We Must Stop Adapting to a Culture of Rape

The subject of rape has been in the news quite a bit this past year or so, and I am having lots of feelings about what some are calling our “rape culture” .

“Legitimate Rape”

A year ago, March 2012, Todd Akin, Missouri Republican candidate for the US Senate, when asked about allowing abortions when the pregnancy was the result of rape, said:  “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”  That comment touched off a national firestorm of controversy about Akin’s apparent ignorance of biology and lack of empathy for the thousands of women, who have been sexually assaulted.  Nonetheless, Akin won the Republican nomination in the August 7 primary (and then lost his seat in the general election that November).

“Part of God’s Plan…”

On October 23rd, 2012, in a debate, Richard Mourdock, Indiana Republican candidate for the US Senate, when asked about allowing abortions when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, said: “I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”  I suspect that he meant to say that the resulting pregnancy was part of God’s plan, not that God intended rape, but whatever he meant, here was yet another male politician demonstrating a shocking lack of empathy for women who have been abused.  Whatever he meant, he lost the general election in some part due to his rape comment.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped …”
If you are a fan of the Comedy Central cable channel you cannot avoid hearing male comedians make jokes about rape.  Recently Daniel Tosh was “heckled” by a woman at one of his live shows, as he was making the claim that “rape jokes are funny.”  A woman in the audience yelled out “Rape jokes are never funny.”  Tosh replied: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like five guys right now?”  Wow.

In a CNN Opinion piece, Julie Burton and Michelle Kinsey Bruns write:  “The problem isn’t a failure of men to see rape as horrific. It’s that many of them do not perceive that rape itself lies on the far end of a broad spectrum of ways in which the idea of rape, the invocation of rape or the threat of rape is used to intimidate women or to regulate their behavior.”

Steubenville Ohio

In August 2012, after attending a party in Steubenville Ohio, a 16-year-old girl woke up naked, unaware what had happened to her.  Online she found photos and videos of her, passed out from too much alcohol, being passed around to various boys who repeatedly violated her.   Her parents brought her to the police, and ultimately two boys were found guilty of rape, and two girls were arrested for threatening the victim (they were angry that victim was ruining the boys’ lives).

One of the many things I find so troubling about what happened in Steubenville  is that not one person, not one boy or girl who witnessed what was happening tried to stop it.  I’m also troubled that kids, boys and girls, are angry with the victim for coming forward.  And I really have trouble understanding why the citizens of Steubenville do not seem to be demanding that their children come forward and admit whatever complicity they had.  I find it remarkably insensitive that the coming football season has not been cancelled, and that the school is not bringing in experts to attempt to repair a school culture that breeds this.

The Statistics

Make no mistake, these are not isolated events, this is not just a local problem, this is an epidemic.  The National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice estimates that one in four college women have survived rape or attempted rape in their lifetime.  According to statistics compiled by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network , here in the US, every 2 minutes someone is sexually assaulted, representing about 208,000 victims of sexual assault each year.  More than half those assaults are never reported to the police, fewer than 25% result in an arrest, and 97% of rapists never spend a day in jail.   (Note: female-male and female-female rape is rarely recognized as a statistically significant form of rape despite research indicating otherwise. Thus reporting rape by females remains difficult or impossible especially in jurisdictions where rape by a female is not considered a crime or where the false perception persists that rape of a male by a female is impossible.)

According to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), in a 2011 nationwide study of youth risk behavior, one in eight female high school students have been physically forced to have intercourse – 8% of Ninth Grade girls, 12% of Tenth Grade girls, 13% of Eleventh Grade girls, and nearly 15% of Twelfth Grade girls.  BTW, almost 5% of high school boys also report being physically forced to have intercourse.   As rape is notoriously under-reported, it is very likely that the number of rapes is actually much higher.

In this same study I was shocked to read that “During the 12 months before the survey, 9.4% of students nationwide had been hit, slapped, or physically hurt on purpose by their boyfriend or girlfriend (i.e., dating violence).”   Approximately one-in-ten Eleventh Grade boys and girls and one-in-ten Twelfth Grade boys and girls reported being victims of dating violence.

This numbers seem unacceptably high to me.   My High School graduating class had approximately 250 kids.  If I’d graduated in 2011, these statistics mean that it is likely that at least 25 of those receiving their diplomas, 19 girls and 6 boys, had been physically forced to have sex. And, as I wrote above, rape is notoriously under-reported, so these numbers are probably understated.


