Culture as an Excuse — Part IV — The Culture of Rape

Sex often makes us laugh.

One of my favorite greeting cards
One of my favorite greeting cards


Being able to laugh at sex is one of the ways in which I remind myself that rape, and the “culture of rape” as we’ll discuss here today, is not about SEX.  It’s about POWER.  It’s about the loss of one’s personal power at the hands of someone stronger, whose main goal is the reinforcement of his (I know; it’s not always a man) fragile identity as a strong man.


Part IV of our series on using  culture as an excuse (for bad  behavior) is focused on this “culture of rape.” It’s the last in the series. Next week, we’re celebrating International Women’s Day.


I for one am breathing a huge sigh of relief


With thanks to for the image

Here’s why.


Rape culture, or the culture of rape is a serious topic. I don’t need to convince you of that.


Tucked away in my little hamlet in Vermont’s Green Mountains, I had not heard these terms, though I felt I knew instinctively what they meant.  Over the past month, in researching for today’s post, I bumped into them often. Too often.

More often than I ever imagined.


Let’s start with a definition. Of all the definitions of the term, this one seemed to envelope most of the important parts.

It’s the unthinking acceptance, the reinforcement of the notion that women exist to be used sexually. It’s about signing off on male aggression and female passivity. It’s about making that  the norm, so much the norm that you wind up with girls cheering along for it.

Mary Elizabeth Williams, writing in Sept 5, 2013


By “rape culture,” we’re not talking (necessarily) about a culture that outwardly promotes rapeWe’re talking about the way that we, as a culture, think about situations in which violence against women is ignored, minimized, belittled, and misunderstood; sexual assault, rape, and general violence is trivialized, normalized, or made into jokes.

Here’s where I start to have trouble.  Jokes. I love jokes. I love to laugh. Laughter brings a lightness into the dark, into the heavy, into the angry.  But, like forgiveness, we need to guard that we don’t laugh too soon. For then, it’s a mere diversion.  Distraction. Deflection.


Ms. Williams was writing about this story:

College students cheer sex abuse: 
A freshman week chant shows how deep rape culture goes


Here’s my struggle. Maybe you can help me.

I’ve been tinkering with this post for weeks.  And each time I come back to it, I recall a comic strip, For Better or for Worse, which I read over twenty years ago and that still makes me laugh today.

The female character, Elly Patterson, has just had her third child, a “bonus baby,” (so you know she’s a tad older than the average new mom) and she is walking the baby in a stroller down the sidewalk.  She passes a construction site where the workers — five or six of them — are on lunch break, sitting on the girders, maybe two floors up. She knows they are watching her walk by. She waits, expecting the worst, but there is silence.  No cat calls, no lewd comments, nothing.

In the final cel, Elly turns around and indignantly calls back to them, “I deserve better than that.”


Did you laugh? I laughed when I first read it. I still laugh today as I retell it. But now, I also wonder if I may be that “part of the problem” that results when you’re not “part of the solution.”

I’m juxtaposing this comic strip by Lynn Johnston — where the objectification of women plays the major role — against Williams’ phrase, “unthinking acceptance of the notion that women exist to be used sexually.”

I don’t want to minimize the issue. I don’t want to trivialize the fact that a culture of rape has been flourishing in our midst for — well, for ever.


Back to the Salon story. With girls cheering along for it was the real tragedy. For until women (and men) stand up to say, “No more,” “Stop it,” “This is wrong,” incidents like these are bound to continue.

Is it naive of me to think that there’ll come a time when the power of wanting to “fit in,” to have fun, to be accepted, be part of the “in crowd,” to be liked … no longer trumps the ability to do the right thing?  




We started this series in January with the headline,

Renegades boss blames “cultural differences”
as Chris Gayle is fined $10,000

I used it because it was an example of my favorite term, cultural difference, being used in a way that, I felt, excused repeated “bad behavior.” I like to celebrate cultural differences, identify them, study them, honor them. I do not want to see them used as a cover for repeated behaviors that are inexcusable.

[learn_more caption=”A little background here on the headline”]

Chris Gayle is a cricket player from Jamaica. He’s the Babe Ruth of cricket players, a Roger Maris slugger who plays for different teams around the world. And, while playing in Australia for a team called the Melbourne Renegades, he was interviewed on live TV in Hobart Australia, where he essentially flirted with the female reporter, then followed it with, “Don’t blush, baby.”

The reporter was offended and said so.
Galye was accused of having done this regularly.
Cricket Australia was asked to ban him from playing in Australia again.
Further media hoopla ensued and the headline caught my eye.

Gayle was fined $10,000, but not suspended. During the ensuing press conference, the CEO of the franchise, one Stuart Coventry, called the incident a “one-off scenario.” He might as well have said “boys will be boys.”

