NEW YORK – Around the world, people’s understanding of why rape happens usually takes one of two forms. Either it is like lightning, striking some unlucky woman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time (an isolated, mysterious event, caused by some individual man’s sudden psychopathology), or it is “explained” by some seductive transgression by the victim (the wrong dress, a misplaced smile).
But the idea of a “rape culture” – a concept formulated by feminists in the 1970’s as they developed the study of sexual violence – has hardly made a dent in mainstream consciousness. The notion that there are systems, institutions, and attitudes that are more likely to encourage rape and protect rapists is still marginal to most people, if they have encountered it at all.
That is a shame, because there have been numerous recent illustrations of the tragic implications of rape culture. Reports of widespread sexual violence in India, South Africa, and recently Brazil have finally triggered a long-overdue, more systemic examination of how those societies may be fostering rape, not as a distant possibility in women’s lives, but as an ever-present, life-altering, daily source of terror.
The latest “rape culture” to be exposed – in recent documentaries, lawsuits, and legislative hearings – is embedded within the United States military. As The Guardian reported in 2011, women soldiers in Iraq faced a higher likelihood of being sexually assaulted by a colleague than they did of dying by enemy fire.