Rape, Rape Culture and Patriarchy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis year’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month, drawing to an end tomorrow, was full of the usual stories about men’s violence, especially on university campuses. From football-obsessed state schools to elite private campuses, the reality of rape and rape culture was reported by journalists and critiqued by victim-survivors. But the month of April also included an unexpected debate within the anti-violence movement about the appropriate boundaries of discussions about rape and rape culture, as RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) declared its desire to narrow the analysis [PDF]:

In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming ‘rape culture’ for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses. While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.

Conservative commentators picked up on this, using it as a club to condemn the always-demonizable feminists for their allegedly unfair treatment of men and allegedly crazy critique of masculinity.

I’m a man who doesn’t believe feminists are unfair or crazy. In fact, I believe the only sensible way to understand these issues is through a feminist critique of patriarchy.

Let’s consider a hypothetical:

A young man and woman are on a first date. The man decides early in the evening that he would like to have sexual intercourse and makes his attraction to her clear in conversation. He does not intend to force her to have sex, but he is assertive in a way that she interprets to mean that he “won’t take no for an answer.” The woman does not want to have sex, but she is uncertain of how he will react if she rejects his advance. Alone in his apartment—in a setting in which his physical strength means she likely could not prevent him from raping her—she offers to perform oral sex, hoping that will satisfy him and allow her to get home without a direct confrontation that could become too intense, even violent. She does not tell him what she is thinking, out of fear of how he may react. The man accepts the offer of oral sex, and the evening ends without conflict.

If that sex happened—and it does happen, it’s an experience that women have described (see the book Flirting with Danger by Lynn Phillips )—should we describe the encounter as consensual sex or rape? In legal terms, this clearly is not rape. So it’s consensual sex. No problem, right?

Consider some other potentially relevant factors: If a year before that situation, the woman had been raped while on a date, would that change our assessment? If she had been sexually assaulted as a child and still, years later, goes into a survival mode when triggered? If this were a college campus and the man was a well-known athlete, and she feared the system would protect him?

By legal standards, this still clearly is not rape. But by human standards, this doesn’t feel like fully consensual sex. Maybe we should recognize that both those assessments are reasonable.

That RAINN comment, taken from a letter offering recommendations to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, expressed concern that emphasizing rape culture “removes the focus from the individual at fault, and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions.” Feminists pushed back,  pointing out that it shouldn’t be difficult to hold accountable the individuals who commit acts legally defined as rape and at the same time discuss how prosecuting rapists is made difficult by those who blame victims and make excuses for men’s violence, all of which is related to the way our culture routinely glorifies other types of men’s violence (war, sports, action movies) and routinely presents objectified female bodies to men for sexual pleasure (pornography, Hollywood movies, strip clubs).

In short, rape is a definable crime that happens in a rape culture—once again, both things are true. Which brings us back to patriarchy.

Patriarchy is a term rarely heard in mainstream conversation, especially since the backlash against feminism that took off in the 1980s. So, let’s start with the late feminist historian Gerda Lerner’s definition of patriarchy as:

the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in the society in general. It implies that men hold power in all the important institutions of society and that women are deprived of access to such power. It does not imply that women are either totally powerless or totally deprived of rights, influence, and resources.

Feminism challenges acts of male dominance and analyzes the underlying patriarchal ideology that tries to make that dominance seem inevitable and immutable. Second-wave radical feminists in the second half of the 20th century identified men’s violence against women—rape, child sexual assault, domestic violence and various forms of harassment—as a key method of patriarchal control, and made a compelling argument that sexual assault cannot be understood outside of an analysis of patriarchy’s ideology.

Some of those feminists argued that “rape is about power not sex,” but other feminists went deeper, pointing out that when women describe the range of their sexual experiences it becomes clear there is no bright-line distinction between rape and not-rape, but instead a continuum of sexual intrusion into women’s lives by men. Yes, men who rape seek a sense of power, but men also use their power to get sex from women, sometimes under conditions that are not legally defined as rape but involve varying levels of control and coercion.

