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Behaviors commonly associated with rape culture include victim blaming, sexual objectification, trivializing rape, denial of widespread rape, or refusing to acknowledge the harm of some forms of sexual violence. The notion of rape culture has been used to describe and explain behavior within social groups, including prison rape, and in conflict areas where war rape is used as psychological warfare. Entire societies have been alleged to be rape cultures.
Although the concept of rape culture is used in feminist academia, there is disagreement over what defines a rape culture and to whether any given societies meet the criteria to be considered a rape culture.
Elements of rape culture are correlated with other social factors and behaviors. Rape myths, victim blaming, and trivialization of rape are positively correlated with racism, homophobia, ageism, classism, religious intolerance, and other forms of discrimination.
During the 1970s, second-wave feminists had begun to engage in consciousness-raising efforts designed to educate the public about the prevalence of rape. Previously, according to Canadian psychology professor Alexandra Rutherford, most Americans assumed that rape, incest, and wife-beating rarely happened. The concept of rape culture posited that rape was common and normal in American culture, and that it is simply one extreme manifestation of pervasive societal misogyny and sexism.
The first published use of the term appears to have been in 1974 in Rape: The First Sourcebook for Women, edited by Noreen Connell and Cassandra Wilson for the New York Radical Feminists. This book, along with Susan Brownmiller's 1975 Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, was among the earliest to include first-person accounts of rape, and aimed to make the case that rape was much more common than previously believed. In the book, the group stated that "our ultimate goal is to eliminate rape and that goal cannot be achieved without a revolutionary transformation of our society."
Sociology professor Joyce E. Williams traces the origin and first usage of the term rape culture to the 1975 documentary film Rape Culture, produced and directed by Margaret Lazarus and Renner Wunderlich for Cambridge Documentary Films, and says that the film "takes credit for first defining the concept". The film discussed rape of both men and women in the context of a larger cultural normalization of rape. The film featured the work of the DC Rape Crisis Centre in co-operation with Prisoners Against Rape, Inc. It included interviews with rapists and victims as well as prominent anti-rape activists like feminist philosopher and theologian Mary Daly and author and artist Emily Culpepper. The film also explored how mass media and popular culture have perpetuated attitudes towards rape.
In a 1992 Journal of Social Issues paper entitled "A Feminist Redefinition of Rape and Sexual Assault: Historical Foundations and Change", Patricia Donat and John D'Emilio suggested that the term originated as "rape-supportive culture" in Against Our Will. Brownmiller, a member of the New York Radical Feminists, showed how both academia and the general public ignored the existence of rape. The book is considered a "landmark" work on feminism and sexual violence and one of the pillars of modern rape studies.
By the mid-1970s, the phrase began to appear in multiple forms of media.
According to Michael Parenti, rape culture manifests through the acceptance of rapes as an everyday occurrence, and even a male prerogative. It can be exacerbated by police apathy in handling rape cases, as well as victim blaming, reluctance by the authorities to go against patriarchial cultural norms, as well as fears of stigmatization from rape victims and their families. Other sociologists posit that rape culture links nonconsensual sex to the cultural fabric of a society, where patriarchial world views, laced with misogyny and gender inequality, are passed from generation to generation, leading to widespread social and institutional acceptance of rape.
Feminists and sexual activists conceptualize rape cultures that encourage gender violence, as well as perpetuate "rape myths", ranging from treating rape as merely "rough sex" to blaming the victim for inviting rape. Such "rape myths" are social messages that command women to assume predefined gender roles concerning sexual behavior. This idea is reflected in spousal rape. Rape culture perpetuates particular rape myths that are then codified into law. Emergence of the concepts like ′intimate partner rape′ or ′marital rape′ is one consequence of these rape myths. In addition, rape culture can manifest when third parties separate the violence from the general reputation and character of the perpetrators.
According to Chris O'Sullivan, acts of sexism are commonly employed to validate and rationalize normative misogynistic practices. For instance, sexist jokes may be told to foster disrespect for women and an accompanying disregard for their well-being, or a rape victim might be blamed for being raped because of how she dressed or acted. In O'Sullivan's article, sexualized violence towards women is regarded as a continuum of a society that regards women's bodies as sexually available by default.