I believe that these statistics and atrocities are a result of young people adapting to a culture that has politicians and entertainers and, in a way, coaches and school administrators, and probably parents, minimizing the problem, marginalizing the victims, and looking the other way when in the presence of questionable teen behaviors.  Too many authority figures seem to believe that it is in our very nature to be rapists, and too many comedians are creating humor about rape.   As we result, our culture is promoting a social norm that our children are adapting to.

I first heard the term “adaptation” at a HAI workshop where the workshop leader was teaching we participants to take responsibility for our own wellbeing.  “Psychological adaptation”  or “social adaptation” are terms used in psychology and sociology to describe how humans adjust our behavior to live in accordance with our perceptions of interpersonal, social, and cultural norms.  When we’re not sure of which fork to use at a formal dinner, and we look around to see what fork others are using, then use that fork, we are exhibiting social adaptation.  When we decide that our dress length is too long or too short, or decide our necktie is too wide or too narrow, we are adapting to a set of norms called “fashion.”

Social adaptation is usually subconscious; we usually don’t notice that we are conforming to these unwritten “rules” of behavior.  We often barely notice that the rules even exist.   We just behave the way our co-workers behave, the way our neighbors behave, and the way we see our selves depicted in movies and on TV.

Unfortunately social adaptation has a dark side.

You may have been raised with the highest ethical or religious standards. If you wind up in a social or work environment that has less lofty values, after a while you may find that you barely even know it. At first, it is shocking, and you may think you’ll never fit in. But humans can fall to all sorts of depths and allow themselves all sorts of liberties of thought and behavior and never even know it. People who commit the worst atrocities are people. –Dr. Thomas R. Hersh 

All those German citizens in the 1930’s and 40’s who just ignored the atrocities and genocide happening all around them were just people like you and I.  They adapted.  Those central Africans who suddenly took up machetes and hacked to death 500,000-1,000,000 of their neighbors were just people, people in the thrall of adaptation.  Those good, law-abiding American citizens who ignored or supported the genocide of the Indians, or rationalized and accepted the brutality and inhumanity of slavery – they were just people.

I believe that those “good students”, those “nice young men”, those “athletes” in Steubenville who raped, degraded, abused, photographed, joked and tweeted about a drunk 16 year old girl at a party are people, people adapting to a set of cultural norms.  I believe that the kids who knew it was happening and did nothing were adapting.  I believe the coach and school administrators who are still doing nothing are adapting.  And that adaptation is what I mean when I refer to our “rape culture.”

Penalties and prison won’t fix this

I have friends who think we just need harsher penalties imposed on the perpetrators to stem this awful tide.  It is not my experience that punishment is the best teaching tool.  I believe punishment is really a last resort.  When all else fails sometimes all we can do is lock a person in a cage to protect the rest of society.   The events in Steubenville, and High Schools and Colleges all around the US, all pertain to children and young adults.  As a parent, and a human being, I am committed to help the young; to teach, to support, to nurture kids. In the end, some may not be teachable, but what kind of people are we, if we believe the best way to teach values to children is to threaten them, to coerce them, to abuse them into compliance?

Changing our cultural “norms”

How then do we change the cultural norm?  First we must see it and acknowledge it. Next we can speak out about it.  We can risk the disapproval, and even hostility, directed at us by those who can’t or won’t look at the culture we have created.  We can walk out on comedians who make jokes about raping people.  We can demand that our politicians get educated and sensitized or vote them out of office.  We can articulate and teach our children behaviors and attitudes that will change the norms change the rules and codes of conduct that are considered acceptable or desirable.

If you are not sure we can change norms, all you need do is look a Germany today, or look at Central Africa today.  Watch reruns of “Ozzie and Harriet” or “Leave it to Beaver”, then watch any episode of “The Simpsons” or “Modern Family.” Look in your own life at the cultural norms you embraced in college or high school – the rules about being a man, being a woman, about sexuality, about drug and alcohol use – and notice that many of your norms have evolved.

Rape is always wrong

Rape is always wrong and never the victim’s fault.  Instead of denying that there is a problem or blaming it on some misguided belief that rape is some kind of biological imperative, we must stop adapting to a culture of rape.

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