So, the focus shouldn’t be reduced to a relatively small number of men who engage in behavior we can easily label as rape. Those men pose a serious problem, and we should be diligent in prosecuting them. But that prosecution can go on—and, in fact, will be aided by—recognizing the larger context in which men are trained to seek control and pursue conquest in order to feel like a man, and how that control/conquest is routinely sexualized.

If this seems far-fetched, think about the ways men in all-male spaces often talk about sex, such as asking each other, “Did you get any?” From that perspective, sex is the acquisition of pleasure from a woman, something one takes from a woman, and men talk openly among themselves about strategies to enhance the likelihood of “getting some” even in the face of resistance from women.

This doesn’t mean that all men are rapists, that all heterosexual sex is rape, or that egalitarian relationships between men and women are impossible. It does mean, however, that rape is about power and sex, about the way men are trained to understand ourselves and to see women.

The majority of men do not rape. But consider these other categories:
·         Men who do not rape but would be willing to rape if they were sure they would not be punished.
·         Men who do not rape but will not intervene when another man rapes.
·         Men who do not rape but buy sex with women who have been, or likely will be, raped in the context of being prostituted.
·         Men who do not rape but will watch films of women in situations that depict rape or rape-like acts.
·         Men who do not rape but find the idea of rape sexually arousing.
·         Men who do not rape but whose sexual arousal depends on feeling dominant and having power over a woman.
·         Men who do not rape but routinely masturbate to pornography in which women are presented as objectified bodies whose primary, or only, function is to provide sexual pleasure for men.

Those men are not rapists. But is that fact—that the men in these categories are not, in legal terms, guilty of rape—comforting? Are we advancing the cause of ending men’s violence against women by focusing only on the acts legally defined as rape?

Rape is rape, and rape culture is rape culture

Jody Raphael’s book Rape is Rape: How Denial, Distortion, and Victim Blaming Are Fueling a Hidden Acquaintance Rape Crisis points out that if we use “a conservative definition of rape about which there can be no argument”—rape as an act of “forcible penetration” within one’s lifetime—the research establishes that between 10.6 percent and 16.1 percent of American women have been raped. That means somewhere between 12 million and 18 million women in this country today live as rape victim-survivors, if we use a narrow definition of the crime.

Because no human activity takes place in an ideological vacuum—the ideas in our heads affect the way we behave—it’s hard to make sense of those numbers without the concept of rape culture. A rape culture doesn’t command men to rape, but it does make rape inviting, and it reduces the likelihood rapists will be identified, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and punished. It’s hard to imagine any meaningful efforts to reduce and someday eliminate rape without talking openly and honestly about these matters. But RAINN argues that such denial is exactly the path we should take.

Remember the “simple fact” that RAINN asserts: “Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.” First, the language is confusing. Rape is perpetrated by a small percentage of men. Rape is caused by many factors, individual and cultural. That confusion gives way to what seems like deliberate obfuscation in the next paragraph:

While that may seem an obvious point, it has tended to get lost in recent debates. This has led to an inclination to focus on particular segments of the student population (e.g., athletes), particular aspects of campus culture (e.g., the Greek system), or traits that are common in many millions of law-abiding Americans (e.g., “masculinity”), rather than on the subpopulation at fault: those who choose to commit rape. This trend has the paradoxical effect of making it harder to stop sexual violence, since it removes the focus from the individual at fault, and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions.

Why should we fear talking about the socialization process by which boys and men are trained to see themselves as powerful over women and to see women as sexual objects? Why should we fear asking critical questions about all-male spaces, such as athletic teams and fraternities, where these attitudes might be reinforced? Could it be a fear that the problem of sexual assault is so deeply entwined in our taken-for-granted assumptions about gender that any serious response to the problem of rape requires us to all get more radical, to take radical feminism seriously? Is that what people are afraid of?

If we want to stop sexual violence, we have to confront patriarchy. If we decide we aren’t going to talk about patriarchy, then let’s stop pretending we are going to stop sexual violence and recognize that, at best, all we can do is manage the problem. If we can’t talk about patriarchy, then let’s admit that we are giving up on the idea of gender justice and goal of a world without rape.

