Monday, June 16, 2014

The explanatory power of "rape culture"

Rachel Hills makes the case for the term "rape culture," and lays out the best explanation I've seen for what's meant by the expression. If I remain skeptical, it's not that I'm skeptical of any of the phenomena Rachel discusses. She refers to "[a] culture that doesn’t take women’s 'no's seriously. That assumes that a 'no' is just the first step in a negotiation, rather than a statement of resolve," and yes, that's a very real problem. As is the persistent belief that "date rape" isn't quite rape. She's right that all of these factors are interrelated. The rom-com idea of male pursuit as a good thing ends up encouraging mating rituals that discourage female consent.

My skepticism, then, is really just with whether it makes sense to use the word that refers to the most extreme manifestation of a problem to describe all manifestations. Maybe my wariness comes from the fact that a popular conflation of anti-Semitism with Nazi anti-Semitism makes it near-impossible to discuss relatively minor forms of the phenomenon without seeming hysterical. (As always, The Onion...) But even without resorting to analogies... I guess my thinking here is, using the expression "rape culture" ends up alienating not just those who remain unconvinced by the items Rachel lists, but also those who see all of these as real concerns, but already have a meaning in mind of what "rape" means, namely sex without consent. As in, I can't imagine I'm the only one who gets it, but who remains unconvinced that this term helps others do so. And I'm not sure the best strategy for convincing the unconvinced is one that involves convincing them to use and accept a term that seems, barring extensive explanation, to be overshooting the mark. It works if the unconvinced are prepared to sit through explanations, but my guess is that, unfortunately, they're not.


Nicholas said...

I tend to go the opposite way: the heavy foot isn't on 'rape' but 'culture,' and the point is that a bunch of things which appear to be unconnected are all working in concert. The people who are alienated by use of the word 'rape' are people who are not yet in a position to understand what's going on: the offended are the ones who aren't going to consider the same concept if it had a different name.

To use a different analogy, it's not unlike the problem with racism. Even here in the south, people know enough to not speak their minds if they happen to be racist. The problem is with people who have racialized categories they feel it's okay to deploy with enough ironic distance, or people who make "i'm sort of kidding" jokes. I think calling all of that racist is inflammatory, and to be inflammatory is the point:if people aren't going to change (which is slow, and individual, and unpredictable), there are circumstances where it's appropriate to make things as uncomfortable for them as possible to behave that way in public.

(Patton Oswalt on rape jokes is probably the gold standard for 'being inflammatory changing a previously hostile mind.')

Phoebe said...

But wouldn't the analogy to "racist" be "sexist"? The word "racist" doesn't imply the *worst possible manifestation of* racism - i.e. to call someone a racist isn't to say that this person wants to enslave or commit genocide against the race they're bigoted against. That *is* the implication with anti-Semitism, thus why it's so difficult to call it out without seeming to cry wolf.

I tend to go with "sexist" just because, well, I *am* someone who gets it, at least I think I get it, and I certainly write and talk about these issues from the same perspective of those who use the term "rape culture." And... I'm a woman who's had to deal with plenty on this spectrum, so I don't really have the luxury of doubting that these things are a problem. Yet the term continues to strike me as unnecessarily confusing. I suppose one advantage of the term "rape culture" over "sexism" - which Rachel discusses - is that "rape culture" refers to problems faced by men as well as women. But maybe sexism could cover some of this as well?

pronetolaughter said...

Wait, I just now read the comments. Complete and total disagreement with this. "to call someone a racist isn't to say that this person wants to enslave or commit genocide against the race they're bigoted against." People ABSOLUTELY react to being called racist as if you just called them a member of the KKK. (This is why Jay Smooth has a video on "how to call someone a racist".) Again, privilege was invented as a neutral, unloaded term to explain to people that they benefit from racism without calling them racist. Similarly, rape culture was designed not to trigger people's individual defensiveness, but to illuminate how these things are unconscious, due to the culture, not their fault. Okay, you think these words have become as loaded as the originals? But that doesn't eliminate the problem of how people will react.

I went to college from '93-'97, and Rachel Hill's articulation of rape culture is what I was taught--that's not anything knew. That's a "duh" post for me. And I doubt any feminist has ever articulated it much differently, but yet, somehow you think it's become twisted? How? by whom?

Phoebe said...


Nobody likes being personally accused of anything, be it racism, sexism, or privilege. No one likes to be accused of being a bore! Accusation by its nature always stings.

But if you say, about a third party, that they're racist, or that they said something racist, others don't assume you're accusing that person of supporting the Confederacy. Whereas "anti-Semitism" has come to mean wanting six million Jews brutally murdered, making it impossible to talk about low-level instances thereof. That's what that Onion piece was getting at. Thus why basically every anti-Jewish act is accompanied by a bunch of responses about how whatever it was couldn't possibly have really been anti-Semitic, as if that's by definition overkill.

