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Sexual Assault Is Our Norm

Surprising ways good men and women contribute to rape culture.

Sexual curiosity and desire are natural and compelling forces and they are inherently benign. However, in the context of a rape culture, as many suggest the U.S. is, they become toxic and destructive.

When a university fraternity (true story) sends out an e-mail survey to its members asking, “Who on campus would you like to rape?” we see curiosity infused with deep violence and hostility. We also constantly hear about the high levels of date/acquaintance rape on college campuses, and for decades, government and college personnel have been fighting hard to try to prevent it. Of course, it’s a problem in the larger society as well; according to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), on average 433,648 sexual assaults occur annually in America, or one every 73 seconds.

The outrage over these incidents is usually focused on a subgroup of young men behaving badly. While we must focus on perpetrators in order to protect others from them, a bright spotlight should also be aimed at the conditions that exist in our society that allow them (both perpetrators and others) to think this is acceptable behavior. We focus on these bad actors, but we must begin to accept that this “sexual misconduct” can’t continue without us, its unwitting cheerleaders and enablers.

We are blindly and deeply embedded in a rape culture, yet we suffer from the delusion that we raise our young people to behave appropriately and to be aware of interpersonal boundaries. For one thing, we frequently promote hyper-masculinity through sports and popular media. It’s not that displays of masculinity are bad, but they should not glorify violence, and gratuitous violence in sports and media should be called out.

Sometimes the aggressiveness in one situation can create license in other situations. For example, most parents will tell us that they raise their boys to “respect” girls (Britt, D et al), but, intentionally or not, they pressure them to pursue girls. “Look at her, isn’t she cute,” “Go over and talk to her,” or teasingly, “Do you have a girlfriend yet?” Boys who already have aggressive tendencies can take this too far.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Some parents will also claim that they raise their girls to be “pure,” yet they encourage them to be “beautiful” and “pretty” and sometimes, hyper-feminine. They want them to be chaste, but they end up being chased.

This contributes to the objectification of girls and women (Seligman, C. et al). It’s not that wanting to look their best is wrong, but this too should depend on the situation. Since I worked as a college counselor, I can tell you without exaggeration that some women would not leave their dorms without first applying makeup, even if the building was on fire.

Unfortunately, parents often believe that this kind of indoctrination of children is the solution but, ironically, it’s part of the problem. Raising “gentlemen and ladies” is not the answer. This binary view of boys and girls sets them apart and makes communication between them more difficult. In other words, because of our early training, we become so focused on sex and gender differences that we may forget we are talking to another person.

Perhaps the most harmful thing that parents can do is teach children that even thinking or talking about sex is bad. When kids reach adolescence, they can think abstractly and hypothetically, and this helps them make good decisions. If they aren’t allowed to think and talk about sex, they can’t use their higher-order thinking to resolve real-life situations. We need sexual fantasies to play them out in our heads, so we don’t have to act out all of them to see what happens. Sadly, parents don’t realize that if they think for their teens, they are teaching them to allow others to do the same.

When it comes to sex, teen boys are pressured to adopt a milestone mentality, such as getting to first base, second base, and so on (kissing, petting, etc.). This mentality is spread by peers, but the original source is adults. Of course, many girls share similar goals, but boys are more likely to feel responsible for initiating the cycle.

Boys tend to be more instrumental (Smiler, A. et al) or goal-oriented to begin with, but social forces push them even harder. He is expected to ask for a date. He is expected to make the first move. He is expected to propose marriage. He is even expected to learn the art of “turning a girl on” as though she can’t be a sexual person without his help. These societal norms for boys are half the foundation of rape culture.

Even though the pressure on boys to act on sexual urges begins with biology, it’s heavily reliant on the quest for higher self-esteem and social status. The pressure becomes so intense that even some boys we would consider to be “good kids” can become aggressive in their pursuit of a higher place in the pecking order. Add alcohol and a party atmosphere and it's possible that even a “good” boy will struggle to control his inhibitions.

Way back in middle school, I got my first lesson about this kind of sexual bravado. One guy was part of our group of friends and he was a year older than the rest of us. Larry was tall, good looking, athletic, and popular.

One day on the playground, a discussion came up about the 4-H Club, an organized youth group for character development. Larry told us he belonged to a different club, the 4-F Club. We took the bait and asked what it meant. He said, “It’s what you do to girls—find ‘em, feel ‘em, f*ck ‘em, and forget ‘em.” I wanted to confront him, but the other boys were laughing, and I felt alone in my disgust. I learned that day and on many other days after that, for guys, public vocalizations of compassion seemed to be the exception rather than the rule.

Boys talk, and boys compare. If we look at it from a relationship perspective, this obsession with what others are doing (or not doing) misses the point entirely. Sex should be a personal human experience, not just a series of thoughtless pleasurable activities or social competition.

I’m not taking a prudish or moral position as much as I am expressing concern about how men are late in the game when it comes to experiencing real intimacy. It matters because, even if boys learn the mechanics of sex, they are often doing so at the expense of relational development. The skills required (Korobov, N. et al) for healthy relationships are not learned just by practicing sexual rituals.

In a brainstorming session with college students about how to prevent sexual assault, I gave an example of ritualistic dating behavior that constitutes sexual assault, but is rarely treated as such:

“When in the presence of a potential sex partner, it is common to touch them without asking permission. A young man fondles the breast of his date or acquaintance. She may push his hand away or tell him not to repeat the action, but technically, he has already sexually assaulted her. The same would be true if she touched him without asking.”