“We think it’s more of a cultural difference,” he said, adding Gayle’s comments were “said in jest” and reiterating the team’s belief that the player was a “seasoned professional” who had just “said the wrong thing at the wrong time.” [/learn_more]

As I learned during my years in Kazakhstan, cultural differences usually get abruptly, and often painfully or at least embarrassingly, identified in a single moment.

One of these moments I write about in my memoir, At Home on the Kazakh Steppe. One moment I was blissfully unaware that in pointing to the words on the blackboard I was, literally, giving everyone “the finger.” The next moment, I was aware. I had been told. And I was mortified. I’d been doing it for three months and, not wanting to make me uncomfortable, no one had mentioned it. My colleagues and students all dismissed it by saying, “she’s American.” In other words, I too was excused for my “bad behavior” by cultural differences.

But once Peace Corps staff saw me doing it, and quite clearly let me know how offensive the behavior was, I immediately wanted to stop. And, as I also talk about in the book, it was hard to stop.  Very hard. To bring my awareness to a behavior that essentially I’d been doing unconsciously most of my life, and which meant nothing to me, to make that something my conscious mind could deal with, was unexpectedly difficult.

But I kept trying. Want to know how it all worked out?  Click here.

Smiley.svgDoing these things from ignorance, whether it’s repeatedly flipping a classroom of young students the bird, or repeatedly flirting with a reporter, is one thing, especially when it’s followed by an apology and an attempt to better understand. But continuing to do them, and with what has been called an “intent to humiliate,” as Australian sports journalist Neroli Meadows put it, is quite another. That’s the problem the Chris Gayle story covers.

And it has much to do with what has become known now as “the culture of rape.”

Let’s begin at the beginning. 

What first caught my eye back in early January were the stories trickling out from Germany, of gangs of men surrounding and attacking women on the streets of Cologne during New Year’s Eve celebrations.  Unbelievable accounts, followed by eager explanations blaming the recent influx of Syrian immigrants. And calls banning further immigration. I had to know more.

How easy it can be, when we hear the stories — of rape as a tool of war, of international sex trade practices flourishing, nonconsensual bride stealing on the rise in former Soviet countries, and massive gang rapes during those New Year’s Eve festivities in Cologne, Germany — to think, “that’s them. We know better.”


Turns out, we don’t necessarily know better. It’s time we took a look in our own backyard.

I found, rape culture operates and persists in a range of backyards, including  sports, media, pop culture, advertising, law enforcement, and college campuses.

Rape culture is pernicious, insidious. And I felt overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of stories I uncovered.

Here are links to “rape culture” news stories that take place in various “backyards.” That way, if you’re reading this post years from now for a high school paper on the topic, you can get additional factoids and improve your grade.  But for my readers in the here and now, we can stay with the text.

Rape culture in the world of sports

We don’t need to go all the way to Australia to find examples of rape culture in sports.

The 2013 Steubenville OH case concerned two high school football players, the 16 year old victim, and a party. This opEd piece, How Jock Culture Morphs Into Rape Culture, in Forbes Magazine from that year provides a compelling narrative of just how a school athletic program can set the participants up to start believing they can “get away with anything.”  Shades of our Ethan Couch disaster here.  And it expands the number of participants to include the coach, the principal,  the Superintendent of Schools, and the surrounding community members.

This article from  The ties together both sports and college campuses.

The Past Is Never Dead: Peyton Manning and
Today’s Jock-Rape Culture at Tennessee

For those of you not opening the links, Manning was not accused of rape. Just some rather vile behavior toward a woman, who then reported it.  The article is more about the extent to which the university brought out their big guns to not just keep the incident under wraps, but to denigrate the character of the woman involved.

Rape culture on university campuses

Somehow, I expect bad behavior from boys in the world of sports. Are they high on testosterone? Returning to a caveman mentality that helps win games? Does it reflect a prejudice on my part? Is it an expansion of the age old “boys will be boys” (which, I swear, I’ll never say again)?  I have no idea. I only know I was deeply troubled, reading of the incidences on college campuses across the country. There were just so many of them.

The one from Salon started me off:

College students cheer sex abuse: 
A freshman week chant shows how deep rape culture goes


But, you may argue if you opened it and read it, that was years ago. It was an isolated event.  And it was in Canada!

Unfortunately, there are plenty of stories here in the US.  Here is just a smattering of them.

University of Tennessee, the story was also covered in the UK
University of North Carolina
Claremont College in CA
The University of Georgia
Cornell University
Baylor University in Texas
Amherst College
Michigan State University
University of Notre Dame
University of Montana

I stopped linking to them because I felt saturated. You get the idea.

 Rape culture in the media

This is a mixed lot. For some, like Sports Illustrated and CNN’s Coverage of the Steubenville rapists,
media coverage is disappointing at best.

But others are stepping up, calling attention, educating their readers.