I agree that neither "privilege" nor "rape culture" were designed to inspire defensiveness. The problem is that these are terms that *came with meanings*, and those not so educated in them (and no, Rachel's post isn't "duh" to most - and she's not claiming to have invented the term, sheesh!) hear the meanings they know. Someone "privileged" is "rich," thus (some of) the defensiveness the term inspires from beneficiaries of unfair advantage who don't happen to be rich.

It's good and well if in activist or academic circles everyone knows what these terms mean, but once the point is to use these terms to convince the unconvinced, their more common-usage meanings really do matter.

Moebius Stripper said...

"As in, I can't imagine I'm the only one who gets it, but who remains unconvinced that this term helps others do so."

Nope, but that's not an easy argument to make, in my experience; this is pretty much my position:

Most times I've seen the term invoked, the conversation goes something like this:

"[ Recent event] proves we live in a rape culture"
"Nuh-uh, because (declining rates of rape, everyone agrees with the statement " rape is bad", something about Muslims and honor killings)"
" No, rape culture isn't those ten things, it's these 500 things" ( and if this is Twitter, a hashtag will inevitably have sprung up by this point)

I've never seen minds changed by virtue of the term having been introduced. Rather, it seems more often to be a way to ensure that only the converted will be preached to.

Phoebe said...

Moebius Stripper,

Yes, that's a great article! This especially: "I suppose that’s the point, that 'rape culture' highlights an ever-present threat, but I think the term is too huge to be useful. 'Rape culture' is insider jargon for those who already agree, an argumentative firework that explodes with sad anger, leaving only an obscuring cloud of smoke."

Re: minds changing, this is what I wanted to ask pronetolaughter, so pronetolaughter, if you're still here... Have you known minds to change because of "privilege" or "rape culture"?

pronetolaughter said...

Belatedly--yes, I have definitely seen people reporting that exercises such as unpacking the invisible knapsack have changed their perception and understanding of the world, and of the obstacles that others faced. I hear students call these exercises powerful and moving, and doing them together is a bonding experience. Let me note that I work in university administration, I talk to college students five days a week, and I see the concept of privilege STILL doing this work, I see wealthy students talking about how they realized they should be allies, I see them saying "yeah, I didn't realize, now I think differently." Do I see it changing the obstinately unconvinced? Probably not. But students who come with an open mind learn to recognize their unconscious assumptions.

(And I don't think privilege is actually a very extreme word.)

I'm less aware of how students are discussing "rape culture" as a specific phrase, so I won't speak to that one, but of course students around the nation are up in arms about the treatment of sexual assault by colleges right now.

Phoebe said...


Fair enough. I'd also be curious if, apart from raising awareness, the exercises you speak of actually change any behaviors. If they do succeed in making rich kids less aloof about it, that might be a good thing, even if it doesn't solve racism.

It's not exactly that I think privilege is "a very extreme word," but that it's a word whose everyday use is something different from its theory one. Bluntly and repetitively put, not everyone with "white privilege" or "cisgender privilege" is, in the usual use of the term, "privileged." Most, in fact, are not. This confuses people, and explains at least some of the 'why are you talking about white privilege when there are poor whites' reactions.

If "rape culture" is being used to describe, narrowly, a culture that permits sexual assaults to go unpunished, then that seems reasonable. My only objection is to using the phrase in reference to all sexism, including relatively minor and non-violent instances.

pronetolaughter said...

I think it's reasonable to expect that raising awareness will reduce microaggressions and increase inclusiveness. These are small changes in individual behavior, but changes. Individual awareness can mean someone speaks up in a meeting and says "hey, maybe we shouldn't do that", leading to larger changes. Solving racism is an incremental game.

I understand your objections and I don't think they are invalid. My critique is that 1) the unintended consequences of your objections will lead to the loss of powerful tools that have done good work 2) what you suggest in replacement has already been tried and failed, and you have offered no explication for why it might work better now.

Phoebe said...

I guess I don't see "racism" and "sexism" as terms that have "already been tried and failed." Much of what was initially called political correctness has merged with politeness. The level of everyday racism and sexism, certainly in any kind of vaguely professional setting, is undoubtedly lower than it had been. So part of it is, I don't see these terms as insufficient.

