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The pervasiveness of sexual violence

The culture of rape: Myths, misconceptions and reality

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Last September, two Canadian universities made national headlines, but it wasn’t because of a groundbreaking study or important research.

No, Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and the University of British Columbia came under fire for the same reason: leading hundreds of fresh-faced first-years in a frosh-week chant advocating rape. Both chants were variations on the following: "Y-O-U-N-G at UBC, we like ’em young, Y is for your sister, O is for oh so tight, U is for underage, N is for no consent, G is for go to jail." At SMU, G was for "Grab that ass."

The puerile but disturbing chants ignited a transnational debate about both the realities of campus safety and rape culture. Rape culture is a term coined by second-wave feminists in the 1970s to describe all the ways in which our culture tacitly accepts, condones and even encourages sexual violence through its attitudes about sex, sexuality and gender, which are shaped by everything from popular culture to religion.

Sides were quickly taken and battle lines drawn, fuelled by highly publicized rapes on U.S. campuses. Further international attention in the mainstream press came from the vicious gang rape and murder of a physiotherapy student on a moving bus in India after doing nothing more than having an evening out with her boyfriend at a movie theatre.

In 2014, no less weighty an institution than the Obama administration took the unprecedented step of setting up a task force on combating sexual violence on campus. As of August, 76 higher-learning institutions — ranging from public state universities to Ivy League members such as Harvard and Dartmouth — are under investigation for mishandling sexual-assault allegations.

But there was plenty of resistance.

Many pundits said the frosh chants at SMU and UBC were symptomatic of rape culture; many more outright denied its existence. "Don’t expect the notion of rape culture to die down any time soon," wrote the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente. "Too many people have too much invested in it." In March, CBC’s Q hosted a debate: Rape Culture: Accurate or Alarmist? That same month, Time ran a piece entitled It’s Time to End Rape Culture Hysteria.

But many leaders in the field would argue one need not look far to see examples of rape culture thriving on campuses — through reported high-profile cases, yes, but also the lack of such cases. Attaching big-picture statistics to the frequency and pervasiveness of sexual violence on campus is difficult, because 80 to 90 per cent of assaults go unreported. That, argues Ottawa-based social-justice activist Julie Lalonde, is rape culture at work.

"The power of rape culture is that we’re not allowed to talk about it. The silence is what perpetuates it. Cognitive dissonance also perpetuates rape culture," she says.

Indeed, we live in a society that supposedly reviles rapists, yet is quick to blame the victim by focusing on what she wore, how many people she’s slept with, how much she drank that night, etc. Victims are often shamed and blamed; assailants are often sympathized with. "No one is going to stand up and say, ‘I support sexual violence,’ but that’s exactly what our actions and inactions say," Lalonde says.

Mary-Anne Kandrack, a sociology professor at the University of Manitoba, is blunt about why people are so quick to reject the term ‘rape culture.’ "Well, then we’d have to admit that there’s an ongoing oppression of women. That term pulls into sharp relief that we remain less than, because it’s only someone who is less than that can be victimized in that way."

Kandrack also believes the push-back against the term is rooted in a general discomfort with the idea we live in a culture in which sexual violence is condoned. "But the fact of the matter is, it is condoned. Only 10 per cent of assaults are reported, but many people would say it’s more in the neighbourhood of five to six per cent. It’s 2014, and we still haven’t made it safe for people to make those disclosures." To that end, rape culture doesn’t just hurt girls and women. It hurts boys and men, too. "I tell my students, if society’s been this successful in silencing women, imagine what it’s like for boys and men?"

Rape culture wallows in misconceptions and distortion. Some believe it is a phrase trotted out to demonize men. Then there is the notion most rapes are of the "dark alley" variety, committed by an unknown perpetrator — as opposed to the far more common circumstance of the victim knowing the assailant beforehand.

It’s dangerous to ignore the fact that while not all men are rapists, an overwhelming number of rapists are men. "When and how and where did we socialize boys and men to think it’s OK to exploit, abuse and bring harm to someone else for their own pleasure? That’s what so angers me. We have communicated permission in some way, and that’s why I think people rebuke the concept (of rape culture)," Kandrack says. "We don’t want to own the permission we’ve given to young men."

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