Sexual assault is a simple issue on the one hand–just don’t do it. But in so many ways it is one of the more complex issues we deal with today. It’s a very important issue in our society and we must reduce its frequency and improve attitudes towards women. Advocacy programs and many advocacy groups are doing what they can to improve the situation. Sometimes, though, the actions and positions they take can be counterproductive. This can occur when they misunderstand a perspective held by men, who are an important target for change. Using the term Rape Culture is often such a case.

Why Rape Culture can be Counterproductive

One term that can be counterproductive is Rape Culture. There are many definitions to be found on the internet. Here’s the definition of Rape Culture on Wikipedia as of October 5th, 2016:

In feminist theory, rape culture is a setting in which rape is pervasive and normalized due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality. There is disagreement over what defines rape culture and as to whether any societies currently meet the criteria for a rape culture.

Behaviors commonly associated with rape culture include victim blaming, sexual objectification, trivializing rape, denial of widespread rape, refusing to acknowledge the harm caused by some forms of sexual violence, or some combination of these. The notion of rape culture has been used to describe and explain behavior within social groups, including prison rape, and in conflict areas where war rape is used as psychological warfare. Entire societies have been alleged to be rape cultures.

There are very few men who would agree that rape is pervasive and normalized. Likely, few would agree that victim blaming, trivialization of rape, or denial of harm from sexual violence is common among men. I don’t know anybody who engages in these beliefs or behaviors((Most of the people I know graduated from college or university. So, I represent just one demographic. Furthermore, I live in Canada, which may be a kinder, gentler place. But I think few men of any demographic would welcome the term Rape Culture.)), though clearly some do. Regardless, everyone I know takes sexual assault very seriously and believes we must make progress.

If You Believe in Rape Culture

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However, perhaps your experiences are different, leading you to believe that rape culture exists in a society. If the men in your society don’t agree with you, you’ll need to convince them otherwise. Your task will be far more difficult if you begin your conversation with accusations of rape culture. Simply put, most men find that term to be profoundly offensive.

When you offend people, they tend to get emotional and stop listening. You’ll have lost your audience before you’ve really begun the discussion. It won’t help to explain how common or pervasive you believe rape culture to be, or how deeply or profoundly you believe it. You’ve already lost the audience. Instead, you must begin with a discussion in which you listen as much as you talk. Only then can you change people’s positions. If you feel too strongly about the issue to do that, then find someone else to lead the discussion.

Putting the Shoe on the Other Foot

If you have trouble understanding the male resistance to the term, Rape Culture, perhaps it would help to see a similar term applied to women. The closest I can think of that offends me as much as Rape Culture is the term (please forgive me) Castrating Bitch Culture. A few men would claim this culture exists. Replacing words in the Rape Culture definition above, we’d have the following:

In men’s theory, castrating bitch culture is a setting in which castrating bitches are pervasive and normalized due to societal attitudes about gender. There is disagreement over what defines castrating bitch culture and as to whether any societies currently meet the criteria for a castrating bitch culture.

Perhaps you were offended, or perhaps you laughed at the absurdity. Regardless, you’re likely not in the mood to have a serious discussion about castrating bitch culture and what to do about it. What if the term Rape Culture provoked a similar reaction in your audience. Would that help or hinder your cause? Using a term that someone else finds equally offensive will make it much more difficult to get your point across to that person.

Sexual Assault Culture

Unlike the contentious term Rape Culture, many will agree that we live in a sexual assault culture, at least with the definition of sexual assault today. Here’s the definition of sexual assault on Wikipedia as of October 5th, 2016:

Sexual assault is a sexual act in which a person is coerced or physically forced to engage against their will, or a non-consensual sexual touching of a person. Sexual assault is a form of sexual violence, and it includes rape (such as forced vaginal, anal or oral penetration or drug facilitated sexual assault), groping, forced kissing, child sexual abuse, or the torture of the person in a sexual manner.

