RAINN’s Attack on the Concept of "Rape Culture" Is Embarrassing and Misguided

What Women Really Think
March 18 2014 11:38 AM

RAINN Denounces, Doesn't Understand the Concept of "Rape Culture"

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Feminists are not confused about the cause of rape: rapists.

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

The Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) is one of the most active and important organizations in the country fighting sexual violence, so it's quite the head-scratcher to read about it denying the cultural factors that allow sexual predators to evade justice.

In a press release announcing RAINN's recommendations to a White House task force created to fight sexual assault on college campuses, its president, Scott Berkowitz, and vice president for public policy, Rebecca O’Connor, wrote:

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.
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This doesn't make sense. People who use the phrase "rape culture" do not deny that rape is a matter of individuals making the active choice to rape. "Rape culture" is a very useful way to describe the idea that rapists are given a social license to operate by people who make excuses for sexual predators and blame the victims for their own rapes. Instead of recognizing this, or, at the very least, just not bringing it up at all in its memo, RAINN instead bashes a straw man, arguing that the focus on "rape culture" diverts "the focus from the individual at fault, and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions."

Feminists who coined and spread the phrase "rape culture" are not denying that rapists need to be held personally responsible for their criminal behavior. They are pointing out all the cultural reasons that this doesn't happen: the myth that false accusations are common, the myth that rapists are just confused about consent, and the myth that victims share the blame for drinking too much or otherwise making themselves vulnerable. Only by tackling these cultural problems will we be able to see clearly that rapists know exactly what they're doing and punish them for it. Rape culture doesn't cause the desire to rape, but it allows rapists to rape with the confidence that comes from knowing you're very unlikely to be prosecuted for it. Surely they have Google search at the RAINN offices that could have helped clear this up, but if not, an intern could have called one of the many feminists who speak out regularly about this issue to understand it better before dismissing it publicly.

What makes this doubly frustrating is that the concept of rape culture has been really useful in guiding recent efforts to stop rape by focusing on the ways that rapists exploit the culture to evade justice. The bill addressing sexual assault in the military that passed in December demonstrates the impact that "rape culture" as a concept has had. Most of the provisions—disallowing commanders to overturn rape convictions, making it a crime to retaliate against accusers, and giving civilian defense officials more power in prosecuting rape—stem from a new understanding about the way that a rapist's friends and colleagues will often give him cover and protection and blame the victim for her disruptive accusations. RAINN's own recommendations on how to reduce the problem of rape on campus also show that they get this on some level, as they suggest that universities educate students about what is and isn't consent, so rapists can't exploit confusion about this issue to get away with their crimes. 

It's understandable that a mainstream organization like RAINN would want to avoid using feminist jargon in its publications and press releases, in no small part because people who haven't encountered a term like "rape culture" might take it the wrong way. But going out of your way to attack the idea in a report that's supposed to be focused on solving the same problem that the phrase was created to address, and to do so while not even understanding what it is you're denouncing, is just embarrassing. 

Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer and DoubleX contributor. She also writes regularly for the Daily Beast, AlterNet, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter.

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