And I think I did address why I'd expect these older terms to work better, but let me try to get at this more clearly. My thinking is, "privilege" requires a good amount of explanation. There may be time for that in a college workshop dedicated to privilege-awareness, but in more typical situations, there is not. And the people getting all defensive in threads online, etc., over "white privilege," saying that that's absurd because there are poor white people... are these people racist (maybe but not necessarily) or are they genuinely confused, because the term "privileged" already has a day-to-day meaning, namely "rich."

pronetolaughter said...

So, everyday racism has lessened. Do you think we should stop calling it out, then, when we see it?

Assuming you don't, your response addresses why you think privilege has problems. My question is: I don't understand why you think saying "wow, that comment is racist" or "hmm, that argument was used by slaveholders" is going to produce a better result than "YPIS."

Phoebe said...

I don't think YPIS produces good results because (pardon the repetition) a) those who say the wrong thing out of ignorance and not hatred tend to lack cultural capital themselves, and not to know about YPIS; b) "Privilege" continues to mean "rich," in settings other than privilege-awareness-raising workshops, and thus inspires defensiveness in those who are white/straight/cis/etc. but not rich, and c) It's just not sufficiently precise, when precise terms *do* exist. (It's not clear why you should care that your privilege is "showing." Does hiding it make you a better person? Aren't you supposed to "own your privilege", too? How do these expressions add up?)

Also because d) when YPIS is hurled, it's very often *not* about calling out racism, etc., but rather about internal competitions among the privileged over who's the most sensitive. If the rule were that you actually had to *be* the identity that was insulted to hurl a YPIS, and you had to actually be offended or quite sure others of your identity would be, then I'd say fine, maybe not the most effective language, but there's genuine outrage. The reality is a bunch of self-appointed representatives, a lot of speaking for rather than listening to.

pronetolaughter said...

You realize that I've asked the same question several times and you still haven't addressed it, right? I am completely clear on why you critique privilege. I don't even necessarily disagree. But you have not explained why you think "racism" (or whatever) will work. That's a big hole in your argument. You don't even seem to see that it's a weakness?

You have been saying "X doesn't work because of ABC. Y will work!"

And I say, "wait, why will Y work?" and you say "Because X is bad!".

Agreed, you don't get paid for writing here. But I'd hate to see you try to take your thoughts on privilege to a bigger audience without addressing this extremely obvious hole in your argument.

Phoebe said...

I don't want holes in my argument, but I'm pretty sure I did address this. Racism is a better term because it's more precise. If someone's accused of racism, they at least know what it is they're being accused of, even if they go on to deny it. It's also a better term because it doesn't overshoot the mark. Someone accused of racism isn't being accused of a) tremendous wealth, or b) genocidal intentions.

pronetolaughter said...

And what you miss, is that calling out privilege is not meant to be an accusation. It is a description, an illumination. (That people turned YPIS into an accusation is a separate-but-related issue).

But, thank you. You've identified the key aspects of "racism" that make you think it will work better, although you haven't followed that through to discuss how it might work in practice.

I think you are completely wrong that racism is as precise as you think it is. When people use racism in similar ways to how they might use privilege--eg, structural racism, implicit bias, learned assumptions--it is consistently misunderstood. Discussions around Trayvon Martin's death made this very clear. Again, I haven't had the heart to read all the reactions to TNC's reparations pieces, but I wouldn't be surprised if we see the same misunderstandings there.

In addition, elsewhere you've implied that racism works better because it is a broad-spectrum term, which seems to contradict your claim here that it is more precise. (I would actually say that privilege is much more precise as a term, and that your issue with it is not imprecision but that it has a second meaning. Of course, racism has many many many layers of accumulated meanings.)

Phoebe said...

"Privilege" isn't necessarily an accusation. But how is "YPIS" not one? It's an instruction, but in the way that 'don't be an asshole' is an instruction.

"Racism" is both broader and more precise. Why? Broader, because it covers everything from gaffes and armchair bigotry to genocide. More precise, because it's clearly about a dislike of one or more other races. Whereas with YPIS, it's often unclear what's even meant. Race privilege? Class privilege? Gender privilege? Surely-always-had-it-easy privilege? Someone will be YPISed and not even know why, and then their not knowing will be held up as further evidence of their obliviousness. When the goal ought to be rectifying the obliviousness.

Even if it's spelled out which form of privilege is at stake, there's the problem of the word itself implying wealth, something that often but hardly always accompanies whiteness, etc. Because racism doesn't imply that the racist is *also* wealth, well-connected, etc., it's a more precise term.

I think we basically agree on the fundamentals here: 1) that there's a benefit to those with unearned advantages not being unnecessarily hurtful, 2) that lots of people, esp. those benefitting, don't believe those unearned advantages exist. I'm not particularly confident that any vocabulary will make the stubbornly bigoted change their tune. I've made as much of a case for the terms I prefer as I can for the time being.