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What We Learned About Rape Culture in 2014

The term "rape culture" is a neat shorthand people use when acknowledging that we, as a society, enable, excuse, and even encourage rape in myriad complicated ways.

Photo by Scott Olson via Getty

The term "rape culture" is a neat shorthand people use when acknowledging that, as a society, we enable, excuse, and even encourage rape in myriad, often immensely complicated ways.

Under the logic of rape culture, an astonishing amount of humans are actively offended at the suggestion that sexual assault happens at an unthinkably high rate. This is in spite of the fact that perpetrators of sexual violence rarely face consequences for their actions, in spite of the fact that their victims are often shamed and treated inhumanely for simply living through sexual violence and daring to speak out about it.


This year, under the logic of rape culture, an enthusiastic hoard of anti-feminist commentators and deniers populating the bristling underbelly of the Internet continued to insist that rape culture is a "myth." This year, conservatives argued, straight-faced, that asking for consent before engaging in sexual intercourse will ruin sex for everyone. This year, while all of this indignant pontificating went on, millions of men and women were raped, sexually harassed, stalked, threatened and subjected to other forms of sexual violence.

For something that is constantly and passionately called into question, the prevalence of rape in our society is an easily demonstrable fact. According to a Center for Disease Control study conducted in 2011 but just published in September, an estimated 19.3% of women and 1.7% of men in the United States have been raped during their lifetimes, and an estimated 43.9% of women and 23.4% of men in the United States have experienced other forms of sexual violence. Nearly one in five American women are raped in their lifetime, and yet victims who come forward are still subjected to callous scrutiny and picked apart by a public that would rather call them liars or sluts than admit that sexual assault happens, and it happens a whole fucking lot.

This year, at least 21 women came forward and accused the beloved comedian Bill Cosby of sexual misconduct over the course of his illustrious career. For decades, Cosby's alleged victims were either forced, goaded, or scared into silence.


Now that people are finally paying attention, many of Cosby's past enablers have shared regretful accounts of their complicity in creating and enforcing his alleged victims' silence. That complicity isn't limited to his circle of insiders. Yeah, Cosby had a "fixer" who helped pay off eight different women. He also had a PR team who convinced media outlets to kill critical stories. But the most powerful tool at his disposal was the public who were not just willing but actively eager to ignore the women he allegedly drugged and abused.

The Cosby allegations are not new, though one might think so from the recent media frenzy. The original lawsuit, in which 13 women were set to testify that he'd sexually assaulted them, occurred in 2004. Three of his alleged victims spoke to the press at that time, but most journalists chose not to cover their accusations (several, including Cosby's biographer, have now apologized for failing to do so). And so everyone forgot about the claims, in part because they wanted to forget.

Rape culture is self-sustaining in this way. Even when Cosby couldn't pay or intimidate his alleged victims out of coming forward, the public rendered the very act of coming forward irrelevant.

The overwhelming collective apathy that originally surrounded the Cosby story is not a unique occurrence. We should not be calling the Cosby allegations "shocking," because they've been circulating for a decade. Nor should we be surprised that the assaults were covered up so successfully for so long: that exact thing happens all the time, in all sorts of institutions, through the blithe indifference of thousands who should be raging about unpunished crimes. Unfortunately, far too many people still have the luxury of thinking of sexual assault as outrageous or unbelievable.


This year, 88 colleges came under federal investigation for mishandling rape on campus. The biggest story on the subject—the Rolling Stone article centered around an alleged gang rape at a UVA fraternity—was not fact-checked rigorously enough, and several of the details surrounding the victim's alleged assault came under question. In response, the magazine issued a partial retraction in which they blamed the victim for the publication's own failure to perform due diligence.

"[W]e have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced," said the original statement, since amended. Anti-feminist critics gleefully celebrated the factual discrepancies in the piece as evidence of a "false accusation crisis," as definitive proof that the campus rape phenomenon is overblown and exaggerated. At the same time, sexual assault advocates rushed to point out that many survivors never come forward because of our collective incredulity and that false accusations are incredibly rare.

Yes, the alleged UVA victim's story was factually compromised (even though both her roommate and the friends she told about the assault have confirmed that she "clearly… experienced a horrific trauma"). But what does that change about campus rape in general? What of all the other alleged gang rapes that have occurred at colleges around the country? And what of the statistic that one in four female college students are sexually assaulted at school? How does one botched story blot out—or even partially obscure—the grim reality of sexual assault on college campuses?


This is how: As a society, we will desperately seize onto any opportunity to ignore the ubiquity of sexual violence. We try to find ways to discredit the victim—"Were you drunk?" "What were you wearing?" " Why didn't you bite his penis?"—and then wonder loudly why victims are so reluctant to come forward.

