The two ways to dismantle rape culture

'Let's empower girls to be in charge of their sexuality and not passive about it.'

'Let's empower girls to be in charge of their sexuality and not passive about it.' Photo: Lisaphoto

I’ve been thinking a lot about rape culture recently. What it is, how it is perpetuated and the various excuses offered up to deny its existence. To quote myself, it refers to “a social system that has slowly normalised rape and sexual assault through the bombardment of images, language, laws and social attitudes”. (For additional primers, refer to this piece on the conflation of rape with property theft and this piece on the shameful practice of victim blaming.) 

As Bianca Hall illustrates here, society overwhelmingly directs the responsibility for rape prevention towards women. We’re reminded frequently to ‘take care of ourselves’. To not drink too much, to dress sensibly and to not behave unwisely with strange men. Our bodies are positioned as some kind of external piece of equipment that, without proper care and attention, can be stolen or broken into after we’ve been careless enough to leave them discarded or unlocked somewhere. Despite the fact most sexual assault is committed in a private residence by people known to the victims, stranger-rape still dominates most of the conversation around rape prevention (possibly because people are still uncomfortable interfering with domestic forms of violence). As a result, the majority of victims and the factors which lead to their abuse are ignored, while survivors who more conveniently fit into society’s idea of stranger-rape are blamed enough for inviting their assaults that their attackers are provided with caveats to excuse them. 

As I see it, our current strategy of expecting women to be responsible for preventing rape ignores two fundamental issues: how rape is both a gendered crime and an act of casual dehumanisation. By shifting focus to these two things, we might actually be able to affect real change. 

1. Stop being vague about the perpetrators 


Political analyst Zerlina Maxwell earnt the damnation of the Fox News audience last week when she appeared on The Sean Hannity Show to discuss whether or not women should be armed in order to protect themselves from sexual assault. Maxwell, a rape survivor, made the daring suggestion that women shouldn’t be directed to do anything when it comes to sexual violence. Instead, she argued that we need to start telling men not to rape people. 

As Maxwell so succinctly told Hannity, “You’re talking about this as if it’s some faceless, nameless criminal, when a lot of times it’s someone you know and trust. If you train men not to grow up to become rapists, you prevent rape.” 

Here is the uncomfortable truth that remains conspicuously absent from most mainstream discussions about rape prevention: rape is a gendered crime almost always committed by men. The Victorian Crime Statistics show that in the fiscal year of 2011/2012, 78% of juvenile and 90% of adult victims of sexual assault were women. Conversely, 95% of juvenile offenders and adult offenders were men. 

This isn’t to say that all men are potential rapists (although the culture of rape apology certainly paints them that way when it perpetuates the idea that men have sexual needs that can be triggered by women’s behaviour). It’s merely to state the obvious - that rape is a crime almost solely perpetrated by men and almost solely experienced by women. It's something these men choose to do, often repeatedly (in the instances of ongoing sexual abuse), occasionally with premeditation (by using drugs like Rohypnol, targeting vulnerable women, plying women with alcohol) and sometimes by simply deciding not to stop when consent has been either refused or withdrawn. Ignoring the gendered nature of the crime does little to protect women and only enables those men who choose to rape to do so with less fears of reprisal. 

Perhaps it’s easier for men to absolve themselves of responsibility because, unless they’re in a high risk group for incarceration, the threat of rape isn’t something they’re taught to live with. And if they don’t feel like rape is something they’ll ever perpetrate, then it’s easy to imagine it’s nothing to do with them. The fears and threats to women therefore become the problem of women to solve. 

But whether or not individual men are responsible, rape is a gendered crime overwhelmingly perpetrated by men and overwhelmingly inflicted upon women. Pretending that it’s some kind of shadowy phenomena in which there are no common variables other than how we perceive a victim to have behaved isn’t just disingenuous, it’s an insult to the trauma experienced by women who are often forced to account for their actions. Human decency dictates that you challenge your own privilege, especially when it’s used to oppress another group. 

