The Subtle Way You May Be Upholding Rape Culture
TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault, sexual harassment
It was just another match on a dating app. This guy seemed cool and easy to talk to. After a short conversation, he asked for my number and I sent it, although feeling a bit reluctant. Suddenly, the back and forth conversation came to a halt. He saw my message, but didn’t send back his number. The whole thing started to feel strange.
Late that night, he sent an incomprehensible text message. He didn’t introduce himself in the text message, so I wasn’t certain this was the guy I recently connected with on the dating app, but I had a feeling it was him. Uninterested in engaging, I assumed this was either a drunk text, a message sent to the wrong number, or both. I didn’t respond.
The next evening, he sent a text message introducing himself. I let him know his previous message was quite rude. He apologized and we engaged in a short, normal conversation.
Then, later that night, he started sending messages suggesting phone sex. I made it clear that I was not interested. He made a joke out of my refusal and attempted multiple FaceTime calls that I refused to answer. Shocked and terrified, I blocked his number and reported him on the dating app. However, I have since seen him on other dating apps multiple times.
I shared this experience with a few of my closest friends in spaces where I felt safe. Most of my girlfriends were either shocked or sympathetic but unsurprised because they had experienced something similar before.
However, a few of my girlfriends tried to soften the situation, asking questions like,
“Well, what exactly did he say?”
“Are you sure he was suggesting phone sex?” and
“Maybe he was trying to be funny.”
In those instances, I felt completely invalidated. And during one conversation, I remember questioning myself, “Did I misinterpret everything? Should I apologize?!”
The experience that I shared above was not sexual assault, but it was harassment and involved complete disregard for my non-consent to engage. Remember that sexual assault is often defined as the use of force, coercion, or imbalance of power to make a person engage in sexual activity without their consent, whereas sexual harassment is unwanted, inappropriate sexual advances.
Unfortunately, women experience similar situations often—a recent study found that 77% of women have experienced verbal sexual harassment and 41% of women have experienced sexual harassment online. And, women often confide in their female circles for support.
But what happens when our female circle, or anyone we consider safe, questions our perception of the details? We begin to learn silence and tolerance toward inappropriate behavior.
Rape culture is the normalization of sexual violence against women, “perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.” It is so deeply embedded in our lives that even many well meaning people who identify as allies to survivors of sexual assault or harassment unintentionally contribute to this culture. Many allies fail to realize that subtle comments and actions that downplay inappropriate behavior towards women uphold rape culture.
Women often describe situations where men have made unwelcome advances or jokingly sexualized women’s bodies. As soon as a woman shares the experience with others, men or women, she often hears some version of “He was just showing interest in you,” “You should be flattered,” “You’re too uptight,” or “He was just joking.”
This invalidation makes women question feelings and reactions in said situations. Perhaps we start to internalize the comments about being uptight and over-reactionary. The next time this woman is in a similar situation, maybe she’ll suppress her instincts and decide not to tell anyone. Now we have taught women silence, reinforced the idea of men’s entitlement over women’s bodies, and contributed to the persistence of rape culture.
Recently, thanks to the #MeToo movement, there has been a lot of advocacy around being an ally to victims of sexual assault and this is welcome. As communities, we need to create safe spaces for survivors to heal and just systems to hold perpetrators accountable.
In addition, we have a responsibility to dissolve rape culture, which fosters sexual assault and sexual harassment, fails to hold men accountable for violating language and behavior that isn’t sexual assault, and doubts and silences women.
We know that one in ten women has been raped by an intimate partner, but nearly 80% of sexual assaults go unreported. Common reasons that survivors avoid reporting include fear of re-victimization, distortion of allegations, and not being believed. As a society, we’ve managed to create a culture of allyship with perpetrators rather than those who have been violated.
Women and allies are not unsubscribed from that culture. Women often don’t believe one another and question one another’s experiences, making us complicit in the perpetuation of rape culture. The most difficult part of sharing my online dating experience was not describing the actual incident, it was when other women questioned my experience and described it back to me using non-offensive words, making me feel incorrect about my reaction to the experience and the feelings that I was entitled to. All women are vulnerable to sexual violence so it is imperative that we become aware of our own role in upholding rape culture.
Realizing our collective power as women is a start to dissolving rape culture, but we must believe and stand with one another, not the perpetrators. If our first instinct was to believe our friends who share experiences of inappropriate behavior instead of invalidating their feelings, would we empower those friends rather than ignite self-doubt in them? Simultaneously, would we find power in ourselves to hold their perpetrators accountable? What would this mean for all the perpetrators who go on to harass and assault multiple others while building untainted public reputations and holding prominent positions?
Note: This is written from a heterosexual woman’s perspective. However, we recognize that all people are vulnerable to similar, violating situations. It is important to create safe spaces to learn allyship for all people.