When Politics and Rape Culture Collide

Enough is enough, let's speak out against rape culture.

Posted Oct 16, 2016

In a family of young boys, it is a running joke among my siblings that one of us needs to add a girl to the mix. However, when I think about this imaginary niece (or daughter) that could potentially be added to our ever expanding brood, I also fear the dangers that will lurk for her in our culture. It is at times like this that I am ashamed to admit that a part of me is relieved that my nephews are boys, because they won’t be facing the same barriers as they mature and develop that girls will have to face in this culture.

America is a rape culture. It may not be as severe as some other cultures across the globe, but there is no denying the insidious and pervasive ways that girls—and by extension—their grown counterparts, women—are reminded of the larger patriarchal structure that still exists and restricts their growth every day. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, rape culture is not exclusive to rape. It is a more general term to describe a system of oppression against women where they are targeted on a continuum of violence, from the more “minor” infractions of being harassed on the streets with catcalls to being targeted unfairly at the workplace due to their gender to being sexually objectified by the media and other cultural institutions to the more severe acts of violence such as sexual assault, rape, and/or murder.

The facts do not lie: According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a rape or attempted rape occurs every 5 minutes in our country. This figure, as staggering as it is, is also misleading because the majority of rape cases go unreported. In fact, the majority of accusers of rape are systematically vilified, disbelieved, put on trial themselves, and/or blamed for their attacks. The complicity of the justice system in enabling these acts to occur without consequences further reinforces rape culture—in fact, 97% of rapists never spend even one day in jail for their crimes (as reported by Maxwell, 2014). Hence the silencing of women who have endured the trauma of being sexually molested, assaulted and/or raped.

The sexual objectification of women in our culture cannot be overlooked, as it is an essential ingredient to the larger issue of rape culture. An article published by the American Psychological Association offers a great summary of how sexual objectification contributes to the larger culture of rape:

Our society’s obsession with the appearance of women’s bodies sustains rape culture. Girls learn from a young age that what matters most about them is the way they look, and boys are taught to value this in girls above all else. Because of our culture’s relentless focus on appearance, women are constantly turned into objects. Women literally are hamburgers in some advertisements, or are cut into sexualized pieces in others. (Administrator, 2014, para 8)

For better or worse, our popular culture is a barometer for larger issues that are happening in the culture. The fixation with celebrity has permeated political coverage, with politicians being covered as if they were celebrities, the presidential debates being marketed and consumed to maximize ratings for media corporations, and the lines becoming more and more blurred between celebrity and politician.

Enter Donald Trump. The litany of offenses he has engaged in that have targeted women are multi-fold and too large in scope to cover in one article. So let me stick to the most recent headline that everyone is all too familiar with as a means for displaying rape culture in action. We are all familiar by now with the notorious tape where in his own words Trump talks about “grabbing them [women] by the pus*y”. He goes on in crass detail to describe how his celebrity status has inoculated him from any repercussions when he is sexually aggressive with women, essentially admitting to openly molesting and assaulting women he finds attractive. Truth be told, what I—and other feminists—found to be even more shocking than these admissions were the public response to them in the aftermath.

Women supporters for Trump held signs at a rally in NYC following the leak of these tapes that read, “Better to grab a pus*y than to be a pus*y.” This is rape culture—when the very genitalia of an entire sex of people is used to degrade and offend, to indicate inferiority and weakness. When the very language that is constructed within the culture is phallic-centric and elevates male body parts while undermining or shaming female body parts. When Shonda Rhimes, prominent writer and executive producer of hit ABC shows, shares in interviews that the censors would limit how many times the actors could say the word “vagina” on a medical-based television show, this reflects the taboo associated with the female body (in fact, her shows are credited with breaking the taboo of naming female genitalia, and has been identified as pioneering a new generation of shows that are more apt—and able—to use the term vagina on air). When in the aftermath of the leaked tapes, the Trump campaign (and his supporters) disregard his comments as “locker-room talk” that further indicates the insidiousness of rape culture.

