument of how the behavior violates a rule or code of conduct in order for any action to be taken.

None of these approaches is perfect, works all of the time, or is free from risks. That in and of itself is evidence that we are in a culture which does not sexual violence and sexism seriously. I hope that these thoughts are illuminating, but each individual situation is of course complicated by the many factors involved: what your relationship is with those you want to confront, how is authority involved (what if it’s a teacher, boss or parent making inappropriate comments?), what resources exist in your context, how threatened you feel, whether you have support from others…clearly there is no right answer here. But we should be talking about and sharing effective strategies. Hopefully this can start that conversation. Talk to me in comments 🙂

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at

1 Comment

  1. February 24, 2012 at 6:05 pm —

    More people should stand up and take a stand against rape culture. A woman saw a man watching violent, child-themed porn on his ipad on a flight. How can this be acceptable in this day and age? She complained but her bravery was met with scorn and derision. No one thought it was a big deal! Shocking and disgusting.

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