Consensus on my assertion wasn’t easy to reach. One student said, “Usually people just know when it’s okay to go further.” Another student said to me, “You’re right, it is assault, but how can we explain that to high school or college students without sounding crazy?” He identified the main problem with normative behavior; it becomes expected and invisible, so pushing the cultural reset button seems unnatural and extreme.

I mentioned that boy indoctrination is half the foundation of rape culture. The other half is the type of girl indoctrination that is complementary to boy brainwashing. “Beautiful” girls benefit from the halo effect, which means they are believed to be more attention-worthy and more interesting than “plain” girls. That keeps some women who feel they are winners in the scenario invested in the status quo.

Girls are also encouraged to be coy and mysterious. Conversely, if they are straightforward about their sexual interest, they are often “slut-shamed.” They are taught to romanticize sex to cover their learned shame. For boys, they are mysteries to be solved, and no boy can resist a good mystery. This does not mean that a victim is to blame just because she is attractive, coy, or mysterious. That would be like saying that the car thief stole the car because the dazzle of the car was irresistible. He is still guilty of taking something that doesn’t belong to him.

Romance and strong attraction are not in and of themselves harmful, but intense romantic or erotic feelings produce an altered state of mind that colors our perception. When we are “struck” by someone, we are less likely to be objective. If we lose too much objectivity, we become infatuated (positive sexism), judgmental (negative sexism), or angry (misogyny or misandry).

Our specific reactions depend on our personal histories. How far we go in acting on these feelings, or how much we will risk, are related to our psychological makeup. It’s also important to distinguish between premeditated sexual assault which is driven more by a pathological need for control, power, or revenge vs. another type sexual acting out that is driven by a need to feel normal or competent as a sexual being. The pressure on young men and women to prove their sexual worthiness can be a powerful motivator.

In my observation, young people generally fall into one of four categories or sexual styles; the prudes, the clueless, the wannabes, and the experienced.

Let’s say, for discussion sake, that each category represents about a fourth of the population. The prudes are anti-sex because of moral hang-ups or fear. Their taboos contribute to sex being more alluring for other youth. The clueless types are unaware of what’s going on around them. They have little knowledge or interest. The wannabe types are aware and curious but don’t participate directly, even though they wish to. The experienced types are sexually active — some responsibly and some not.

While male sexual forwardness is commonplace, many men strongly disapprove of aggressive sexual behavior, yet they don’t confront it. One obvious reason for the reluctance to confront this type of aggression is peer pressure. Another reason is just not knowing how to intervene. A third reason, and perhaps the most commanding, is our ordinary tendency to admire savoir-faire. We package this achievement envy into masculine form in as many quantifiable ways as possible, including financial and sexual. The biggest house, high-tech toys, the most prestigious car, and, of course, the hottest “girls,” prove our “success” as men.

The wannabe types are the weak link in preventing sexual misconduct because they have mixed feelings. They understand (intellectually) that cavalier sex is an empty pursuit, but they may feel left out or inferior at times. This stifles their outrage and makes prevention or justice less of a priority for them. Even if they are trained to do “bystander intervention” they will not follow through wholeheartedly.

Photo by Marc Schaefer on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Marc Schaefer on Unsplash

Some evolutionary psychologists might argue that “this competition is natural and that males pursuing females with whom to mate is conducive to survival of the species. Females preening themselves is part of this mating ritual.” The very fact that these patterns have persisted means this was probably true in the past, but we may have reached a turning point where self-aware and collaborative sexual behavior is more likely to facilitate long-term survival. Mating rituals and romantic scripts no longer provide a gateway to stable relationships because we live longer and change more throughout the life span. Sexual assault will be less likely when we establish the norm that sex should emanate from a rationally negotiated pact.

When I discuss this with students or clients, some react defensively to this unhurried approach to sex because they think that having an open dialogue with a partner will dull the passion. I tell them that may happen temporarily, but when passion reignites it will be even stronger because they will enjoy a closer bond. Our culture of rape is reinforced every time the whole person is not present during sex since it’s more depersonalized and rote.

Rape culture is sustained by three main forces. Sexism (gender and sexual stereotypes) is its foundation—the belief that men and women are more different than alike. That makes them exotic to each other. The second force is antipathy—resentments that accumulate for those who feel like losers in the game. The third is sociopathy—shown by those who act out the power dynamics and violence of gender and sexual warfare.

So how does this strict adherence to sexual stereotypes turn into serious behavior problems? Males or females with high levels of insecurity about their role performance as a man or woman need confirmation of this and will go to any length to get it. They are out to prove something! Thus, they harass, seduce, assault, or just bumble their way into temporary feelings of conformity to their idealized versions of themselves.

If we are serious about healthy relationships and prevention of sexual and relational violence, we must transcend these exaggerated and no longer useful gender and sexual norms. We will fail to come to terms with sexual mistreatment unless we recognize that it’s a pervasive cultural problem, not just some people misbehaving. We do a terrible disservice to ourselves and the casualties of abuse when we oversimplify the problem.


Britt, D., & Britt-Gibson, H. (1999, 11). Teaching our sons to respect women. Essence, 30, 166-168+. Retrieved from…

Seligman, C. , Brickman, J. and Koulack, D. (1977), Rape and physical attractiveness: Assigning responsibility to victims1. Journal of Personality, 45: 554-563. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1977.tb00171.x

Smiler, A., & Kubotera, N. (2010). Instrumental or Expressive?: Heterosexual Men’s Expectations of Women in Two Contexts. Men and Masculinities, 12(5), 565–574.

Korobov, N., & Thorne, A. (2006). Intimacy and Distancing: Young Men’s Conversations About Romantic Relationships. Journal of Adolescent Research, 21(1), 27–55.