Challenging the Rape Culture Myth

The idea of ‘rape culture’ is one that has slowly seeped into conversation around college campuses regarding sexual assault. Many colleges, including Montana State University, teach that a permissive culture of victim blaming and sexism is partially to blame for statistics like one in four women experiencing a sexual assault during her time in college. As recently as this year, when a woman was killed by her ex-boyfriend, local domestic violence victims’ advocates, interviewed on local AM radio station KMMS, were again warning people of the harm of sexist jokes in contributing to a culture that leads women to be murdered by their partners.

In seeking to help diminish the occurrence of sexual assault, magazine media outlets such as Salon, Jezebel and even a doctor in Psychology Today have published pieces with titles like “Teaching our Sons Not to Rape.” However, the problem with these well-meaning pieces is that not only are these condescending and prejudiced against half of all human beings, but they aren’t supported by the data.

We can all agree that sexual assault is something no one should experience. However, how we choose to educate ourselves on the topic and work to prevent it should be informed by the best data available. In this instance, the science shows that it is not a culture of rape or patriarchal permissiveness that is causing sexual assault to be so prevalent, but the actions of a small number of men who are able to commit the crime again and again without being prosecuted.

In April 2015, respected author Jon Krakauer published “Missoula,” an account of the trials of several University of Montana students and football players during a time when the city’s police force was found to have actively ignored the sexual assaults of over 350 women in the city and college campus. Krakauer did extensive research that employed the work of David Lisak, a retired professor of psychology who’s spent his entire life studying and educating people about the crime of sexual assault.

One of Lisak’s most famous articles, “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists,” followed a sample of almost 2,000 college-aged men in Massachusetts. Of the sample, he identified approximately four percent as being “repeat rapists,” who committed an average of six rapes each. In addition to the rapes, the repeat rapists also committed sexual assaults that were not considered rape, physical abuse against children and battery against intimate partners, leaving approximately 14 victims each in their wake. Another study of Navy recruits in 2009 also found a small percentage of men who were classified as “repeat rapists,” who committed an average of six rapes each.

In “Missoula,” Krakauer documents the case of convicted rapist and Grizzly football alumnus Beau Donaldson. After Donaldon’s arrest became public, other women came forward to testify in the media and at his trial that they too, had also been sexual assault victims of Donaldson. Were it not for the courage and testimony of these prior victims, Donaldson would likely not have been convicted and sent to prison. However, it should not take several victims before a rapist has a chance of facing a trial.

One barrier against effective pursuit and prosecution of these repeat offenders is misinformation by the public. One contention in past scientific literature is a handful of studies from the 1980s that assert as many as 45 percent of all claims of rape by women are made up. While the studies in question have been discredited, Lisak still spends part of his career educating law enforcement and the public at large against this claim. Better research now shows only two to 10 percent of all rape claims by women to be false. However, cultural attitudes toward women and male-female relationships have helped keep these myths of large numbers of false rape claims pervasively in the public consciousness.

In the future, we should work to find the best ways to identify the people who are most likely to commit the crime of sexual assault, provide adequate resources for victims of the crime and ensure our justice system works to put repeat rapists behind bars. However, continuing to spread myths about an entire gender or the influence of jokes in causing rape won’t help us stop sexual assault. Continuing ineffective paths like these only helps to continue soft bigotry and prejudice towards all men and stifle free speech in a society that enshrines it as one of its core values. We can do better, and using real science to identify how should be a prime focus if we are serious about stopping sexual assault.

  • Charles Steak

    “Better research now shows only two to 10 percent of all rape claims by women to be false.”

    It should be noted that a rape incident that lacks enough evidence to prosecute is considered a “false charge”. It doesn’t imply that it didn’t actually happen and was made up by the alleged victim. Due to the fact that it’s notoriously difficult to actually get a rape conviction (due to, hey, rape culture), the number of actual false rape accusations is probably well below 1%. You talk about using facts but neglected to include what a “false rape claim” actually consists of because you either didn’t know or, worse yet, you did know but knew it would completely ruin your tenuous argument.

    Rape Culture is a very real thing and part of that culture is the denying of that culture. This article literally proves itself wrong.

    (On a side note, absolutely none of this has anything remotely to do with “free speech” or the stifling thereof.)

