Then to Now: An Analysis of Rape Culture

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Heart Shaped Bruise” by Nan Goldin, 1980

Warning: The information that follows is explicit in nature and will discuss sexual violence and other sensitive topics.

By Remington Jensen

Although many may think that a society built upon the normalization of rape isn’t where the world is presently, a post on wavaw.ca – a Canadian website and organization whose acronym stands for Women Against Violence Against Women – explains the term “rape culture” coined in the 1970s by United States feminists.

“It [rape culture] was designed to show the ways in which society blamed victims of sexual assault and normalized male sexual violence.”

The term “rape culture” attempts to define a hypermasculine world in which sexual violence has become normalized even humorous to some. Further in the WAVAW article, author Emilie Buchwald is cited for stating the definition of rape culture as:

“A complex set of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.”

To me, the term “emotional terrorism” is what stands out here. Many believe that men – or even society as a whole – go out of their way to prolong a culture that is not only fine with rape but promotes that there’s no issue with the normalization of this traumatic experience persisting.


Looking back however, we realize that rape culture is not something that merely began in the 1970s, but rather has persisted throughout history in many cultures, finally becoming more spoken about in recent decades.

A Weebly site presenting itself as a “History of Rape Culture” brings up Greek societies and mythology promoted the normalcy of rape as far back as 900 BC. In the story of “Leda & Zeus,” the page states:

“Leda, the wife of Tyndareus, King of Sparta, is enjoying a bath in the local lake. During her swim, Zeus transforms himself into the shape of a swan and proceeds to sneak up on Leda and rape her.  Zeus was a highly praised god in Greek society and was notorious for his sexual encounters with mortal women.”

Does this sound familiar? Even in current times of excusing sexual assault due to social status we have a example of a story, centuries old, of men being excused for their acts due to their social prominence.

However, this is not the only example, for the site continues to shed light on the background of another Greek tale: Medusa.

“Medusa was originally a beautiful young woman, known for her lovely hair and being the aspiration of many potential male suitors. Poseidon, God of the sea, took it upon himself to take advantage of Medusa and rape her in Athena’s temple. After realizing what had happened, Athena blames Medusa, the victim in this case, for the sexual encounter that had occurred in her temple. Athena punishes Medusa for the incident by turning her hair into gruesome snakes and making her face so hideous that should anyone place their gaze upon her, they would turn into stone.”

Rather than hearing out Medusa, this myth tells of Athena placing blame upon the young woman and cursing her as punishment for a God raping her. Now, does this ring a bell? Our culture not only still allows a culture of rape to persist, but victim shaming is certainly still in play, even nearly 3000 years later.

So, after defining rape culture and giving examples from ancient history of the same practices that persist today, what in our society could we deem as supporting rape culture? Quoting WAVAW again:

Rape culture includes jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words and imagery, that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people believe that rape is inevitable. Rather than viewing the culture of rape as a problem to change, people in a rape culture think about the persistence of rape as “just the way things are.”

A way to view our current climate of rape culture is to accept the fact that thousands of years of women being used, violated, abused and persecuted was only the beginning. The media that we consume has been consequently reflective of all these practices, and although a joke about rape here and there might be harmless, it’s a societal epidemic that people often minimize and downplay.

Simply put, these sorts of jokes are inconsiderate, immature, and especially harmful.

Gender roles play a key role in the perpetuation of a culture that places women on the witness stand while their assailant walks smiley in the opposite direction of the jail, likely with lawyers patting their back. Though sexually assaulted men discernibly play a large part in the continuation of rape culture, women are commonly the poster child, blame target, and victim of rape.

It has become almost second nature to our society – especially a society that is still much of a man’s world – to accept these misogynistic practices as a given, and that to change them we would have to disrupt, dismantle, and reinvent our entire culture, because like it or not, rape culture is our culture.

In his book “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town,” Investigative Journalist Jon Krakauer focuses on the epidemic of rape in a college environment, dissecting the issue through investigative reporting. On the topic of reports of rape, Krakauer states:

“Only between 5 percent and 20 percent of forcible rapes in the United States are reported to the police; a paltry 0.4 percent to 5.4 percent of rapes are ever prosecuted; and just 0.2 percent to 2.8 percent of forcible rapes culminate in a conviction that includes any time in jail for the assailant. Here’s another way to think about these numbers: When an individual is raped in this country, more than 90 percent of the time the rapist gets away with the crime.”


With the degree of unreported rapes, the idea of a rape culture and the concept of rape media/humor in mind, where would one turn?

If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual assault and has yet to report it, I recommend resources such as the Victim Rights Law Center – that provides pro bono attorneys to sexual assault victims (currently only in Oregon and Massachusetts), local resources like the organization Alternatives to Violence of the Palouse, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-4673), which itself is a single option from all the resources offered by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network organization.


Rape culture however is a much more difficult issue to tackle, and in my opinion, stems fervently from toxic masculinity. The idea of men having to be the apex of masculine emotionlessness, as well as shunning men who are more feminine or lack masculine traits, is an overwhelming contributor to the world’s rape culture. Sexual assaults not only are reported far less than they happen, but the amount of hyper-masculine prominent members in our culture that are allowed pass from sexual assault accusations only grows.

On October 8th, 2018, a Vox.com article about “celebrities, politicians, CEOs and others” was last updated, detailing a list of over 250 high-level society icons suspected of sexual misconduct.

Here is where we are as a country, a nation, even as a society: still allowing high-society assaulters to be allowed forgiveness in the public eye for the exploitation, manipulation, and abuse of another person’s being without their consent.

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