It’s easy to understand why people don’t like this formulation of the problem, given that anything beyond a tepid liberal/postmodern feminism is out of fashion these days and radical feminist analyses of male dominance are rarely part of polite conversation. Sometimes people concede the value of such an analysis, but justify the silence about it by claiming, “People can’t handle it.” When someone makes that claim, I assume what they mean is “I can’t handle it myself,” that it’s too much, too painful to deal with.

That’s not hard to understand, because to confront the reality of rape and rape culture is to realize that vigorous prosecution of the small number of men who rape doesn’t solve the larger problem.

Is a feminist critique of rape and rape culture a threat to me as a man? I was socialized in a patriarchal culture to believe that whatever feminists had planned, I should be afraid of it. But what I have learned from radical feminists is that quite the opposite is true—feminism is a gift to men. Such critique does not undermine my humanity, but instead gives me a chance to embrace my humanity.

Photo from Cape Town Slutwalk by Samantha Marx under license from Creative Commons

photo by Nerissa Escanlar

photo by Nerissa Escanlar

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest books are Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue,  and We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out. Jensen is also the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice; Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity; The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege; Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity; and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream. Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing, which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at http://robertwjensen.org/. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Twitter: @jensenrobertw.


  1. Nate Bowles says:

    A very moving article. As a guy who considers himself a feminist, this is a read I won’t soon forget. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thank you so much for your article. It is refreshing to hear your perspective, and so very well articulated.

  3. Because no human activity takes place in an ideological vacuum.
    This is what the RAINN network does not seem to grasp per their statement. It really surprised me as it did, of course, many others.

  4. Sofía Eugenia says:

    Bravo!!!! =) I hate patriarchy, and how traditional values concern about men and children welfare, but not about women’s; that’s why in a traditional family the women takes care of the house sacrificing their carrers and economic freedom. Of course men who are disgusted by or ridicule feminist, are afraid to loose their privileges in the patriarcal culture, and therefore it is evident that they don’t care about women or respect them.

  5. wonderful article

  6. “By legal standards, this still clearly is not rape. But by human standards, this doesn’t feel like fully consensual sex. Maybe we should recognize that both those assessments are reasonable.”

    I’m sorry, but this is kind of bizarre second wave argument that explains why women can *never* consent to anything in Matrix patriarchy, that women have no agency, certainly not with respect to their own sexuality. It’s above all insulting to women, and, luckily, only very few radical feminist hold such bizarre views today. Sadly, Mr Jensen is one of them. He has, of course, a strong biographical reason to keep pushing this kind of argument, as he has done in numerous works, if another book is to be believed – on page 152 of her book “heterophobia” Daphne Patai writs abourt her exchange with Mr Jensen:

    “One of my e-mail correspondents, a young professor of journalism, Robert Jensen, generously (knowing how l would use them) sent me several of his articles describing his transition from heterosexual, to homosexual, to celibate man now exploring impotence as the ultimate response to the apparent inescapability of “patriarchal sex,” in whatever context sex is pursued.
    ]ensen’s writing is a good distillation of the Dworkin-Stoltenberg message about heterosex. “Patriarchal sex,” Jensen tells us, is defined by the axiom “Sex is fucking. ” That is why his goal (evidently inspired by Stoltenberg) is “in be a traitor to [his] gender, as well as in [his] race
    and [his] class.” Jensen gave up sex “with other people [including the
    people in pornography)” after realizing that he could not have sex of
    any sort without recreating “patriarchal sex.””

    I don’t know if he still believes this, but even if not, he has every reason to keep making this argument as admitting his error would certainly make a lot of personal decisions and sacrifices appear unnecessary. His personal decisions force him to keep this point of view, however strange it may appear to most people, including most feminists.

    Yes, you can have both rapists and a rape culture, but whatever your definition of rape culture is like, it should not rid women of sexual and any other agency. Patriarchy is not the matrix, whatever Mr Jensen tells you.

  7. Such a great article. Thank you for explaining things so clearly and concisely. Let’s continue this very important conversation! I wish this could be required reading not just for freshmen on campus, but EVERYONE. If only they would listen.

