Rape is all too normal

By Robert Jensen

Published in Dallas Morning News · January, 2013

This appeared in the Dallas Morning News, January 20, 2013. A subscription is required to access online.

Rape is normal.

Let me be clear: I don’t mean normal in the sense of “good” (a social norm that we should uphold) or “inevitable” (a product of biology that therefore can’t be changed). Rape is normal in the sense of “this is our culture.” That’s difficult to face, which makes it all the more important that we not turn away.

Here’s a story about normalized rape:

After a class period in which the subject of sexism and sexual violence had come up, two first-year students linger to talk. Both have pledged a sorority University of Texas, and they want to discuss—perhaps defend—the gender politics of that social system. I ask whether they ever talk openly about the sexual threats they face at fraternity parties. They look at me with that “adults are so out of touch” expression and say that of course they understand the risks.

“But we have a strategy,” they tell me. “We always go to those parties as a group, and we never leave anyone behind.”

I tell them that the other context in which that phrase is used is the military. “In your social lives, you have adopted a rule that soldiers use to express their commitment to each other in war,” I say. “At parties where you are supposed to be having fun, you have to act as if you are on a battlefield.”

I do not enjoy saying that, they do not enjoy hearing it, and we are all quiet for a moment. It is important, but not always easy, to recognize what is “normal” in our culture.

From New Delhi, India, to Steubenville, Ohio, the news of the new year has been full of stories about rapes that are unusually cruel and degrading. We need to stop being shocked; those particular rapes may not be normal, but rape is normal. Every day, all over the world, life is full of stories not only about sexual violence but violence that is sexualized and violence-by-sex. All of this is so common that it must be considered an expression of the sexual norms of the culture, not violations of the norms.

I use the term “sexual intrusion” to describe the range of unwanted sexual acts that women and girls experience—obscene phone calls, sexual taunting on the streets, sexual harassment in schools and workplaces, coercive sexual pressure in dating, sexual assault, and violence with a sexual theme. In public lectures on these issues, I tell audiences that I have completed an extensive scientific study on the subject and found that the percentage of women in the United States who have experienced sexual intrusion is exactly 100 percent. Women understand the dark humor; no study is necessary to describe something so routine.

The culture’s sexual norm is simple: Sex is something men get or take from women. Men ask each other, “Did you get any?” Taking it without consent, especially violently, is illegal. All sex is not rape, of course, but all rape is not as unusual as we like to think. The line between getting and taking often blurs.

For decades, feminists have used the term “rape culture” to describe the ideas and practices that make sexual intrusion commonplace. Feminists have explained that this rape ideology has not been a feature of all human communities throughout history but is a product of patriarchy, a social system based on male dominance. Feminists have asked us to commit to changing such a culture. The feminists who have done the most to advance our understanding of sexual violence proudly wear the label of “radical feminist,” because a radical analysis is the most compelling way to understand the issue and radical action is needed.

For these efforts, feminists—whether radical or more moderate—have been mocked and marginalized. When the issue comes into public view because of a particularly hideous case of men’s violence against women, the culture doesn’t tend to turn for insight to the feminists who have done all this work. Why? Those feminists will not only condemn the viciousness of men on a bus in India or the callousness of football players at a party in Ohio, but ask us for more. Instead of focusing on how these men might be different, feminists press a troubling question: “How are these men not so different?”

The standard reactions from men: Not all men are rapists. I’m not a rapist. I didn’t raise my son to be a rapist. I’m tired of feminists trying to shame men.

That response is a cowardly dodge. I have been working in a feminist movement against sexual exploitation (http://stoppornculture.org/) for nearly a quarter century, alongside some of the most radical feminists in the country. Not a single one has ever tried to make me feel ashamed, either of myself or of being a man.

But those feminists have asked me to be accountable, for my own behavior and that of men. In other words, they have asked me to be fully human. That actually doesn’t sound so radical.