The American Rape Culture

For a lot of women on campus, all men become possible assailants once night falls. Students develop routines to ward off attackers, ranging from going out of the way to appear alert and carrying mace, to walking with keys between knuckles, 911 dialed into their cell phones “just in case,” dressing unattractively, and just plain avoiding going out at night.

College campuses are an epicenter of female fear. 20 to 25 percent of women will be raped during their college years and 42 percent of those women tell no one about the experience. Even worse, only 5% of rapes are reported to police. It’s out there, just outside the front door of your dorm. You hear about it, and then you are afraid too. Maren Jystad, a junior at Concordia College reports that two of her friends this year have been sexually assaulted, and another two of her close friends were raped last year. “My two best friends were raped last year…so it’s all around you. It’s scary.”

Male students on campus feel the fear as well, but in a different way. Ben Spar, also a Junior at Concordia and a well-known figure around campus, estimates that 60 percent of the female students he passes while walking on campus are visibly afraid of him. “I sense them tensing up. I know I’m a big guy and I may seem intimidating, but it’s not a nice feeling I get when the next girl I pass is afraid I might attack her.”

The fear borders on paranoia, reflecting a society where even women who have never been physically or sexually violated are frequently afraid for their lives. Many women feel defenseless and enfeebled, are confused about their experiences, and never receive justice or the simple freedom to be out past nightfall without the fear of rape crossing their minds.
Fargo-Moorhead and Grand Forks have a combined total of five colleges and universities and 37,885 students. With such a significant part of the population living, studying, and working on campus, the safety and security of students is a law enforcement issue that applies to the greater community. The best-known example, of course, is the rape and murder of Dru Sjodin, who had been on her way back to her dorm at UND from her day job at Victoria’s Secret.

Setting an Example

Inequalities and human rights violations directly concerning the women of the world are getting some long-deserved recognition.  Female genital mutilation, or female “circumcision” is unabashedly discussed, sex trafficking has become an international concern, and women the world over are standing up and finding a voice.

We’re not helping them. We have a holier-than-thou, “women are already equal” attitude in the United States. As a society, we approach the obstacles standing between women of the world and equality with the assumption that we are the model: the truth, the light, and the way. The reality is that we live in a culture where even after 160 years of progress, U.S. women are still largely suffering from the constraints of oppression, an oppression that men and women alike largely deny. Among body image issues, the regular and thoughtless objectification of women in order to sell unrelated products, an escalating assault on choice, and other issues, women hardly navigate an egalitarian society.
Beyond the absence of equality in the United States which taints our gallant discourse on worldwide women’s rights with hypocrisy, the real irony is that women in this nation, this region, and this community, live in fear of rape and sexual assault to such an extent that it can be classified as sexual terrorism. It’s time to face up to it: women all over the United States are touched by a rape culture that controls our thoughts and actions, a culture which we truly fail to commit ourselves to eradicating, or even recognizing.

The Reality of Rape

In order to confront this fear, we must understand what it is that women are truly afraid of; we must understand the true nature of the crime.

Rape is not about sex or arousal; rape is about power. Rape is so frightening because it is more than a physical violation. It is the ultimate dominance over another person, a quick and dirty over-throwal of another human being’s fundamental sense of autonomy. When we understand this, there will no longer be the assumption that rapists are men who are rabid sex beasts that only want one thing or can’t control their arousal. We will see that rapists hunger after power and dominance, not pleasure, and we will understand that women who are the survivors of rape were not “asking for it” by dressing provocatively, teasing, leading on, or by having a sexual history.

Most rape is not stranger rape but acquaintance or “date” rape. With this knowledge, we as a community can confront the actual reality of a majority of rape and sexual assault. By being terrified of an assault by a stranger lurking in the shadows, women are unprepared for the truth that a rapist is likely someone they trust or know. Likewise, men can understand that a rapist is not an “other” but someone they too may know. Prevention is not only the responsibility of a woman who is expected to watch what she drinks, who she is with, how she dresses and conducts herself, where she walks and where she hangs out. It is the responsibility of men in the community to actively oppose the power politics that contribute to rape and to recognize that they too have a part in preventing rape.

Sexual assault is not an inevitable interaction between men and women. It is the result of cultural norms and expectations about masculinity and femininity that render women less powerful than men, especially as far as sexuality is concerned. This especially concerns our region given our more traditional notions of gender and sex. In our society, women are shamed and shunned for being sexually autonomous where men are encouraged. Women are taught that we must be sexy but not slutty where a man is taught that getting around is what makes him a real man. Most importantly, women are taught to submit, that to be demure and childlike (read powerless) is sexy, and men are taught to dominate, to exercise their physical strength, which is thought to be inextricably linked with sexual potency and power. These polarities warp sexual relations between women and men and create a dangerous sexual status quo that contributes largely to the incidence of rape.

Well, What Are We Supposed to Do?

More legislation, more law enforcement, more crime reports, or more punishment is not the answer. These “solutions” merely fuel the fire and breed confusion and resentment, leading to victim-blaming and paranoia. What our community, our society, and our world need is a revolution of mentality. We must approach rape as a result of standards of masculinity and femininity which ultimately harm both women and men.

Young men should learn how to communicate and empathize. Men must move away from viewing women as conquests and toward viewing women as distinct individuals.

Likewise, women must be held accountable for turning fear into constructive awareness, assertiveness, and sexual self-actualization. We must learn to say yes means yes and to own our sexuality. Until then, women will be continually held to a standard that demands we be passive sexual subjects, waiting to be conquered.

Ultimately, if women and men don’t work together to oppose rape and promote new standards of sexuality free of power politics, women will continue to be enfeebled and victimized by fear, unable to conduct a life free of sexual terrorism, forever remaining in a society that assumes this terrorism is inevitable and continually taints sexual relations between men and women with inequality. Most importantly, until rape culture is confronted and understood, we will not be the model society that we think we are as far as equality between men and women is concerned. We will continue to deny our own problems while hypocritically proposing to save the women of the world from theirs.

Raped in the Red River Valley

Throwing around terms like “rape culture” and “sexual terrorism” is not an attempt at fear tactics. Fear should not be the reaction to these terms, but rather righteous indignation that one in six women have been sexually assaulted; that there were 184 forcible rapes reported in 2006 in North Dakota, up from 146 in 2005, which is a 26 percent increase (in contrast, there was a only a 3.5 percent increase overall in crime); righteous indignation that in North Dakota one woman is raped every two days, and that this is a gross underestimate given that an estimated 59 percent of rapes go unreported; righteous clean-burning anger that in 2006, both Fargo’s and Grand Forks’ incidents of forcible rape were higher than the national average, the only violent crime in both cities to hold this status.

Posted 6 years, 7 months ago by Micah Steffes | Email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | View Micah Steffes's profile.

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