By Evelyn Gonzalez ‘18
Recently, a powerful performance art piece entitled Carry That Weight by Emma Sulkowicz, a visual arts major at Columbia University, captured my attention. In her piece, Emma carried her dorm mattress from class to class in a demonstrated effort to have her rapist removed from campus. Her courage prompted me to think about “rape culture” and its influence in our society.
Lynn Phillips, creator of the film Flirting with Danger, defines rape culture as “a culture in which dominant cultural ideologies, media images, social practices, and societal institutions support and condone sexual abuse.” The term “rape culture” continues to cause controversy and opposition among those who condemn it and those who deny that it really exists in our society. Choosing to willfully ignore the pervasiveness of rape culture in our society by tolerating the minimization of the detrimental effects they have on a person creates an unhealthy atmosphere and total lack of awareness that makes it easier to place the culpability on the victim.
One of the largest issues that arises from rape culture is victim blaming. Instead of punishing the assailants, we publicly scrutinize the victims and stigmatize them. We berate them with questions like “What were you wearing?” “Were you flirting?” “Were you intoxicated that night?” These questions are heavy with the implications that if rape occurred, the victim was at fault. It shifts the responsibility onto them. This often makes it much more difficult for victims to share their experiences with sexual assault because they feel that they are to blame. Victims should not have to defend themselves, and the fact that they do further emphasizes that we live in a society that has normalized the idea of rape.
To live in a rape culture is to be subject to a society that trivializes one’s experiences. This is exemplified by the Steubenville rape case of 2012 in which there was hardly any focus on the victim and instead many news sites lamented the damage of the rapists’ promising futures. This case was a perfect example of rape culture and illustrated how assailants are often forgiven and pitied while the victims are scrutinized and looked at with antipathy and skepticism. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network only four in every one hundred rapes will result in an actual conviction and only three rapists will spend any time in jail. We live in a world in which teaching people to protect themselves against rape becomes easier than instilling a sense of morality and emphasizing the importance of consent. When it becomes easier to deal with the aftereffects rather than first dealing with the prevention of rape, a deeper, underlying problem becomes exposed. Rape culture shows us that the ways in which we collectively think about about rape and sexual assault is problematic and leads to the permeation of increasingly harmful views about sexual violence.
Dismantling our rape culture means shifting the societal treatment of individuals for the better. By recognizing the effects of rape culture and refusing to engage in victim blaming we are creating comfortable, safe spaces for victims of sexual abuse to come forward. As a society, we must always give support and credibility to survivors of sexual assault by avoiding language and questions that prompt victimization and we must hold abusers accountable for their actions.Together we must stand in solidarity with survivors, as did many students at Columbia University who organized “collective carries” to help Emma get to class, and refuse to contribute to this all-too-present system of violence.