In particular, groping a woman (e.g. grabbing her breasts or butt) and kissing someone without an invitation are things I’ve heard about far too often. (For that matter, I’ve had my butt groped by a young woman who thought it was funny.) Although these are minor compared to some other types of sexual assault, they are part of the definition of sexual assault. So, it’s hard to argue against a sexual assault culture. An umbrella term is useful, but Sexual Assault Culture would be a less-controversial choice than Rape Culture.

Example: Carleton University Sexual Violence Policy

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Insistence on the use of the term Rape Culture was at the center of a dispute at Carelton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada((see the article in the Ottawa Citizen)). Like all universities in Ontario, Carleton must comply with Ontario’s Sexual Violence and Workplace Harassment Action Plan (Bill 132). Therefore, they must develop a standalone sexual violence policy.

Sexual assault survivors, outreach workers and their supporters want the policy to acknowledge a rape culture on campus. They felt very strongly about it and said so at a meeting. Dawn Moore, an associate professor of law and equity chair of the Carleton University Academic Staff Association, said:

It was incredibly combative. Basically we couldn’t even get past the preamble. People were extremely upset. There were a lot of survivors in the room who were triggered.

It is completely understandable that the sexual assault survivors were very passionate about getting the policy right. Their emotions are largely understandable. However, the outcome of the meetings was that no progress was made, which was bad for everyone.

Nevertheless, there are serious concerns about the draft policy, such as described in the Ottawa Citizen article. They must be addressed. To have such an important policy delayed merely because of an insistence on the use of the term Rape Culture is unproductive. Furthermore, the delay itself may result in additional victims. After all, if the policy will help, then delaying it will delay the help. And help is desperately needed.

Making Progress

A woman holding a sign, "Take Rape Seriously"

Photo by WeNews

The term Rape Culture has become a term commonly used in feminist and other circles as a shorthand for a lot of difficult issues in sexual assault and sexual violence. For that reason, the term has become a call to arms. It is the dragon to be slayed to address all the issues that it represents. Hence, supporters claim, we must acknowledge the dragon.

However, we must not lose sight of the underlying issues. Addressing those issues–making real progress–is too important. We shouldn’t waste time trying to convince an offended male audience to accept the term.

The Nation has an article, Ten Things to End Rape Culture, that shows one approach to address the underlying issues. It doesn’t require the use of the term Rape Culture to make progress. Instead, you can deal directly with the issues underlying rape culture. Don’t get hung up on terminology.

An Opposing Position

One could argue that the term Rape Culture, being a good shorthand for many issues, is worth the fight. That acceptance of this term is important because it acknowledges all the issues it represents. Many supporters of the term feel that rejection of the term is tanatmount to rejection of those issues it represents. I think that there is some truth to this, that gaining acceptance would be progress. However, I think it’s the long, slow road to solving the issues. They are too important for the long, slow road.

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One good thing about the term Rape Culture is that it gets a lot of press. Controversy is great fodder for the media. Thus, one could argue that the coverage is worth it. It provokes discussion that wouldn’t otherwise occur. That worked on me. I was so offended by the term that I had to get to the bottom of it. But I don’t think that’s a common reaction.

Nevertheless, if you know the consequences, and you conclude it’s worthwhile, then go ahead and use the term. However, to be sure that you really do know the consequences, monitor the results. Did you achive the results you expected? If so, repeat. If not, adapt.


We’ve covered a lot of territory. The underlying issues of rape culture, such as sexual assaults, are important, so lets summarize:

  • The term Rape Culture is very offensive to many men. The underlying issues, though, are not. If you want to make progress, avoid the term and deal directly with the issues. Enthusiastic participants are far more valuable than offended ones.
  • The term itself is a shorthand for many feminist issues. It is also a call to arms in many ways that can help rally  supporters. However, its use outside the community can be counterproductive. If that happens, then drop the term for that discussion. Making progress on the issues is much more important than the term itself.
  • If you find that an umbrella term or shorthand term is too useful to give up, consider using Sexual Assault Culture instead. It’s less offensive.
  • Despite this discussion, you may decide to use the term, knowing the consequences. If so, and you get the results you expected, then repeat the behavior. If not, adapt.

The issues represented by the term Rape Culture are far too important to be derailed by the term itself.

Top photo by CMCarterSS