3 Components of Rape Culture and What You Can Do to Fight Back

Fingers pointing at young woman

By Christin P. Bowman, MS, MA (Doctoral student in Critical Social-Personality Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York)

**Trigger warning. This blog is about sexual violence.**

Let’s make something clear right from the start: Rape is caused by rape culture.

Rape culture has many ingredients, and like any successful recipe, once you blend them together, it’s harder to taste the individual flavors. Rape culture is so entrenched in our society, and its components so ubiquitous, we may sense that something doesn’t taste right, but be at a loss to pinpoint the problem.

This blog will break down the main components of rape culture and then give you concrete ways to combat it.

#1: Power, Anger, & Hyper-masculinity

While it may be true that men do the vast majority of the raping, men who rape did not become rapists in a vacuum.

Our society values men most when they adhere to the harsh expectations of hyper-masculinity. Being hyper-masculine has a lot to do with power. Men learn that they should always be dominant, and if their dominance is threatened, they should express the only emotion they are allowed – anger. Research shows that most rapes are exercises of power or anger.

Hyper-masculinity also expects that men are always up for sex. Men apparently have such uncontrollable sex drives that once they’re aroused, there’s no turning back. Let’s say a woman consents to certain levels of sexual activity, like kissing or touching, and her male partner is aroused. If she dares to say no to sex after “leading him on,” then some would say he is justified in raping her. After all, as Virginia state senator Richard Black said, rape is “human nature.”

While we can all be grateful that politicians who make such dangerous statements are generally criticized these days, rape is still justified through the use of that ol’ “human nature” chestnut. But men aren’t rapists by nature. Men are socialized in a rape culture that promotes rigid expectations of masculinity. Simply blaming men without examining masculinity buys right into rape culture and sells men short. And let’s not forget that men and boys are raped too.

#2: Sexual Objectification of Women’s Bodies

Our society’s obsession with the appearance of women’s bodies sustains rape culture. Girls learn from a young age that what matters most about them is the way they look, and boys are taught to value this in girls above all else. Because of our culture’s relentless focus on appearance, women are constantly turned into objects. Women literally are hamburgers in some advertisements, or are cut into sexualized pieces in others.

This obsession with women’s appearance causes women to look at their own bodies as sexual objects, a phenomenon known in psychology as self-objectification. Research shows that self-objectification is linked to body shame, disordered eating, depression, substance abuse, and sexual dysfunction.

The problem with turning women’s bodies into objects is that objects are less than human. Objects don’t have feelings or attitudes or intelligence – objects are there for us to use. Once a woman is seen as an object (and in particular, a sexual object), it is much easier to commit violence against her.

#3: Systemic and Institutional Support

When we say that something is a “systemic” problem, we mean that it spreads throughout the entire system (in this case, our society), and when we say that something is “institutional,” we mean that there are structures and mechanisms in place to maintain something. Rape culture is both.

For example, when rape victims seek help, they must often answer invasive and offensive questions to defend the circumstances of the rape. Police may ask: “What were you wearing?” “Were you drinking?” “Did you flirt?” “Did you say ‘no’ loud enough?” “Did you fight back?” “Did you scream?” Furthermore, in hundreds of thousands of instances, victims’ rape kits have never been analyzed. This isn’t one victim, one rapist, one police officer – it’s not an individual problem. This is embedded in our very systems of social order.

Or take the case of politicians arguing that only some sorts of rape are “honest,” or “legitimate,” that women frequently fake having been raped, that marital rape shouldn’t be a crime, that pregnancies resulting from rape are really just gifts from God, and that because rape is inevitable anyway (there’s that “human nature” gem again), why shouldn’t women just “sit back and enjoy it?” In fact, many politicians still refuse to take sexual assault in the military or in prisons seriously, and it doesn’t get more institutional than that.

Thankfully, many of these politicians have since lost their elections. But in many cases, the damage of this systemic rhetoric is already done. Young women who have come forward about their rapes have been bullied by their peers, ridiculed by their communities, ignored by the authorities, and in these three cases have committed suicide. Though it is systems and institutions that uphold rape culture, it is individual lives that are destroyed.

