I recently finished up a course on Rape and Sexual Assault. I was shocked to learn that there are people in the world who believe that rape culture does not exist–people who excuse, belittle, and stigmatize rape and sexual assault. Once you learn what rape culture is, you realize that it is everywhere. It is woven into our cultural narratives about sex, gender identity, and sexuality and reproduced constantly in our stories, from tasteless rape jokes to sensationalized sexual violence in procedural crime dramas.
What is Rape Culture?
“In a rape culture, people are surrounded with images, language, laws, and other everyday phenomena that validate and perpetuate, rape. 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” (Definition of Rape Culture from FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture).
What is Consent?
Consent is a major weapon in the fight against rape culture. Consent is…
- A voluntary, sober, imaginative, enthusiastic, creative, wanted, informed, mutual, honest, and verbal agreement
- An active agreement: Consent cannot be coerced
- A process, which must be asked for every step of the way; if you want to move to the next level of sexual intimacy, just ask
- Never implied and cannot be assumed, even in the context of a relationship. Just because you are in a relationship does not mean that you have permission to have sex with your partner. (from SAVP and Consent is Sexy¹).
Why is this so difficult for people to understand?
As simple as consent sounds, many people in our sex-negative, rape-excusing, patriarchal culture find the idea to be controversial. Realizing how vital consent is to healthy intimate relationships requires a lot of relearning. A lot of mainstream/violent pornography, music videos, lyrics, and ads enforce the idea that women* are always willing and ready for sex. Movies and television shows regularly create story-lines and plots that revolve around acquaintance rape involving drugs and alcohol².
Consent is not merely, “Do you want to have sex with me? (Check YES or NO). Consent is “…a process, which must be asked for every step of the way; if you want to move to the next level of sexual intimacy, just ask”. That idea scares people for a few reasons. Images of sex in the media enforce male entitlement to women’s* bodies as objects to be used for one-sided pleasure². “We raise women to be nice, please others and put their needs last; we raise men to be entitled douchenozzles who don’t take no for an answer; and then we put the burden on women to be gatekeepers” (from Yes Means Yes). Images of sex in the media show sex as spontaneous, serious, and always pure sexy. Participants hardly ever speak or laugh (unless the scene is meant to be humorous in some way) and especially never communicate about their desires.
These images, coupled with the “process” idea of consent, have created a lot of satire and mocking of the idea of consent, beginning with the infamous Antioch College Consent Policy in the early 1990s. The idea of consent as a process was mocked as an unrealistic radical feminist ideal meant to shut all men up into prisons as rapists. One major reason that this belief is still held is because we do not have images in our media of people communicating their sexual desires or affirming consent during sexual activities without it being mocked. Consent is not solely verbal and it is performed in different ways depending on the context– people in a long-term sexual relationship will have different ways of affirming consent than people engaging in sexual activities together for the first time. I believe that including images of consent in our popular culture is a major stepping-stone in transforming and eventually ending rape culture.
Transforming Rape Culture
This Is What Consent Looks Like is a collective social media project to show media creators that erasing rape culture and celebrating consent is not difficult. It asks participants to “rewrite” rape culture in our popular media. So, pick a scene from your favorite film or TV show, figure out where consent is not articulated, and then rewrite the scene to include consent. The main purpose of this project is to show fans and creators of popular media that getting rid of rape culture and inserting consent into their media creations is not difficult and will not “ruin” their creative vision.
*I’ve used the word “woman” here because when looking at society and culture as a whole, women are represented in the media and in crime statistics as the majority of rape victims. However, it is vital to feminist thought to acknowledge that women are not solely rape victims and men are not solely rape perpetrators.
¹Many feminists take issue with the phrase “consent is sexy,” insisting that basic bodily integrity should not need to be sexualized in order to be respected. I wholly agree with this view, but I am not against the use of the slogan in all cases. I think that consent needs to be a part of our cultural narratives about sex– a major way of doing this is by showing consent as sexy or as part of “sexy” situations to encourage the dialogue about promoting consent and fighting rape culture.
² For more, see Dreamworlds 3,