Resisting a Rape Culture
By Dr. Patricia Rozee
California State University, Long Beach
Nowhere is the intersection of sex and power more evident than in the crime of rape. The sex-power relationship is the defining element of rape because men gain power over women by controlling and violating them sexually. Researchers know rape as a gendered crime, that is, a crime against women that is perpetrated by men. Most rape victims are female, a small percentage of about 2% are male, but virtually all rapists are male. Victim characteristics do not seem to predict whether a woman will be raped or not. Factors such as how she dresses, whether or not she acts “provocatively”, whether she is at home or on the street, sexually active or not, are not related to becoming a rape victim. It appears that the best predictor of whether or not one will be raped is gender—being female!
The United States has been described as a rape culture where the act of rape is normative, meaning it is essentially a condoned behavior. Legal writer, Catherine MacKinnon highlights this idea by pointing out that rape in the U. S. is regulated not prohibited. Men are not punished for rape and women are not encouraged to resist rapists. Although there are laws against rape rarely are perpetrators charged or convicted. According to a national survey, the Rape in America study, only 16% of rapes are reported to police. Once reported very few go to trial. For example in a Philadelphia study they found that only 7.5% of reported rapes resulted in a guilty verdict. The closer the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim the less likely is an arrest or conviction. Thus strangers are more likely than dates or acquaintances to be charged and convicted of rape, acquaintances are more likely to be convicted than family members and so on. Thus we regulate rather than prohibit rape. Canadian writers note that the 1977 reformulation of rape as a crime of violence has led to important reforms in rape law. However, the paucity of data available on the national level in Canada makes conclusions about rape in Canada speculative at best. One study of urban women ages 18-82 in Winnipeg found that 6% (1 in 17) of women reported being raped and 21% (1 in 5) reported being sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime. Only 10% reported to police. Although there are few Canadian studies focusing on college students a large-scale study of students in Ontario reported 15% had been raped in the previous year, the same as reported in a number of U.S. studies.
Rape culture is further enabled by sex role socialization practices that teach non-overlapping ideas of masculinity and femininity. Boys are expected to be tough, independent, competitive and aggressive. The socialization of sexual aggression in males is complemented by a culture that uses rape as entertainment in film, video and pornography. Girls are socialized to be gentle, vulnerable, nurturing and physically weaker than males. Female socialization as victims is complemented by an almost complete lack of training and support for resisting rape. In fact the most common myth about rape resistance is that if a woman fights back against a rapist she is more likely to be injured than if she submits. Rape researcher Karol Dean points out that the cultural context of women’s resistance dictates that it is okay for a woman to avoid rape by staying home but not if it requires becoming physically stronger; it is okay to avoid rape by being accompanied at all times by a man, but not if it means confronting men who invade one’s personal space. Martha McCaughey observes that women’s reluctance to resist and their physical incompetence relative to men contribute to the rape culture because they help men win physical fights with women and then help them rationalize the attacks!
Women are conditioned to believe the strong cultural message that rape resistance is both futile and dangerous. Despite socialization to the contrary it is surprising to learn that women are more likely to escape a would-be rapist than to be raped by him. According to the Uniform Crime Report only one in four attempted rapes ends in a completed rape. Women may escape rape because of intervention or interruption by others, victim resistance, or other situational factors. It is important to point out however, that even if a woman chooses not to resist she is still not responsible for the rape—the blame is completely with the perpetrator.
Psychologists are in complete agreement with the consistent evidence that shows that resistance may prevent rape and resistance poses no increased risk of injury. Sarah Ullman, a researcher at the University of Illinois, reviewed dozens of studies of police reports and rape crisis center information. She discovered that more forceful resistance (verbal and physical) was related to less severe sexual abuse. Victim resistance was not related to the level of physical injury. In fact when she studied the sequence of events Dr. Ullman found that women resist when they are being hurt, they are not hurt because they resist. In other words they are hurt and then they resist, not the reverse. Surveys have shown that most people think that injury is the most likely outcome of resistance even though no empirical evidence supports this view. Martha McCaughey writing about “the fighting spirit” says that dealing with the misinformation and myths about fighting back are necessary before women can embrace the will to fight.
There are many benefits of resistance aside from escaping being raped. Pauline Bart has suggested in her book Stopping Rape: Successful Survival Strategies, that fighting back may result in faster psychological recovery whether or not the rape is completed. Women who fight back have a stronger sense of having done all they could and thus are less likely to blame themselves for what happened. Women who do not resist are more likely to be rape, more often blamed for the rape, and are likely to suffer the associated physical and psychological aftereffects of rape. If the woman wants to prosecute the man who raped her she will face disbelief from juries because the lack of resistance increases judgments that she consented. The more she resists the more certain are jurors that a rape occurred. This is the classic damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation. One the one hand women are discouraged from resistance yet if they are raped (perhaps in part because they did not resist) and they did not resist jurors are less likely to believe that a rape occurred!
Self-defense mastery is a radical act because it confronts rape culture by removing men’s control over women’s physical bodies. It challenges the sex-power relationship that is the defining element of rape. It empowers women by reducing the constant fear of rape that acts to imprison women in their homes and keep them in unhealthy relationships with male “protectors.” Most potent of all, self defense mastery emboldens women by enabling increased freedom of action--the freedom to go, to do, to be.