The realities of rape culture


Photographs courtesy of Arunlal Soman

Megan Swett, Editor-in-Chief

Within every society exists multiple cultures that impact various aspects of people’s lives. Some cultures impact how people dress, while others focus on how people act. In American society, there is one specific culture, subtle but far-reaching, that impacts a vital aspect of how we interact with one another.

Rape culture, at large, is described as a culture whose prevailing attitude perpetuates the acceptance or trivialization of sexual assault. However, every individual understands it differently.

Lynn Otterson, director of the Women’s Center at UIS, said, “It’s a culture – whether it’s a small micro-culture, like a group of friends, or large culture, like a nation – that does anything from [encouraging to tolerating] sexual violence.”

“It goes anywhere on a continuum from encouragement and promotion of sexual violence, to a culture on the other end that tolerates it,” she said. “But in between all of that, there’s a lot of people.”

Andrea Duvendack, a 21-year-old communication major at UIS, described rape culture as oversexualizing, victim-blaming, and stereotyping women.

“It is a lot of victim-blaming,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Well, what was she wearing,’ ‘Was she asking for it,’ ‘Was she drunk,’ stuff like that.” 

Molly Looby, a UIS sophomore and Women’s Center student worker, noted that strong gender roles also impact rape culture. 

“[There’s] this idea that women are submissive … that women can’t really say ‘no,’ or that men are sexual beings, so they have this entitlement to sex,” she said. “I’ve seen it [in Springfield] … even at this school, I see that kind of [rape culture] mentality.”

Duvendack said that she often unfriends people on Facebook when she sees them perpetuating rape culture.

“I had a Facebook friend who was in an argument, and he said in a comment that ‘gang rape is the best rape,’” Duvendack noted in one example.

Screenshot provided by Andrea Duvendack

In other cases, however, people don’t always feel comfortable speaking out.

Looby said, “You see somebody go against the group by saying, ‘This person raped me,’ and then you see them get ostracized, you see them get bullied, they get cast out, and you don’t want that to happen to you, so you stay quiet.”

“There’s a lot of things where it’s more of a ‘look the other way’ thing,” Otterson said. “If you’re the one that’s saying, ‘That magazine, that ad, that game, that comment [is] wrong,’ you risk losing your social credibility.

“But I also think a lot of the time … is people really aren’t 100 percent sure,” Otterson continued. “They’re uncomfortable with what they heard or saw, but they’re not sure if they’re right.”

Things that perpetuate rape culture can be subtle, like joking about sexual assault or the objectification of women in advertising, or they can be direct, like victim-blaming. 

One example of victim-blaming can be seen in the comment thread of an article from the southern Illinois newspaper the Belleville News-Democrat. The article describes the case of a man who was arrested after engaging in sexual activity with a 14-year-old girl.

While a number of people expressed disgust with the man, another select set of people questioned and even blamed the girl.

“It wasn’t rape,” one commenter said. “He got caught on some jailbait from the article.”

Screenshot provided by Megan Swett

Another commenter said, “Girls lie about their age all the time. Not fair to younger adults.”

Screenshot provided by Megan Swett

“What I see in the cultures here in Springfield is that people will be strongly against rape,” said Looby, who is a Springfield native, “… but when someone comes out in that community and says, ‘This man sexually assaulted me,’ they’re like, ‘Well, can you prove it? I know him, he’s not like that.’”

While asking questions when faced with serious accusations seems like a benign and reasonable response, many scholars believe that showing immediate distrust of a victim’s claims could have a negative impact overall.

“I think the most important thing to do if a victim discloses to you is to listen to them,” said Dr. Leanne Brecklin of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “Mostly it’s just believing them, listening to them, not passing judgement in any way on their behavior or questioning them on what they did.”

Brecklin described several “rape myths” that help perpetuate rape culture. The idea that someone deserved to be raped, that how they dressed was “asking for it,” or that their lifestyle or scenario calls into question whether they’re a “real victim” are all rape myths.

Other rape myths, as described by the Women’s Center’s “Blow the Whistle on Sexual Assault” packet, are that rape is only committed by strangers, that only women get raped, and that “women frequently ‘cry rape.’”

“Research really has shown that false reporting is not common,” Brecklin said. “The fact is that women rarely report sexual assault as it is, and those that do report it tend to be factual.”

Multiple sources, from the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report to independent studies, place the rate of false accusations of rape between 2 and 10 percent. 

“Victims who choose to report, they may be blamed, they may not be believed, they may face secondary victimization from law enforcement, or from court personnel, or the media, or even just friends and family that they tell about the assault,” Brecklin said. “It’s not likely that a woman would want to go through the experience of reporting for a fabricated story.”

“It’s very hard to talk about perpetration, because the numbers are so dire. … I’ve been [at UIS] 22 years, and I always say that the climate has changed about speaking openly,” Otterson said. “The good news is there’s more discussion overall.”

“As a society, we’re getting better,” Duvendack said. “We’re starting to take back our own rights and our own feelings.”

“I think that education is the most important thing on this,” Looby said. “You can’t combat [rape culture] if you don’t know what it is.”

As April is national Sexual Assault Awareness Month, various educational opportunities are coming up for the UIS community. 

The Women’s Center, specifically, is hosting several events through March and April promoting relationship and sexual health, beginning on March 3 with Safe Sex and Healthy Relationships BINGO. Other planned events include an “It’s On Us” luau on April 6 and Take Back The Night on April 28.