  • Sara Rushing

    Not every man is a Trump or a Cosby. But men are surely in the most privileged position to combat rape. And part of that is recognizing that a Trump or a Cosby – the most egregious repeat offenders – can only operate in a climate that not only looks away but actively facilitates and in many cases celebrates their behavior. To identify the way rape culture functions is not to say that every man who hears a misogynist joke is going to turn into a rapist. But it is to recognize that every man is in a position to call out those misogynist jokes and stop other men, and women, from thinking that this is just how men are. Trump is honest when he says over and over “this is just how men talk.” But probably what he means is that this is how he has always talked, and no one fought him on it. Thank goodness all these professional athletes are now speaking up, and saying “this is not what goes on in OUR locker rooms.” That is a way of combating rape culture. It is brave, it is honest and it is important.

  • Jamie Rajagopal-Durbin

    I’m not an expert or as articulate as Sara or Charles, but I will try my best…

    Ultimately, while this article troubles me I do understand some of where this may have come from. As a white, heterosexual, male it can be difficult at times to come to grips with my privilege and the easiest thing to say is “Hey, that’s not me! I’m one of the good ones!” And while that is all well and good that attitude ignores the systems of power and oppression (yes I said the O word) that I and other men, white people, heterosexuals (fill in the dominant group) are the beneficiaries of on a daily basis. It also ignores what role we may have in helping to maintain these systems.

    So, to you Tim and to anyone else who bristles at the idea of rape culture and who are made inherently uncomfortable with that concept (because you are not yourself a rapist), I urge you to sit with that discomfort and examine it. While we may not be the perpetrators are we propagators (often unconsciously) of a system that condones and ignores violence against women? Do we turn away when a joke is made or fail to step in when we see someone being cat called, or easiest of all, fail to address the every day micro-aggressions embedded in our culture? I have and I do continue to not stand up, but we all have the ability to do more by owning our privilege and trying to be more courageous in defense of all marginalized communities. It is hard, and we will stumble, but we can take action today. This starts with acknowledging that their is a rape culture and that we have power to dismantle it.

  • Sonja Benton

    The points below are eloquent on the subject of rape culture in ways I could never hope to be. So instead, I’d like to focus on a specific point you make about stifling free speech. In the U.S., I enjoy the privilege of the government allowing me to say whatever I wish to anyone. What the right to free speech does not protect is the freedom from consequences of your own speech. If you make a comment that someone finds offensive, and they call you out on the comment, or report it to a workplace, or make claims about your beliefs, you are not being stifled. Instead, someone else’s voice, a company, an organization, a community, are exercising their own right to speak freely. By viewing criticism and push back as a danger to your own voice, you are actively proposing that others do not deserve the right to speak themselves. In a twisted way, this means that the only person in the scenario that is hurting free speech is you, by allowing it to stand for the continued system that what you have to say is more important than what everyone around you is saying. For this, maybe listen. Not listen to respond, but listen to understand those other voices. They have a right to be heard, like they’ve heard you.

  • Chris Myers

    Thank you for the constructive feedback on my writer’s article. I am elated to see such readership in our paper. Please keep in mind that all opinion articles are reflections of the opinions of the writers and not reflections of the Exponent.

  • Karen deVries

    Tim Adams argument here does not supply any evidence to support his claim that rape culture “is not supported by the data.” Rather than addressing the culture issue, he provides data that repeat offenders are a smaller population per capita than the public is led to believe because of “misinformation” that he connects to discredited studies from over 20 years ago. While the repeat offender stats are interesting, nothing here justifies his conclusion that rape culture is a myth.

    Indeed, Adams doesn’t seem to actually understand what rape culture is. Rape culture describes a world where someone who has spent his entire life assaulting women and getting away with it can become a major party Presidential nominee. Rape culture describes a world where dismissing sexual assault as “just locker room talk” actually makes sense to a significant part of the population. Rape culture includes all of the daily norms that legitimate treating women as objects. Rape culture is, precisely, NOT a name for statistics about who is prosecuted for rape most frequently.

    Rape culture IS a name for the kind of norms that lead someone to assume that the only real problem is repeat offenders rather than (1) the data showing show hundreds of thousands of rapes committed every year in the United States, most of them by people known by the victim rather than juridically identified “repeat offenders;” (2) the data that 1 in 5 girls, 1 in 7 girls, 1 in 6 adult women, and 1 in 33 adult men have experienced sexual assault; (3) the low percentage of rapes that are actually reported (around 30%); and the data arguing that 97% of rapists never spend a day in jail for their crimes. (All data referenced here is from the Department of Justice). Instead of focusing on repeat offenders, data about actual rape culture attends to the frequency of situations in which sexual assault is ignored, normalized, trivialized or made into jokes.