The Sound of Silence: How We all Contribute to Rape Culture—and How to Fix it

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” –Desmond Tutu

Let me set the scene:

You are at a party, mingling with old friends and a few new faces. Everyone is enjoying their drinks and having a good time. The party is a success. Suddenly, one of the new guys speaks up. “Hey, I have a good joke!” he says.

“Let’s hear it,” everyone agrees.

“Okay,” he says. “What new skill did tight-end Aaron Hernandez learn while in prison?”

You shrug.

He answers, “How to be a great wide receiver!”

Prison rape jokes are a dime-a-dozen in our society, as are rape jokes in general. Comedian Daniel Tosh came under fire for his rape joke a few years ago when he pointed to a female heckler in his audience and said: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?”

Of course, Tosh defended the joke as ‘harmless humor’ and many people flew to his defense, saying that he has the right to freedom of speech. He certainly does. But freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequences. And these jokes do have consequences. They contribute to the continued dehumanization of women and the rape culture that we live in.

The term ‘rape culture’ has become more common in recent months, especially in the midst of media firestorms like those surrounding Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, and Brock Turner. However, many people still don’t know exactly what rape culture means.

Marshall University explains, “Rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.  Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.”

Force (a group devoted to upsetting rape culture), defines it thusly: “Rape culture includes jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words and imagery, that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people believe that rape is inevitable. Rather than viewing the culture of rape as a problem to change, people in a rape culture think about the persistence of rape as “just the way things are.”

Some examples? Here, Marshall University’s website lists several:

  • Blaming the victim (“She asked for it!”)
  • Trivializing sexual assault (“Boys will be boys!”)
  • Sexually explicit jokes
  • Tolerance of sexual harassment
  • Inflating false rape report statistics
  • Publicly scrutinizing a victim’s dress, mental state, motives, and history
  • Gratuitous gendered violence in movies and television
  • Defining “manhood” as dominant and sexually aggressive
  • Defining “womanhood” as submissive and sexually passive
  • Pressure on men to “score”
  • Pressure on women to not appear “cold”
  • Assuming only promiscuous women get raped
  • Assuming that men don’t get raped or that only “weak” men get raped
  • Refusing to take rape accusations seriously
  • Teaching women to avoid getting raped instead of teaching men not to rape

My favorite example of rape culture? People who say rape culture doesn’t exist—people who want to pretend that rape is an unsolvable problem, and that false rape is a serious concern (only 2-8% of rape claims are unfounded), and people who believe that rape is fairly handled in this country (only 3% of rapists ever spend a day in jail).

Clearly, we have a problem with sexual violence in our culture, and this problem is so insidious and toxic because most of us choose silence over speech. We cringe and smile awkwardly when we hear a buddy make a nasty joke. We don’t speak up when we hear a coworker disparage a rape victim’s sexual history.  We enjoy pop culture created by accused rapists—whether it is a man urinating on a 12-year-old, a serial rapist, a child molester, a man who drugged and sodomized a pre-teen, etc. One friend recently said to me, “Hey, if I didn’t enjoy music or movies by men accused of rape, I would miss out on a lot of awesome art!”

This is sad but true. And I am not saying you have to throw out your copy of Rosemary’s Baby or your R. Kelly CDs. But, I am asking you to reconsider the way you speak, or more accurately, the ways you in which you stay silent in your personal life. You might think your silence is victimless (‘Whatever, it is what it is! I just roll my eyes and keep it moving’), but rest assured, it is not. When we stay silent about the things that matter, we become complicit. When you stay silent, you help to perpetuate the idea that men can’t control themselves, that women are partly responsible for their rapes, and that rape is not that big of a deal. The rapists hear your laughter and it bolsters their ego. The women hear your laughter and it destroys them.

We are each responsible for creating the world we want to live in, and I don’t want to live in a world where rape jokes are par for the course or where rape victims are dragged through the mud. I want a better world for my children, and I know you do too.

So, as a mother of three boys, I try to lead by example. I use teachable moments on television (such as recent events) to talk about how important it is to speak up when you see a man or woman behaving badly. And I speak up when I hear something that is misogynist or something that contributes to rape culture. It’s not always easy. Sometimes it is uncomfortable. Sometimes people don’t like what I have to say. But I can leave the party or the meeting with the knowledge that I am living my life with honor and that I am teaching my sons to do the same.

No, we can’t change the world overnight. But, yes, we can change the world.

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’ –Margaret Mead