How to Fight Back

Preventing rape means changing an entire culture. Here’s how to get started:

  • Encourage boys and men to express emotions and unravel hyper-masculinity: William Pollack’s work is a great place to start, and look out for a documentary on the topic coming soon.
  • Push back against sexual objectification: Evidence-based activists at the girl-fueled organization, SPARK, provide a great model and the Miss Representation documentary is a must.
  • Rape prevention courses: Foubert, Godin, and Tatum found that men can take a rape prevention class in college that affects them for years. The course teaches empathy and then how to intervene in dangerous situations, support a rape survivor, and even confront others who tell jokes about rape. Another study by Klaw and colleagues found similar results. Get involved here.
  • Engage bystanders: Cases like the Steubenville rapes remind us there are often times when people see something bad happening, and don’t know how to stop it. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center provides tons of research and information about how to reverse this trend.
  • Change public perception of what’s acceptable: Several successful anti-rape campaigns all around the globe are working to dismantle rape culture. Check out the “Don’t be that guy” campaign in Canada that has cut sexual assaults in Vancouver by 10%. A campaign in the UK takes a similar approach. Feminist organizations like Take Back the Night and V-Day have long histories of pushing back against sexual violence. And remember that women have many male allies committed to tearing down rape culture (including President Obama).

Rape culture may be a giant multi-faceted problem, but if we commit to addressing each of these damaging components in turn, we can move ever closer to eradicating rape for good.


  1. There’s a lot to take in but I do agree with you in order to change our culture begins with us. Each person needs to take a stand. There isn’t a moment when unacceptable behavior is acceptable.


  2. The best article I’ve read in a long time about this situation. I only disagree with the Obama bit but that’s because I believe what he says and does are different things – but the whole sentiment and psychology of the post I concur with.


    1. In sexual assault training courses it is basic 101 to teach that rape is violence against women and not sex. “Rape culture” is real and it behooves you to educate and sensitize yourself to the problems rather than become full of shame, guilt, and defensiveness.


  3. we need to stop treating both sexes differently, equality should start right at home and right in the early stages, doing so will teach both the sexes that there no difference that one is a girl or a boy. Parents of the young children needs to teach what is right.


  4. It’s really interesting that some people think rape culture isn’t real. It isn’t real to YOU. It’s very real to women who re-route their paths home, carry mace/pepper spray/rape whistles/any plausible low-grade weapons on them, have to walk along well-lit paths at night, choose to wear certain clothing or refrain from certain college parties in order to keep their safety. So, do men think about these choices?? And do men think about their sexual safety when making these choices??


  5. Reblogged this on Human Rights Vs. Stalkers and commented:
    Rape culture is an invasive norm in the United States. Not only does it harm females, but it is a threat to our entire society. We must challenge rape culture ideals at every opportunity. In doing so, our young men and young women will have a much higher chance at living a mutually respectful, successful, satisfying life. This article raises awareness. We must be willing to stand up and say, “that is an abusive attitude, which I will not accept.”


  6. Not only shuold women know what they DON’T WANT, but they also shuold explore their freedom to discover what they DO WANT. By buying into the societal norm that, sexually, only males can make the first move, women give up their power. And, unconsciously become sexual submissives, which indirectly plays into the rape culture in which we find ourselves.


  7. And never forget: DON’T LIE ABOUT BEING RAPED. As we have observed over the last several years with everything from Crystal Mangum to Morgan Triplett to Meg Lanker-Simons to Stephanie Guthrie to Zoe Quinn to Danmell Ndonye to the “rapist of the month” hoax at Oberlin to the “we support Jackie” fraud committed by Rolling Stone; FALSE rape claims are gaining in popularity.

    There has been a trend for some decades now of “believe the victim” which, while well-intentioned, has led like night into day to an avalanche of false and malicious accusations against innocent men. The results are catastrophic. The motives range from revenge, to covering up an affair, to a desire for celebrity status in the professional victim talk circuit (see: Anita Sarkeesian, Anita Hill, etc.). Women know they have this power, that “victim” is a status granted without evidence (as this article demonstrates), and thousands of them behave accordingly. The reflexive, unquestioned assignation “victim” to what is really “accuser” has been a large part of that atrocity against men. We see it all over: the Duke lacrosse team, Rolling Stone’s vicious and slanderous “I believe Jackie” campaign against UVA, Morgan Triplett in 2013, Danmell Ndonye at Hofstra in 2009, and many, many others. The large-scale white knighting for women coupled with the automatic HATRED of men has gone on too long.

    Feminists have rallied around the Turner case because it’s a textbook example of their favorite stereotype, and articles like this one claim “victims are silenced” despite the FACT that her story has been loudly broadcast for weeks; hundreds of millions of Americans have been piling on since the story first broke. But this is an example of the willful blindness of the feminist narrative. “Nothing is happening!” they shriek, while the whole nation is galvanized against a criminal act. It would be like saying “there is no terrorism” on 9-12-01.

    And people wonder why fewer and fewer Americans want to claim the feminist label.


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