Why can’t we be honest about that and mount an effective campaign that puts men front and centre as the both the cause AND the solution? Because here’s another stat to add to those up above. When Canada ran its ‘Don’t Be That Guy’ campaign, shifting the responsibility of rape and sexual assault prevention onto men, reported incidents of sexual assault dropped by 10%. 

I’m very sorry if it puts people out to be reminded of men’s contribution to these crime rates, but we don’t have time for anyone’s hurt feelings. If you want to prevent rape, stop men from raping. Simple.


2. It takes two to tango, so make sure your partner can dance 

In 2009, Four Corners screened ‘Code of Silence’, a report into the sexual bonding activities present across some of Australia’s sporting codes. Part of the report detailed a 2002 pack sex incident involving a young woman in New Zealand and members of the Cronulla Sharks. The woman, referred to on Four Corners as “Clare”, was working as a barmaid at the time at a hotel in New Zealand where the players were staying. She consented to go back to a room with two of them. Over the next two hours, at least 12 players and staff entered the room without Clare’s consent. Six of them had sex with her, while the others watched and masturbated. Five days later, Clare reported the incident to the police. No charges were laid. 

As Four Corners later clarified, “Most of the activity that took place during the incident is not disputed. Players and staff gave graphic accounts to police of the sexual activity. One player told police that at least one of them had climbed in through the bathroom window and crawled commando-style along the floor of the room.” 

Despite this, public response to the story was mixed. And when I say mixed, I mean there were people who were outraged on Clare’s behalf, and there were others - a significant vocal pool of others - who missed the relative nuances of the case and once again leapt straight to the issue of consent. That the fact that she was there, and had entered sort of willingly into a situation with two players meant her consent carried over to a further 12.

Consent or not, it seems we are so immune to the idea of respect being a vital component of sex - however many people may be involved - that aren't considered as part of a broad range of things that can account for why a woman might feel abused, threatened or assaulted even WHEN initial consent has occurred. Just as consenting to one person apparently also means consenting to their friends, teammates and colleagues, consenting in the first place means giving up your right to say no, to be respected, to be even considered PRESENT in the act as anything other than what Roy Masters, sports writer and former coach, admitted at the time was seen as a ‘vehicle for team bonding’. Women's bodies aren't conduits for male satisfaction or masculinity. 

But it was the following statement from Clare that really spoke to the heart of why this sort of coercive pack incident is closer to assault than the consensual group sex people explained it away as. She said:  “They never spoke to me, they spoke just to themselves, amongst themselves, laughing and thinking it was really funny. When you have sex with someone, it's nice and you talk and you touch and this was awful. This was nothing like that.” 

Rape apologists like to argue that there is no black and white when it comes to sexual assault, only shades of grey. And because of this, we’re expected to direct the majority of our care to ensuring men aren’t falsely accused or even punished for making ‘one little mistake’. 

But shades of grey about consent can be very easily resolved by establishing whether or not your sexual partner is present in the situation, enjoying themselves and being afforded a dignity that recognises and respects their humanity. Coercive sex might not be exactly the same as violent assault (and it’s certainly harder to punish, despite what people fear). But it still relies on one partner asserting control over the other and denying them the sense of respect and value that should be fundamental to any consensual sexual encounter (regardless of whether or not it involves strangers, whips, alcohol or football teams). 

Degrading someone against their consent is really easy to do if you've already dehumanised them in your head. Informed consent therefore needs to move above and beyond simply securing a 'yes' to a place where we constantly ask ourselves, 'Am I treating my partner with dignity? Are they enjoying this? Are they present and equal? Are we experiencing this together?" If you don’t feel like you’re capable of having sex with someone, stranger or not, without affording them the basic dignity of being treated like a human being, then you are part of the problem. 

Society has so much to unpack in regards to rape culture and prevention that it’s impossible to cover it all in one hit. But perhaps it’s a starting point for a broader conversation. The bandaid solution of making rape prevention the responsibility of women doesn’t address the core issue of how and why it keeps happening. Asking a woman to protect herself from rape doesn’t stop men from raping. All it might do is stop them from raping her.