According to some, the root cause of rape culture is the "domination and objectivication [sic] of women". However, academic theory holds that rape culture does not necessarily have a single cause, and causes may be localized based on other social aspects of culture. For example, in South Africa the overriding "war culture" which emphasized masculinity and violence led to a culture in which rape was normalized. A University of California Davis public document alleged that the enforcement of the following of social rules by women and the conditioning of gender roles were major causes. Others say in a rape culture women are conditioned to assume responsibility for male sexuality, and gender roles are socially constructed and enforced on women through fear.
In a study of date rape, gender-based miscommunications were held to be a major factor supporting a campus rape culture. The general unwillingness of police and district attorneys to prosecute rapes where force was not involved or where the victim had some sort of relationship with the aggressor is also cited as a motivation for date rape and campus rape. In addition, there have been reported incidents of colleges questioning accounts of alleged victims, further complicating documentation and policing of student assaults, despite such preventative legislation as the Clery Act.
Rape culture is also closely related to slut-shaming and victim blaming, where rape victims are considered at fault for being raped, and it is argued that this connection is due to the presence of a culture that shames all female sexuality. That some rapes are not reported to the police due to fear that they would not be believed is often cited as a symptom of a rape culture, that they thought the police would not believe them is cited as a reason by 6% of women who did not report rape.
Pornography has also been commonly targeted as a contributor to rape culture because it is said to contribute to larger patterns of oppression. Feminists frequently link rape culture to the widespread distribution of pornography, which is seen as an expression of a culture that objectifies women, reducing the female body to a commodity. The fusion of several pornographic motifs are seen in the accounts of rapists.
Rape culture can be perpetuated via language used in everyday conversations. The frequency of rape jokes on the internet has been cited as an example of the belittling of rape that characterizes rape culture. Prison rape is a topic about which jokes are abundant. Linda McFarlane, director of Just Detention International, states "Humor is part of the cultural attitude that (prison) is the one place where rape is okay."
Rape culture has been described as detrimental to men as well as women. Some writers and speakers, such as Jackson Katz, Michael Kimmel, and Don McPherson, have said that it is intrinsically linked to gender roles that limit male self-expression and cause psychological harm to men.
According to political scientist Iris Marion Young, victims in rape cultures live in fear of random acts of oppressive sexual violence that are intended to damage or humiliate the victim. Others link rape culture with modernisation and industrialisation, arguing that pre-industrial societies tend to be "rape free" cultures, since the lower status of women in these societies give them some immunity from sexual violence. In industrial rape cultures, women emerge from their homebound roles and make their presence felt in the workplace and other areas traditionally dominated by men, increasing male insecurities that lead to them using rape as a countering method. Others also link rape culture to environmental insecurities, where men objectify women as part of their struggle to control their immediate environment. It is also linked to gender segregation, and the belief that rape proves masculinity. Other manifestations of rape culture include denial of widespread rape, institutional apathy towards the problem of rape, minimization of rape cases by government officials, and excusing rapists as social anomalies.
Victim blaming is the phenomenon in which a victim of a crime or an accident is partially or entirely attributed or responsible for the transgressions committed against them. An example of this could take place when a victim of a crime, (in this case rape or sexual assault), is asked questions by the police, in an emergency room, or in a court room, that suggests that the victim was doing something, acting a certain way, or wearing clothes that may have provoked the perpetrator, therefore making the transgressions against the victim their own fault. This is an example of victim blaming committed by the authorities. However, this could also occur among a victim’s peers. Also, while there is not a lot of general discussion of rape facilitated in the home, schools, or government agencies, what information or conversation there is often time perpetuates rape culture due to the focus of the emphasis on techniques of “how not to be raped,” vs “how not to rape.” This is problematic due to the stigma created and transgressed against the already victimized individuals rather than stigmatizing the aggressive actions of rape and the rapists. It is also commonly viewed that prisoners in prison deserve to be raped and is a reasonable form of punishment for the crimes they committed.
Slut shaming is a variant on victim blaming, to do with the shaming of sexual behaviour. It describes the way people are made to feel guilty or inferior for certain sexual behaviors or desires that deviate from traditional or orthodox gender expectations. The SlutWalk movement aims to challenge victim blaming, slut shaming and rape culture.
SlutWalk is a feminist organization that formed in response to a public statement made by Toronto police officer Michael Sanguinetti on January 24, 2011. While addressing the issue of campus rape at a York University safety forum, Sanguinetti said that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized."