  8. I don’t think I agree that men being “assertive in a way that she interprets to mean that he “won’t take no for an answer.” ” without meaning to coerce sex is such a common scenario. I can see if a woman has been raped in the past she might have a fear of men that leads her to interpret an assertive proposition this way. Generally though if a women aren’t going around interpreting that men are trying force themselves on them when they are not. Women are not that paranoid. If a woman thinks a man is doing this its most likely that he is and if he is not taking no for an answer he is guilty of rape. The “he didn’t realize what he was doing” excuse has been used to let rapists off the hooks for decades when research by the likes of David Lisak & interviews with convicted rapists themselves show that rapists know full well their victim doesn’t want it.

  9. Jennifer says:

    I think, to really go after the root issues of Patriarchy, that is: the absolute, assumed from birth to death factor, of men being able to use a woman, any woman, as they see fit, to rape, molest, marry, kill, beat, beat for being with another man, kill for the shame of having been raped (outside of marriage), rape or kill, for being a lesbian and so-forth, would just interfere with individual and groups and societies of men to believe and act as if they do hold these “rights”. Observe the violent and on going reactionary haze that occurs every single time the slightest wedge in claiming a woman is a human being and equal to a man and deserving respect as much as a man is brought up around the world. We’re talking aplomb here. As if it has never even been considered… That is a pretty big sign of just how entrenched anti-woman culture is on a global scale.
    I watch television and always try to imagine the different possibilities of the images I see…From, how careful they are about showing “inter-racial” couple to the shots of girls bottoms versus boys. I mean really. the women on The Weather Channel where mini skits and get full body shots, where as the men are more often talking busts if not just heads. It seems nutty, it feels nutty, but it is there. This constant placement of women as objects, to be viewed and acted upon, while men and boys are instigators of actions and full value human beings…over and over and over… It’s personal , it’s political, and what’s worse, it is a phantom…As soon as you think you have grasped it, it oozes out of reach and reforms and calls itself something else and insists you were wrong…

  10. Thanks for posting this well-written article. I called RAINN a few years ago and got turned off when the leaders said it wasn’t a feminist organization and didn’t want to give the feminist movement any credit for laying the groundwork on sexual violence issues.

    I fear that the battered women’s movement is going to get co-opted by conservatives. For example, Mike Rawlins, the mayor of Dallas, has taken strong stands against domestic violence and has had rallies for men. However, several of the men who speak at those rallies are leaders of patriarchal churches. These men will actually say at the rallies that the husband is the head of the household. However, the feminist community has been silent about it. Deeply disturbing and quite disgusting.

  11. You’ve made some excellent points and articulated so well the more subtle aspects of why rape is acceptable and why it happens so easily. It’s a particularly uphill battle in a country as patriarchal as India where most men simply accept the status quo and routinely tell women that they are making an unnecessary fuss. They ridicule us by saying things like ” Oh, Bollywood films cause rape?” or ” Ha ha – you actually believe song lyrics cause a man to rape?” I’ve re blogged your article for the benefit of my readers. Thank you for this well written piece.

  12. Recently, I wrote a research paper for my English Class entitled “Patriarchy in the Media: Male Heroes versus Female Heroes”

    This is the last paragraph:

    In summary, female heroes in the media are affected by patriarchy. While the image of the male hero is attractive, like a “Playboy”, the heroine’s image is sexed up like a “Playboy Bunny”.

    The male hero is always there, in control, to save the day and sometimes goes down fighting and returns from the death. The female hero can save the day, but sometimes she is prey of male violence, cannot control her powers, becomes a menace for the society she tries to protect and rarely recovers or comes back.

    The majority of fictional male heroes earn money with decency, dignity and usually with a college degree, very few female characters do the same.

    What Mitra C. Emad says about Wonder Woman can be applied mostly to any fictional heroine, “she is both the dominated and the dominatrix” and “her straight male target audience is not expected to identify with a woman, only sexually objectify her.”

    It is impossible to guess exactly what will be the future of a character like Laura Diamond, but Laura Lebrel is becoming very popular each year in more than 10 countries around the world. She represents the real female hero, our mothers who are paramedics, nurses, doctors, firefighters, police officers and judges, saving people lives or locking up dangerous criminals and still finding the time to read a story at bedtime to their children.

    If someone would like to read the whole research, you would see it at http://mariamontez.org/versusii.html

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