What does “locker-room talk” actually mean? That it is okay to sexually objectify and endorse sexual assault against women as long as it is in the privacy of a group of males? In what universe are we allowed to condone such behavior because it is among men? Oh yeah, that is right, among a culture that is socialized and raised to sexually objectify, vilify, humiliate, and debase women. If Hillary Clinton or any other female politician had talked about grabbing a man by his testicles for sport, would we be so blase in overlooking such a crass and vulgar comment?

Moreover, perpetrators of acts that are on the continuum of rape culture are not strangers in dark alleys, but oftentimes, acquaintances, colleagues, even people we may be in relationships with or dating. They may even be high status individuals with fame and celebrity who “don’t need” to force themselves on other people (a common assumption, by the way, is that rape is about sex, when in fact, it is about power). In a very intimate account of her own near sexual assault, fellow PT blogger Peg Streep (2014) reflects on the misconceptions oftentimes associated with perpetrators of violent sexual acts against women when she shares:

Leaving aside the feminist framework which saw rape as part of patriarchal oppression, the term ‘date rape’ was culturally useful because it focused attention away from the stranger-in-the-alley scenario to the milieu of relationship and domesticity in which most violence in the United States, including murder, takes place. Most violent acts are perpetrated by people we know, not people we don't. (para 13)

She goes on to argue, however, that the term “date rape” may no longer be useful for it minimizes the seriousness of rape as it carries with it an assumption of victim complicity. All of this to note that a public figure can be celebrated, or even seen as a pillar of the community (e.g. Bill Cosby) and still engaging in violent and criminal behaviors behind closed doors against trusting and unsuspecting victims. Unfortunately, rape culture is the cloak with which these lauded figures are able to use to get away with their crimes.

In a searing article entitled “This is what rape culture looks like—in the words of Donald Trump” Mahdawi (2016) reflects that:

The most pernicious thing about rape culture is that it’s self-perpetuating. Women are afraid to come forward about sexual assault because they’re worried they won’t be believed. When they do have the courage to come forward they often aren’t believed. Their characters are ripped apart; their motives are questioned; they’re told they were probably ‘asking for it.’ And so other women decide they may as well just keep quiet. If we are to learn anything from Trump’s masterclass in rape culture it’s that none of us should keep quiet. (Final Paragraph)

This is not a partisan issue. This is a universal challenge that we face as a country that we need to acknowledge and correct. Before Trump it was the Bill Cosby scandal; after Cosby it was the Stanford University student who got away with raping an unconscious female behind the dumpsters (until her brave and poignant open letter to him in court was posted on social media and she was finally empowered as a survivor and given the proper support she earned); it has been the former head of Fox News, Roger Ailes (an unofficial advisor to Trump, interestingly), and after Trump, it will be some other high profile public figure. For every publicized case, thousands go untold and unacknowledged, victims remaining silenced and shamed.

The irony of this presidential campaign is that in the same year where a female might be nominated into the highest office in the world, there is a male candidate who represents a serious regression to earlier times in our history when misogyny was the norm and openly espoused.

How much more of this are we expected to endure as the American public? When can we say enough is enough and start shaming the pillars who represent the larger system of oppression so that our next generation of girls do not have to be socialized in a rape culture? Aren’t our girls worthy of the same relative safety and harmony as our boys?

Administrator (2014, February 18). 3 Components of rape culture and what you can do to fight back. American Psychological Association: Psychology Benefits Society. Retrieved on October 16th 2016 from: https://psychologybenefits.org/2014/02/18/3-components-of-rape-culture-a...

Mahdawi, A. (2016, October 15). This is what rape culture looks like—in the words of Donald Trump. The Guardian. Retrieved on October 16, 2016 from: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/15/donald-trump-words-what-...

Maxwell, Z. (2014, March 27). Rape culture is real. Time Magazine. Retrieved on October 16, 2016 from: http://time.com/40110/rape-culture-is-real/

Streep, P. (2012, March 14). Photoshopping violence: ‘date rape’ and the hookup culture. Psychology Today: Tech Support. Retrieved on October 16, 2016 from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/tech-support/201203/photoshopping-v...

Copyright 2016 Azadeh Aalai

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