'Culture' is a liberally used term. We read about a 'culture of greed' in the City, or a 'culture of secrecy' in Parliament. When you turn on Radio 1, or read about Miley Cyrus's latest controversy, you buy into pop culture. On the whole it's a seemingly innocuous word, one we all feel comfortable with. Or at least, it was, until I began reading about the rise of another culture - 'rape culture'.
The Guardian recently published an article titled 'Rape culture at university needs urgent action' which opened with the author, a Cambridge fresher, describing various dreadful incidents her friends had experienced at university, namely drink spiking, sexual assault, and most tragically, rape. So far, so fair.
Yet the article then went on to claim that swaps (alcohol fuelled social engagements wherein two drinking societies meet to have dinner and don fancy dress) are "part of a rape culture which leads boys to see women primarily as objects for their sexual satisfaction." Her evidence for this? An invitation to a swap with the theme 'what were you wearing when the police raided the brothel?' and the profusion of alcohol at said events which allegedly makes women "sexually vulnerable", coupled with the admission of one male friend that swaps "are a bit rapey".
There are several points to be addressed. Firstly, what exactly is 'rape culture'? The dictionary definition of culture is "the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society". Add the prefix 'rape', and it would seem that the particular group of people being addressed are rapists. Their collective 'social behaviour' is that they rape people. That is their common link. If you have never raped someone, then you are not a rapist, and therefore you are not part of a rape culture. Casual misogyny, objectification of women, sexist swap themes; all are issues which do need to be addressed, but none are comparable to rape.
Rape destroys people's lives. It leaves victims traumatised, emotionally and often physically scarred for years. It is one of the most reprehensible crimes which can be committed and tragically, not enough perpetrators are convicted. Maintaining offence at a light hearted swap theme is not grounds to claim that those organising said swap are perpetuating a 'rape culture', and it is this kind of unthinking hyperbole, this faux feminism, which repeatedly sets back the achievements of the women's lib movement.
Secondly, within her argument lies the assumption that the often sexually charged behaviour on swaps is entirely male dominated, an assumption which is simply not true. The author writes that the brothel inspired swap theme was "part of a wider culture that teaches girls to be sexual in accordance to men's desires, but shames them if they explore their own sexuality", yet by automatically assigning said girls the role of victim within a swap context, she is effectively denying them of their agency as sexual beings.
I have plenty of girl friends who have sat there cheering on boys as they perform drunken strip teases. I've witnessed hordes of inebriated females coerce their male counterparts into spanking or kissing each other in a seedy curry establishment. The post swap debrief, conducted at lunch the next day with a raging hangover, is a staple conversation for all my friends; we openly discuss who was the schweffiest character, it they got any action, what their 'success rate' was; does this mean I'm perpetuating a rape culture? The short answer is no.
The long answer is also no. If you say "no, but there was an atmosphere of rape", or "no, but it all got a bit rapey when someone suggested playing Good Pants/Bad Pants" then you are effectively undermining the gravity of what rape actually is.
To the author of the original article - I am sorry if you felt at all objectified by the theme of the swap, and if that made you uncomfortable. I understand that having friends who have been exposed to sexual crimes is bound to make you more sensitive to any sexist remarks. To claim that swaps are part of 'rape culture', however, is to take your argument a step too far. I once set a swap theme of 'Sluts and Lobsters' - am I part of an insidious rape culture?
If someone suggests you dress provocatively for a night out, then tweet Everyday Sexism. Refuse to play along. But don't call it 'rape-culture' - it's not right.
This is an edited version of an article originally published on The Tab Cambridge