Forbes did a good job in their Coverage of the Steubenville Rapists, as I mentioned above.

The Huffington Post has run a series of stories on rape culture, entitled Reporting College Rapes: How Campuses Address Abuse. I recommend you check them out.

MTV has launched a series of what it calls “invisible ads,” geared to fighting the culture of rape. Check out this article about them in Women’s Health Magazine. 

Everyday Feminism eZine with their 23 examples of rape culture and their list of ways to combat this culture of rape is a good place to start.

Often, it’s not that a particular media policy supports or condones rape culture. It’s that they don’t think about it at all when writing that headline or composing the photo caption. They use “sex” when they mean “rape.” They focus their attention on the victim and not on the (alleged or convicted) perpetrators.

[learn_more caption=”There are new “cultures” popping up out there, which I learned in preparing this post. “]

There’s now the hook-up culture.  Defined as transactional sex without expectation of any relationship with the partner beyond the sex itself. Once called recreational sex in the 1960s, it’s now got a “culture tab” attached to it.

Consent culture is a culture in which asking for consent is normalized and encouraged. “It is respecting the person’s response even if it isn’t the response we had hoped for. We will live in a consent culture when we no longer objectify people and we value each other as human beings.” That is the definition given for “consent culture” on the popular blog Only With Consent.

And, btw, “enthusiastic consent” is now catching on as a buzzword.[/learn_more]

Marshall University
‘s Women’s Center website offers this guidance

How can men and women combat Rape Culture?

  • Avoid using language that objectifies or degrades women
  • Speak out if you hear someone else making an offensive joke or trivializing rape
  • If a friend says she has been raped, take her seriously and be supportive
  • Think critically about the media’s messages about women, men, relationships, and violence
  • Be respectful of others’ physical space even in casual situations
  • Always communicate with sexual partners and do not assume consent
  • Define your own manhood or womanhood.  Do not let stereotypes shape your actions.
  • Get involved! Join a student or community group working to end violence against women.

I’m not feeling nearly as discouraged about our college students as I was when I began.

And, I still think the FBoFW comic is funny.

This has been my longest post to day. So, here’s a thank you bonus for sticking with us to the end:


Thanks, Pinterest

“Oh, Mike. I miss you too.”

And so it goes.

Next week: International Women’s Day

How about you? Pick up on anything here. You sharing your views is what make this blog work.

16 Responses

  1. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    We’ve talked about this subject, so I won’t go into detail here. Since I’m working on a book on rape culture (contributors still needed!), I will have plenty to say on the subject at some point.

    You make some good points, and I will check out some of the links later. As far as your “series,” I think this one is the most focused. 🙂

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I look forward to seeing your work, when it comes out, Merril. Thanks for swinging by.

  2. Yvonne Hertzberger
    | Reply

    I could not agree with you more. Thank you for having the courage and taking the time to put this out there.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thank you, Yvonne. You have the same thought about it as my husband Woody did when he read my final draft. I hadn’t thought it was particularly courageous. But it was hard. I’m very glad it’s over.

      Glad you dropped in. Hope you’ll return.

  3. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Janet, your in-depth analysis in this series is amazing. Very thought-provoking. Of course, rape is a topic of interest to me as it relates to the overall concept of abuse in our culture. You make the important distinction that sexual abuse is more about power over another person than it is about sex. The link to the college sexual assault chant is beyond disturbing as are the subtle and not so subtle messages condoning assault via music and videos. Thanks for bringing these issues up so thoroughly. Awareness is the beginning of action and hopefully more responsible behavior.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yes, “beyond disturbing” was my thinking. And the immensity of it all — I thought of using “omnipresence” but resisted — was as times daunting. And depressing. I’ve been tackling this stuff since 1982 when I got my first fundraising job at a battered woman’s shelter (what they were called back then). It feels to me as though we’ve gone backward as a society, rather than forward. Awareness. Indeed; that is where it (always?) starts.

  4. Joan Z. Rough
    | Reply

    Here in Charlottesville, the home of Thomas Jefferson’s university, we are in the belly of the beast. Last year’s Rolling Stone article about a girl anonymously named Jackie, and the ensuing law-suites and investigations are still on-going. Yes we all talk about it and know rape is happening, but the topic is getting stale. I hope things will change.

    ‘ … until women (and men) stand up to say, “No more,” “Stop it,” “This is wrong,” incidents like these are bound to continue.’

    Thanks Janet, for an important post.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I can very much relate to how the topic goes “stale” over time, Joan. I wonder if that is why it still persists? That we, as human beings, can only handle so much gunk at one time? We must get a reprieve and breath a bit of clean air, so we push it away? Natural, understandable. And unfortunate. I do it too at times. I think it must have to do with boundaries, with how permeable they are. Sometimes I can keep the gunk out easily (what’s yours is yours, not mine); but sometimes it just seeps in, osmosis or something. Hmmm. You’ve got me going here. Will give this more thought.