As long as our culture enables and excuses sexual assault, it does not matter how many women say, "Yes, rape happens; it happened to me." If people don't want to believe that rape occurs, they'll find a way not to. It does not matter how much data there is showing the alarming frequency of sexual violence. It does not matter how many rape stories we hear. As we've learned far too many times, it does not even matter if the assault is videotaped or photographed, if the victim is crying or unconscious or obviously intoxicated to the point of incapacitation. People will find a way to insist that she's lying, that she's delusional or that she was asking for it anyway.

By pretending rape doesn't exist as long as we look the other way, we all perpetuate the conditions in which sexual violence proliferates.

This year, Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi was arrested after allegedly sexually harassing and violently assaulting eight women. The allegations were not surprising to his peers. As a stream of remorseful writers noted after the fact, a lot of people knew the stories about Jian. And no one did anything. Because it was easier, and it felt nicer, to feign ignorance and to cling to the delusion that doing nothing doesn't enable an alleged serial abuser's attacks on women.


Rapists directly benefit from the callous skepticism of the masses. By refusing to hear or believe survivors, we effectively permit rapists to act with impunity. By pretending rape doesn't exist as long as we look the other way, we all perpetuate the conditions in which sexual violence proliferates.

This year, a 22-year-old man named Elliot Rodger went on a shooting spree in Isla Vista, killing six people before committing suicide. In the weeks leading up to the crime, he posted a series of YouTube videos and penned a 141-page manifesto outlining his hatred of all women, whom he said deserved to die for not wanting to fuck him. "I don't know why you girls aren't attracted to me," he proclaimed in one video post. "But I will punish you all for it."

Arguably the most unsettling part of Elliot Rodger's blatant, vitriolic misogyny was how completely non-shocking the sentiments behind it were. There are entire forums and websites and online communities filled with men who share his beliefs, who afterward applauded him as a hero and a visionary. In one forum, anonymous users praised him and spoke about "going Elliot" themselves.

"Guys, I bet you this will happen more times in 2014," wrote one excitedly. "Others will do it. Promise."

A milder, more insidious version of the deranged philosophy Rodger spewed in his manifesto—i.e., "women owe me sex; if I treat a woman with kindness or even just humanity and she doesn't reward me with intercourse, then she's a horrible bitch who deserves nothing but scorn"—is depressingly common in pop culture. That's where we get the idea of the "friend zone." That's why some men respond with blind rage when women don't reply to them on OkCupid and Tinder. That's why women often feel it necessary to invent a boyfriend when rebuffing a stranger's advances—because being totally uninterested in a dude is an affront, whereas being already-claimed is unfortunate, if understandable.


On Twitter, in response to Elliot Rodger's hideous invective, women all too familiar with his line of thinking started sharing their own stories using the hashtag #YesAllWomen.

"Because every single woman I know has a story about a man feeling entitled to access to her body. Every. Single. One," wrote one.

"In college, we'd regularly find girls who had been roofie'd and left passed out in the parking lot next to our dorm. REGULARLY," said another.

"I shouldn't have to hold my car keys in hand like a weapon & check over my shoulder every few seconds when I walk at night," said a third. The hashtag trended for an entire weekend and prompted more than a million tweets in all.

So much of rape culture depends on the simultaneous ubiquity and invisibility of sexual assault. As thousands of women pointed out via #YesAllWomen, we are expected to live in constant fear of rape, to be careful how much we drink and what we wear and how we travel at night—but we're also told that we're being hysterical or whiny when we talk about how exhausting, how limiting, how completely and utterly frustrating it is to constantly deal with the systemic sexism and sexual violence endemic to our culture.

I interviewed Barbara Bowman, one of Cosby's alleged victims, earlier this year. We speculated about the reason her story has finally received sustained media attention after ten years. I asked her whether she thought the rise of social media had anything to do with it, and she told me that it wasn't social media alone: "If we had had social media back then, I don't know that this [story] would have been what it is. Because people weren't talking then. It was a different era," she said.

Women finally have a platform to make their voices heard, and people are finally starting to believe victims. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the powerful and the complacent to sustain a culture of silence.

Of course, we still have a long way to go. Speaking out about sexism and sexual assault still invites loudly-expressed doubt and irritation—if not outright fury and explicit threats—from those invested in maintaining the status quo. But, as the complex mechanisms of power typically used to suppress victims begin to become conspicuous and fall apart, that will start to change. I hope.

We didn't learn any new lessons in 2014, not really. We re-learned that allegations against the rich and powerful aren't treated with the scrutiny they deserve, and that we the public are partly responsible for that. We re-learned that colleges will turn a blind eye to sexual assault and the sexist on-campus institutions that facilitate it (and we immediately and enthusiastically attempted to un-learn that as soon as Rolling Stone threw the alleged UVA victim under the bus). We re-learned that internalized misogyny is not harmless and that it affects all women in various ways, both obvious and tacit.

We need to stop re-learning and start remembering; we need to keep directly addressing sexual assault and sexism, and we need to keep listening to and believing survivors. Silence is the same thing as complicity—it's how we manage to keep forgetting.

Follow Callie Beusman on Twitter.