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Antiquated Social Norms or Progressivism To Blame for Rape Culture?

April 2, 2011

Over the past 100 years, society has come a long way in equalizing gender roles.  In fact, this progression has gone so far as to make it difficult for younger generations to understand what it’s like to live in a world where women’s rights are secondary to men’s—which is something of a double edged sword—but I’ll get there.  The Roaring 20’s brought about the institution of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.  Birth control became readily available, widely used and socially acceptable, and women started entering the workforce.  Cut to a 21st century society where these rights are taken for granted, and the struggles from which they were borne, often overlooked, and you can start to see the second blade.  But when social norms have become as they are today, we have to wonder if the pendulum of uniform rights for the fairer sex has swung too far from where it originated, or not far enough.  I’m talking about rape—or more specifically, rape culture.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term “rape culture,” it’s a phrase that was coined in the 70’s to describe society, and mass media’s normalization of violence against women.  It is often used in women’s studies, and feminist circles.  The rationale behind this “social shrug,” as I like to call it, is broken down and perpetuated by two equally disturbing elements: the first being the old moniker, “boys will be boys.”  The second is that for any one of a number of reasons, a woman can open herself up to being raped.  As ridiculous as this rationalization may seem, it has been successfully employed as a legitimate defense strategy in criminal trials.

Back in February, a Canadian judge’s ruling allowed a man to dodge a rape charge, sentencing him to two years house arrest, because the victim wore revealing clothing.  “Sex was in the air,” the judge said of the 26-year-old single mother’s flirtatious demeanor on the night in question.  He went so far as to call the defendant a “clumsy Don Juan.”

Not to be outdone, the New York Times published an article on the brutal gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in a rural Texas town.  The article featured several quotes from locals, doting over the fact that the five suspects, ranging in age from middle schoolers, to a 27-year old man, had their lives turned upside down, all because this little girl wore makeup, hung around teenage boys and dressed in a manner befitting “a woman in her twenties.”  To make matters worse, the assaults were videotaped.

Perhaps too many people have forgotten what it’s like to be 11-years-old. Why else would such an esteemed publication as the New York Times broadcast the fact that this child wore makeup, and disturbingly, use it as a makeshift springboard to launch a defense for five older boys who violated a child?

There is reason why a woman’s sexual history is inadmissible as evidence in a rape trial in the United States.  So how can we in good conscience, justify the rape of a little girl because of a coat of lip gloss?  Arguably, such atrocities are feasible by virtue of the fact that women are deemed physically equal to men.  The fact of the matter is that an 11-year –old girl is extremely limited in her defense against five older males.  And perhaps even more important than her physical response to the attack would be the issue of consent.  If a woman does not give consent, if a woman cannot give consent (by virtue of her age, level of intoxication, mental state, etc.) –if a woman will not give consent, if for any reason, consent is not given, any and all sexual encounters that follow the lack of consent are not only unethical, but illegal.

So do these misguided perceptions on sexual assault stem from the ideology that women are physically equal to men and comparably in charge of their own bodies? Or the fact that women are inferior, and consent is subsequently a non-issue when “sex is in the air”?  You decide.


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