Clementine Ford will be one of the panelists participating in a live discussion of Rape Culture at the All About Women Festival on April 7. For more information and to get your ticket, visit The Sydney Opera House. 


  • Dear Clem,

    I don't know about you but I think pornography is really an intergal part of rape culture, particularly in germinating those ideas of possession, ownership, domination and degradation of women and girls.

    I've never seen any articles on Daily Life even coming close to addressing it, but as a young twenty something It hink it's one of the primary reasons why sexism and misogyny is rising in young men and why this thing called "rape culture" is getting worse and worse.

    If men are seeing what they are seeing online and are invited to a jury on rape, it is so much more difficult to get them to empathise with the victim.

    It's already difficult enough to negotiate sex and boundaries with many men.

    Can you please write more on the issue.

    Date and time
    March 12, 2013, 10:31AM
    • It's not even porn....turn on V/MTV/Rage and check out the top 20. Doesn't take long to see where the problem is. But hey, maybe I'm just getting old.

      Date and time
      March 12, 2013, 10:59AM
    • JD, I quite agree with you. The other bugbear is prostitution, which is so tied up with porn that it's often hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Men are routinely told that sex is something they can buy or barter from someone, that they can effectively rent a person's body to sexually exploit. They are told it is ok or even desirable to find a person who does not wish to have sex with you, and pay them to do it anyway.

      We're told this is "natural" sexual behaviour on men's part but, surprise surprise, we generally only see it occur in one gender because we only teach it to one gender. Women are taught from an early age that sex is a reciprocal thing - you want it, you have to find/attract a willing partner. There aren't brothels and strip clubs full of men for the taking, on every corner - and those that do exist generally service men.

      How can we teach men, "you need an enthusiastic yes" when we also teach them, "or you can have sex with an unwilling woman if you pay her enough"? How do we teach them, "you are not entitled to sex just because you feel like it" when our economic system dictates the exact opposite?

      Anyway, can of worms...

      JD, if you want to read more on the damaging effects of porn, try "Pornland" by Gail Dines. Great, very uncomfortable read!

      Red Pony
      Date and time
      March 12, 2013, 11:32AM
    • Absolutely.

      Date and time
      March 12, 2013, 11:32AM
    • I agree JD. Hard core porn is so easily available to young boys on the Internet it seems to me inevitable that their ideas regarding sex and women are affected. How do we as women combat it? How so we teach our young people that sex is not "bad" but that respect for your partner is integral to the experience?

      Date and time
      March 12, 2013, 11:33AM
    • @Red Pony.
      I completely disagree with you. You speak of sex work here as sex slavery, where the woman is forced to submit to sex essentially without consent, or perhaps you think money constitutes a pseudo-consent. You seem to see sex work as an opportunity for men to essentially commit a sort of legitimised rape, and that simply adds to the culture of men taking sex when and how they want it.
      The way I see it, sex work achieves the opposite effect. Sex workers have taken control of their bodies, they own their sexuality and they ACTIVELY and TANGIBLY consent to every act of sex they participate in as part of their work. I believe this actually encourages the view that sex is not something that can be taken whenever a man pleases. The exchange of sex is not forced, it is negotiated in a clear and deliberate manner, boundaries are set and adhered to and the sex worker is respected as the owner of her body and a willing participant.

      To paint sex workers as unwilling participants is a misconception about sex workers in general, that they are all desperate and have resorted to sex work as a last resort. This isn't true of the majority of professional sex workers, and even those who do choose the work out of desperation, they still CHOOSE and they are still in control of their bodies and the services the provide.

      Sex work teaches men that sex IS NOT FREE and must be consented to and negotiated clearly and willingly.

      This doesn't of course address the issue of rape culture in general and the ridiculousness of consent currently being viewed as 'a lack of objection' rather than enthusiasm and willingness.

      Date and time
      March 12, 2013, 12:29PM
    • I've seen almost the complete opposite argument - that the legal availability of pornography and prostitution provide options not otherwise available to some, and that the sexually frustrated are otherwise more likely to commit these crimes. The extremes of the argument are usually taken by those adopting extremes of the nature/nurture biology/sociology divide.