The SlutWalk and Besharmi Morcha movements are credited with popularizing the term via mass media reports about the protesters in the English-speaking Western media. The rallies aim to raise awareness of rape culture—which they define as a culture in which "sexual violence is both made to be invisible and inevitable"—and to end slut-shaming and victim blaming.  One primary goal of this organization is to deconstruct the stigma that often comes with being a victim of rape or sexual-assault. Cities that have hosted SlutWalks include but are not limited to: (In the U.S.) Seattle, Boston, Chicago, Spokane, Austin, and Philadelphia. The SlutWalk of Philadelphia was rebranded as The March to End Rape Culture. The idea behind the name change is so the walk can be more inclusive and promotes more diversity in its participants, volunteers, and sponsors.  The original SlutWalk took place in the city of Toronto, Ontario.
RAINN, one of North America's leading anti-sexual violence organizations, in a report detailing recommendations to the White House on combating rape on college campuses, decries an overemphasis on the concept of rape culture as a means of preventing rape and as a cause for rape, saying, "In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming 'rape culture' for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses. While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime." It is estimated that in college, 90% of rapes are committed by 3% of the male population, though it is stipulated that they do not have reliable numbers for female perpetrators. RAINN argues that rape is the product of individuals who have decided to disregard the overwhelming cultural message that rape is wrong. The report argues that trend towards focusing on cultural factors that supposedly condone rape "has the paradoxical effect of making it harder to stop sexual violence, since it removes the focus from the individual at fault, and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions".
Caroline Kitchens, in a 2014 article in Time Magazine titled "It’s Time to End ‘Rape Culture’ Hysteria" suggested that "Though rape is certainly a serious problem, there’s no evidence that it’s considered a cultural norm. ...On college campuses, obsession with eliminating 'rape culture' has led to censorship and hysteria." Heather MacDonald suggested that "In a delicious historical irony, the baby boomers who dismantled the university’s intellectual architecture in favor of unbridled sex and protest have now bureaucratized both." According to Joyce E. Williams, "the major criticism of rape culture and the feminist theory from which it emanates is the monolithic implication that ultimately all women are victimized by all men."
Christina Hoff Sommers has disputed the existence of rape culture, arguing that the common "one in four women will be raped in her lifetime" claim is based on a flawed study, but frequently cited because it leads to campus anti-rape groups receiving public funding. Sommers has also examined and criticized many other rape studies for their methodology, and states, "There are many researchers who study rape victimization, but their relatively low figures generate no headlines."
Sommers and others have specifically questioned Mary Koss's oft-cited 1984 study that claimed 1 in 4 college women have been victims of rape, charging it overstated rape of women and downplayed the incidence of men being the victims of unwanted sex. According to Sommers, as many as 73% of the subjects of Koss's study disagreed with her characterization that they had been raped, while others have pointed out that Koss's study focused on the victimization of women, downplaying the significance of sexual victimization of men, even though its own data indicated one in seven college men had been victims of unwanted sex. Sommers points out that Koss had deliberately narrowed the definition of unwanted sexual encounters for men to instances where men were penetrated.
Other writers, such as bell hooks, have criticized the rape culture paradigm on the grounds that it is too narrowly focused; in 1984, she wrote that it ignores rape's place in an overarching "culture of violence". In 1993 she contributed a chapter to a book on rape culture, focusing on rape culture in the context of patriarchy in black culture.
Barbara Kay, a Canadian journalist, has been critical of feminist Mary Koss's discussion of rape culture, describing the notion that “rape represents an extreme behavior but one that is on a continuum with normal male behavior within the culture" as "remarkably misandric".
Jadaliyya, an academic initiative by the Arab Studies Institute, published another critique of the concept of rape culture, criticizing the appropriation of the term by orientalists to promote racist stereotypes of Arab and Muslim men, as well as stereotypes of South Asians in western media and academia. The critique draws connections between media reports demonizing Middle Eastern and South Asian men as "racially prone to rape" and similar tactics employed by the British as part of a racist Indophobic propaganda campaign during the 1857 rebellion casting resistance fighters as rapists.
The UN conducted its ‘Multi-country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific’ in 2008 in six countries across Asia. Its conclusions, published in 2013, seemed to indicate a substantial number of men in Asian countries admit to committing some form of rape. The study’s general conclusion about high levels of rape have been recognized as reliable; however, questions about its accuracy perpetuate the debate about how societies perceive rape and social norms. A closer look at the study’s methodology reveals questions about cultural definitions of rape, the study’s sample size, survey design, and linguistic accuracy, all of which highlights ongoing challenges in trying to quantify the prevalence of rape.