**Trigger Warning** This article discusses sexual violence.
This week two words have become unavoidable on the feminist blogosphere: rape culture. In the aftermath of the verdict in Steubenville, Ohio, and the sympathetic depictions of the rapists by the media, feminists are increasingly using this phrase to describe our society as one that does not take rape seriously and is enabling to would-be rapists.
Rape culture is defined as society in which male sexual aggression and violence against women are supported through the promotion of norms and beliefs that encourage or excuse sexual violence. I don't disagree with the view that many aspects of our culture glorify and excuse male sexual violence. One only has to look at music videos such as Kanye West's Monster and bestsellers such as 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight, which promote the trope of a woman submitting to a violent male partner, to see how the mainstream media sexes up violence against women. There is undoubtedly a disturbingly high level of images promoting and normalizing sexual violence within the media, however I would not say this has led to a 'rape culture'. I do not believe we live in a society in which rape is encouraged or normalized, and I find the assertion that men need to be taught not to rape patronizing and offensive. The vast majority of men find what happened at Steubenville just as disturbing as women. And we should not forget that plenty of the twitter users 'slut-shaming' the victim following her assault were women. The issue here is not that men need to be taught not to rape, but that both sexes need to be educated about consent. We don't live in a rape culture, but we don't live in a consent culture either.
The Steubenville case epitomizes this. While I would never want to excuse the disgusting violence and humiliation that those men inflicted upon their victim, it seems to have come from a place of ignorance rather than a full understanding of the implications of such a violation of her consent. As the media discussed the terrible implications their conviction will have on the rapists, nobody was speaking about the long-term damage such a horrific violation her autonomy will have on the survivor. The rapists' actions and the response of their sympathisers are a testament to a society that doesn't understand the concept of consent. The twitter users calling the victim a "drunk slut" don't glorify the actions of the rapists, they excuse their lack of comprehension that too drunk to say no doesn't equal yes. Of course, this should be combatted with education, but not by just 'teaching men not to rape'. Not only do men need to be encouraged to seek consent, women need to be encouraged to give it.
A far more prevalent issue than the glorification of violence against women is the norm of women being discouraged from being active participants in their own sex lives. The stereotypical sexual encounter played out on TV or in movies is of a man, actively wanting to have sex, seducing or persuading a woman into sleeping with him. This myth is promulgated through the media's incessant objectification of women. Where women are sexualized, it is not as active participants, but as often-unattainable objects of desire. They exist to be enjoyed rather than to enjoy themselves.
Even when we are attracted to somebody, women are encouraged to be coy and not act too keen, to be careful not to land on the wrong side of the virgin-whore dichotomy. This leads to blurred lines when it comes to consent. If women are told to never say yes, it devalues their no. Women are not encouraged to actively consent to sex when they want it, but rather to just not say no. Consent should be active and should be signaled not only vocally but also physically, by both partners. A consent culture, where both partners are encouraged to take an active role in their sex lives would lead not only to a reduction of the 'grey area', where rape can be most easily dismissed, but would also lead to more gratifying sex for both men and women.
Rape should not be classified as a 'women's issue'. All people are negatively affected by a society that fails to understand and encourage consent and that is the key issue in Steubenville and in the other recent cases where rapists have been excused and the impact on victims dismissed. This is not indicative of a violent, rape culture, but a culture in which women are not encouraged to enjoy and actively participate in their sex lives. In such a society there can be no true comprehension of consent.
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