      I'd be genuinely interested in seeing research into this if it can be separated from the many other cultural variables that would complicate such research, but since both are acts between consenting adults, banning them would cloud the fundamental distinction that needs to be made and violate the rights of consenting adults to make these decisions.

      Date and time
      March 12, 2013, 12:57PM
    • Your idea that societies need to teach young men not to mistreat women is good. I'd suggest, though I obviously can't speak for anyone but me, that the vast majority of men would be appalled by the thought of having sex with someone not into it, or them, let alone forcing the other person to engage in it. Obviously this doesn’t apply to ALL men, but your article doesn’t state what percentages of men commit sexual assault. Given the annual rate in this instance (Victoria in 2011-12) is 0.117 % (allowing for underreporting), then 99.9% of men do not commit sexual assault. As to whether men condone it, blame victims, or place the onus of prevention on women, is debatable. But some of your assertions are dubious. Men live with the threat of violence. We're not so privileged that we can walk around anywhere, even at home, without a care. The statistics you quote note men are as likely to be physical assault victims as women, and almost 2000 males were sexual assaults victims, mostly (but not only) at the hands of men. Making men as a whole responsible for rapes by individual men is as ludicrous as making all men responsible for all assaults. Violence, including sexual violence, is a social problem mainly perpetrated by a very small percentage of men. It is something men and women (as employers, parents, teachers, coaches, leaders, family members) need to collectively tackle, and one that we will likely never be completely rid of, because some people, sadly, will probably always do bad things to others by their own choosing. Does that mean we accept it as inevitable? No. Should we try to minimise it by making those more likely to be responsible (males) more conscious of what is respectful behaviour? Definitely.

      Date and time
      March 12, 2013, 1:03PM
    • Hey JD and Red Pony,

      I have to disagree with you here.

      JD - Firstly sexism and misogyny is not 'rising' in young men. It's always been here, in every generation and it may seem like its 'rising' only because we identify and call it out more often, but in all truth its survived centuries.
      Why? Pornography wasnt so easily accessable a century ago, but there was a lot of sexism and misogyny happening. Why? Idea of possession/ownership/domination have existed in men for a long time. Why?
      Pornography is a scapegoat. Its easy to blame pornography because it's there and you can see it. Pornography isnt a visual of how to rape. Its a visual of how to sex. Sex and rape is different and rape is not sex. It's possession/ownership/entitlement. These feelings in men arent seeded when watching porn.

      Red pony - As a sex worker, I feel qualified to comment that sex work is not what you have described. I dont believe a guy thinks "well i just spent 200 on this chick, clearly this chick at the bar will fuck me for a drink".
      And infact, I have never felt disrespected by my clients. I have however felt disrespected in public settings. I've had boys spit the dummy when theyve brought me a drink and I'm not keen to fuck.
      People who see sex workers dont see sex workers so the can unleash their dirty dark sexual fantasies. Most of the time, its normal sex, because they're normal guys after normal sex with a girl who is happy to have sex.

      And can I just note that there is a lot of writing done upon the integrity and agenda of Gail Dines and her work. I dont find her work to be truthful.

      Estelle Lucas
      Date and time
      March 12, 2013, 1:06PM
    • Agreed. I fear for my (future/potential) daughters and sons in the face of the all-pervasive porn culture that has consumed pop culture. Whether it's the availability of actual (and hardcore) porn on the internet, or the casual transference of porn values into more mainstream channels, I can't help but wonder what the future will look like? How can it possibly get more extreme? How much more can we devalue the act of sex?

      But that said, rape is widespread throughout the world and throughout history - even in times and places of extreme conservatism.

      Clem - thank you for your writing on this subject. I've actually changed my thinking and gotten angry about the usual line "police are urging women to be safe" which as yesterday's article pointed out should have been "police are urging men not to rape." Let's change the discourse and hopefully the culture.

      Date and time
      March 12, 2013, 1:08PM

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