Rape Culture: Menace or myth?

  • Feminism and its discontents
  • Battle of Ideas 2015 from Institute of Ideas
  • Frobisher Auditorium 1 – Barbican Centre
  • London EC2
  • Sunday 18th October 2015

What sort of society do we live in today? Many thoughts spring to mind. I would say we live in a knowledge rich society – one where information can be gleaned far quicker than ever before simply by the touch of a mobile phone or computer keyboard; or via rolling news on satellite TV, radio or daily newspapers. We live in an impatient society – one where we want that information instantly and woe betide a slow internet or broadband connection; We live in a society where many want fast food or ready meals in favour of healthier, freshly cooked meals.

We live in a well connected society where we can get around our cities, country and the world indeed far more easily than in years gone by. Here in Britain we live in a relatively wealthy society. It’s a free society where its citizens and visitors are permitted freedom of speech. On the negative side we seem to live in a quite violent, more angry society. Or does it just appear that way because of what we hear in the media?

Do we live in a rape society, one with a rape culture at its core? Some would suggest we do. Listening to some of the panelists and guests at the recent Battle of Ideas 2015 debate ‘Rape Culture: Menace or myth’ some people clearly think we do live in a rape culture. Many disagree.


The first thing I’d say is that the term ‘rape culture’ is highly misleading, as it appears to refer to a culture of rape. If that were the definition you could not seriously suggest that we live in a society where the cultural norm is of most men being rapists and most women being victims of rape.

The actual definition is a lot broader and spans a range of sexualised behaviours and attitudes ranging from a sliding scale of paying a woman a compliment, which is entirely legal, right down to rape, which obviously is completely illegal.

Definitions: “Rape culture is a term coined by feminists in the United States in the 1970’s to demonstrate the ways in which society blamed victims of sexual assault and normalised male sexual violence.

In feminist theory it’s a culture in which rape is pervasive and normalised due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality.”

Using these definitions I still would not say that we live in a rape culture. Amongst certain men and certain age groups you could argue that there is a greater propensity for men to hold and outwardly demonstrate what may be perceived as disrespectful and demeaning attitudes to women – be that paying compliments, cat calling, sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape in the most extreme of cases.

You could argue that in the old days this (excluding rape of course) a less extreme form of this would have been called old fashioned misogynism and such views will exist in wide range of men, especially older men perhaps, but that does not equate to them acting out a rape culture lifestyle that is detrimental to women.

In terms of the aspect of the first definition relating to blaming women there are arguments for and against. For a start, pretty women are more likely to receive compliments, wolf whistles and cat calling etc… it goes with the territory (for some or many I presume) but then if women dress and look attractive that is their choice. Women can choose to cover up and downplay their attractiveness. Similarly when it comes to rape, there will have been occasions when the way a women has dressed or if she’s got herself so inebriated she has no clue what is going on or could be about to happen, it could be argued that she has contributed to what has happened. I know some may find that comment unpalatable and whilst a women should be and indeed is entirely free to dress as she likes and drink as much as she likes, she has to remember that with that freedom comes responsibility to dress and drink responsibly, or unfortunately the reality is that we live in a free society where there are opportunists and criminals who will take advantage of the situation and rape women or have sex with women in circumstances that may not legally constitute rape (ergo the Ched Evans case).

That’s not excusing opportunism or rape for one moment, merely stating the simple reality that most men and women acknowledge. I am not excusing or condoning rapists and of course, even taking all the best precautions in the world, it is feasible that any woman could still fall victim to being raped for a whole variety of reasons, not least that it could arise from someone they know as opposed to the mythical stranger coming out of no-where figure of many people’s imaginations. According to the Office for National Statistics and Home Office, January 2013, 90% of victims knew their attacker.

An often overlooked issue is that men too can be victims of rape. Although the vast majority of reported rapes are of women – 85,000 (88%), a very high number, 12,000 (12%) men are raped in England and Wales each year. One US report (disputed) even suggested that, if you take into account the huge number of rapes taking place in men’s prisons in America that male rape victims there may exceed the number of women raped in the States. Christina Hoff Sommers, Writer and scholar, mentioned that rape is used as an instrument of war in Serbia, Rwanda and Syria and that rape was only recognised as an instrument of war in 1979. American comedian Dave Chappelle drew attention to this subject during his London Apollo shows this July.

Why has this so called phenomenon gained currency?

I suggest this has arisen for a multitude of reasons; primarily as a result of the rise and success of the feminist movement including the extreme wings that seek to demonise all men as rapists. It stems too from the sexualisation of women by the advertising media, newspapers, TV, film, music and all manner of popular culture forms, some of which involve women , including highly successful one’s, who you would think wouldn’t feel the need to, choosing to put their “wares” on display such as Beyonce, Miley Cyrus, Madonna and Nikki Minaj to name but four.

I think some young men have clearly bought into this media/popular conceptualisation of women as sexualised commodities and think this extends to everyday women going about their business #everyday sexism

Susan Edwards, dean of Law, University of Buckinghamshire, argued that rape culture definitely exists, with the key issue for her being the de-sensitisation of sex and the sexualisation of women.

Kaitlynn Mendes, lecturer in media and communications, argued that the reason rape culture is not being curbed is down to light or no sentences handed down by the courts for allegations of rape. Sue said the conviction rate for rape had not improved since the 1970s. You will even get some defence barristers arguing that “women like rough sex.”

Sommers was very clear that we do not live in a rape culture, stating that “rape is not an epidemic and if anything, levels are falling like most other crimes.” She had an issue with false statistics – though I must take issue with her saying that rape statistics indicate 1 in 50 women are raped. I don’t think it’s anything like that. Please refer to the above statistics.

She argued that this is a “feminist driven rape culture myth full of fervour, panic and hysteria. We do not live in a rape culture. We live in a free society. This propaganda has a potential to create a myth of all men being monsters.” One woman in the audience agreed with her suggesting that such a term trivialises countries where the term rape culture might be more appropriate such as Islamic state. In comparison, women in the West are incredibly free and liberated.

A woman who worked at a university completely rubbished the suggestion that some women on university campuses are afraid to leave their dorm to go to the library for fear of being raped. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Sommers described it as a repressive movement and that women believing in it needed to read up on it more. She hinted at a contradiction women give of liking rough sex and misleading signals they give if you consider women’s appetite for bodice rippers such as ’50 shades of grey’, novels by the late Jackie Collins and Mills & Boon books which are based around male domination. Note, its women buying into this fantasy by buying these books, not men. “Women are freer than they’ve ever been. We just don’t live in a rape culture and you need de-programming if you believe that we do.”

The debate provided interesting food for thought and I don’t deny that there is a very real fear of rape or potential sexual assault or unwanted comments that make women feel uncomfortable in public spaces. 97,000 rapes per year show that rape is not a fantastical myth.

However, having considered all views expressed, I tend to agree with Sommers. Whilst acknowledging the media driven fear of rape does affect a woman’s thinking and decision making when going out in public, the reality is that most women in Britain are not living in a rape culture – however you define that. Any fear may be more in the mind, than in the reality of most women’s actual life experiences.

Review © Tiemo Talk of the Town

Photograph © Institute of Ideas


  1. Battle of Ideas 2015:  Rape Culture: Menace or Myth? – Details and speaker profiles
  2. Rape Culture and the Crisis of Intimacy – Ann Furedi – Spiked book review – 28th August 2015
  3. Battle of Ideas 2015 reviews
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1 Response to Rape Culture: Menace or myth?

  1. Pingback: Is political correctness killing comedy and free speech? | tiemotalkofthetown

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