  5. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — I’m in full agreement with the other responders.

    THANK YOU for having the courage and taking the time to research, curate, and share this on your blog platform.

    I appreciate YOU.

  6. Nancy McBride
    | Reply

    Excellent coverage of the topic. Thank you.
    Having been a victim of molestation as a child, and having worked in the field of higher education for over 40 years, one can never be reminded too often. Young folks think it happens to others, just due to their lack of life-experience. So, reminders to be smart, know about date-drugs, excessive use of alcohol, etc., and what constitutes rape is important. We cannot assume. My eldest granddaughter just turned 16. When she was trying to decide where to go to hgh school, I asked her if she had considered the local high school. She had attended the local grammar school. She said, no because girls got pregnant there, and there were drugs. Nanu (me) had a sit-down and clearly educated her. It isn’t where she goes, it’s choices SHE makes to have sex or take drugs, and who to hang out with. There are plenty of drugs in private schools, and pregnant girls, too, plus some kids with money feel entitled. She got it.
    She’s the one who recently referred to me as a “Bad Ass” because I walked in water with my shoes on, and she wanted to, but didn’t. We take it when we get it.
    I might add that in some cases alcohol is a component and contributes to loosened inhibitions.

  7. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Hello again, “bad ass.” What a compliment from your granddaughter. I should be so lucky when mine get to be that age.

    There’s a movement afloat — my mention of it got buried in one of the pull down windows — to use only “enthusiastic consent” instead of just the age old “consent” vs “no consent.” Sounds like you’ve set your granddaughter on the right path.

  8. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    If feel as though I’ve “heard” the on-line lecture of a very knowledgeable and funny prof. If you saw me reading this post, you’d see me laughing, gasping, and nodding in assent. The comments are choice too.

    You can read about my small contribution to changing attitudes here:

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I’m glad it made you laugh, Marian. NOT an easy feat when the topic is rape, but I tried. I appreciate your note. Thank you.

      AND I very much your link to your post of Feb 17. I’ve done something with WP and the blogs I follow are now coming in bundled at the end of the week. I must figure it out.

      I’ve seen change like this at work and know how important it is feel safe enough to allow yourself to show your vulnerability. My belief is that we humans connect with each other best THROUGH that very vulnerability. But I was 42 before I learned that. How wonderful that these kids can see that in their own lives in high school. What a gift.

      On a very different note: I’d never heard the Mark Twain quote (though I can see the humor in it). But I have something similar and, I do believe a tad truer, from my former Ohio neighbor, Sue Patrick. She said that “when a child turns 13, they should pack a suitcase and move one house down.” That only meant that at that age (and on through 23 I think) they do better with anyone NOT their parent. They are trying so hard to find their sense of independence, that it’s just easier to go live with another family. Then, your other neighbor’s kid gets to move into your house. Anyway, meant to be light hearted.

  9. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    I wanted to add this comment I received earlier today from a former neighbor of mine in Philadelphia. (Yes, as a typical American, I have ‘former neighbors’ all over the country). She’d like to remain anonymous.

    …Thanks for the posting on rape culture. I didn’t look at all the links (too discouraging) but am glad you covered the issue so thoroughly. In the 1970’s I was a volunteer with WOAR (women organized against rape) who sat with rape victims in the ER at the old XXHospital (which was probably gone by the time you got here). Their training was appropriate and quite advanced for that time…that it’s an issue of power, not sex. (It really clarified my thinking…remember how long ago this was!) This was brought home by the few examples I saw firsthand…the young woman who was assaulted when the store she was shopping in was robbed; the septuagenarian [and smelly] lady landlord raped by a tenant with whom she had a rent dispute. There’s been a great deal written since then to advance popular thinking on the issue, but clearly not enough!

    That training from WOAR gave me the strength, when I was working, … running concerts …, to refuse to distribute the text/translation to a renaissance song the choral society was singing, about beating women. I tried to tell the department officials and the singers [who may not even have realized what they were singing] that just because it’s a catchy tune with cool rhythms and in a foreign language, it’s still not OK to celebrate beating women. They sang it anyway, academic freedom of the choral director to choose his program, don’t ja know, and I have no idea if anyone else’s mind was changed, but at least I spoke up and was not party to promoting it.

    I know you were interested in bride-kidnapping….have you done more on that? How does one challenge an entire culture?

  10. […] A year ago, I ran a series of posts on this Culture of Affluence that seemed to be gripping our country.  We began on January 20, 2016 with When Cultural Difference Is Used As An Excuse, then The Culture of Affluence on February 10, Socially Acceptable Excuses, on February 17, and  ended with Culture as an Excuse: The Culture of Rape  on February 24, 2016. […]

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