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Kate Harding Knows How to Fix Rape Culture

The author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It talks about what it is, where it comes from, and what works to change it.

Kate Harding   Photo: Patty Michels

When Kate Harding, a Chicago writer who recently decamped for Minneapolis, sold her proposal in 2012 for Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It, she thought she’d have to get it out quickly while numerous rape cases were in the news. Unfortunately, she didn’t need to worry; three years later the subject dominates headlines.

Some of that is due to a number of high-profile incidents. But part of the reason that they’re high-profile is that the media landscape, which raises the profile of those incidents, has evolved. The concept of rape culture, which has been around for decades, is now a permanent part of that landscape, shaped by a vibrant feminist blogging and social media community, which has given a much greater platform to writers and academics. Categories and language that had been confined to the ivory tower, rarely emerging in mainstream publications, were given the power to shape the greater cultural dialogue.

I spoke with Harding about what rape culture is, how people are beginning to respond to it, and why the way we talk about these things matters.

Where does the concept of rape culture come from?

The concept is first articulated, as far as I can ascertain, in the ’70s by the second-wave feminists—Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will was the landmark book that changed the conversation. That was published in 1975. From there it became a combination of feminists activists and academics, who started talking in terms of “rape culture” or “rape-supportive culture,” articulating these systems that work together to make a culture that, even if it wouldn’t deliberately do so, ends up very much supporting the needs of rapists.

It doesn’t just mean rape. It’s a spectrum of things.

It’s a whole bunch of things that serve to reinforce myths about rape, such as that some women secretly want it, or that women will have sex, regret it, and then quote-unquote cry rape in the morning.

Two of the big myths that contradict each other is that rape is a deviant event, and that rape is a trivial event. It’s always a stranger in the bushes who jumps out with a knife and a gun—and also that rape is no big deal. If it’s not the stereotypical stranger rape—which is actually a small minority of rapes—then it’s the more typical kind of rape, an acquaintance or intimate partner, and then it’s no big deal. What is it? It’s bad sex.

These kinds of myths are floating around in society, and even if we say we don’t believe in them, there are so many things showing that we do, or that enough people do, that it has real effects in terms of law enforcement; in terms of victims’ willingness to report; in terms of the medical response; et cetera.

Yeah—Jon Krakauer, when he wrote Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, admitted that once he hadn’t thought rape was that big a deal.

When you haven’t given it that much thought, it seems like such a ridiculous assertion that there could be such a thing as a rape culture. If you ask anyone if they’re pro-rape, who’s going to say yes? But then you look into how all of this stuff works, on more subtle and insidious levels.

With Krakauer, I think it’s partly a generational thing. [Krakauer is 61.] Certainly this is something that, even though feminists started talking about this in the ’70s, it got new life in the ’90s, and in the last ten years, feminists bloggers and writers for online publications—and the explosion of activism on social media and the internet in general—that’s helped get the phrase “rape culture” into the mainstream. In some ways, Krakauer woke up to it at the same time the country woke up to it.

There’s this amazing quote in your book from a Tennessee state senator: “Rape, ladies and gentlemen, is not today what rape was. Rape, when I was learning these things, was the violation of a chaste woman, against her will, by some party not her spouse. Today it’s simply ‘Let’s don’t go forward with this act.’”

It really goes to another one of these myths: if a woman has had sex before voluntarily, that’s when rape becomes the trivial event. We have the idea that the real horror and crime of rape is about defiling a virgin’s purity. So if she’s voluntarily had sex, it’s just one more penis inside her. And that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of rape, which is about violating someone’s personal autonomy, and robbing someone of the decision of what to do with their body.

We just saw in Chicago, there was a man who raped a prostitute, and then there was this Chicago Sun-Times column the other day by Mary Mitchell, that basically said—she’s not the only one, I talk about a judge in my book who says the same thing—that raping a prostitute should really be called “theft of services,” that it’s no big deal, that it makes a mockery of quote-unquote “real rape victims,” and that’s exactly the same thing. It’s this idea that some women have forfeited the right to say no because they’ve said yes too much.

It seemed like the point of Mitchell’s column was, “if we make prostitution sufficiently dangerous, maybe people won’t do it.”

And I think that’s a really facile understanding. I should say I don’t have a great deal of expertise in sex work, so I shouldn’t spout off about it. But no, it’s certainly not that simple.

But one other thing that was revealed was the way in which we talk about women who put themselves in harm’s way, and what they expect. Everyone should have the right to expect not to be raped, no matter what they are doing. So to say that a woman who arranges to have sex for money via [Backpage] has put herself in a situation in which she deserves rape, it’s not any different from saying “oh well, these young women, they get dressed up, they get drunk, they lose control, and what do they expect?”

What they expect is not to be raped. That’s a completely reasonable expectation that we should all be able to have.

It also just seems illogical. If you don’t give people the means to report these crimes, you’re just going to have more of them.

Part of the reason why we talk about a rape-supportive culture is that all of these things work together, where we relentlessly question victims, blame them, scrutinize their behavior, in some cases investigate them like criminals as soon as they report a rape. That makes victims too afraid to report; prosecutors will often not file charges if there isn’t a lot of physical evidence, which there typically isn’t. Very few rapes will be fully investigated, let alone go all the way through to a conviction.

Which means we’re constantly sending the message to rapists: You can get away with it. If you play your cards right, and especially if you choose a victim who is drunk, who will be less credible tomorrow, it’s your word against hers, and everyone will err on your side. That’s the big problem that comes from this. It’s that we’re making it easier for rapists to get away with it, and to know that there are almost certainly going to be no consequences for them committing this crime. So they don’t even have to be crafty or subtle about it.

And in a lot of cases, if there is physical evidence, it’s sitting in a backlog.

Yes. The rape kit backlog—we just saw that [Vice President] Biden announced that there’s going to be a great deal of federal funding available to test these untested rape kits—it’s a terrible thing where these tests pile up, in part, because sometimes they just decided not to pursue the case. But also because police don’t take it that seriously as evidence, especially if they have the guy and his argument is that it’s consensual. Well, then, what’s the point, if all the rape kit is going to show is it’s his sperm? Who cares?

But what they find when they test the rape kit is serial rapists. And that’s the thing that every city that has started really working through the rape kit backlog has found—all this DNA that’s been sitting on the shelf, a lot of it actually matches with guys who are already in the system, and that enables them to close cases that are old, and also recognize when someone is a serial predator, as opposed to just some guy who got a little carried away and confused and accidentally raped a person and would never do it again. Which is another myth that we cherish in this culture.

The serial operator is more common that we assume.

Yes. We talk about one in five women and one in 71 men are victims of rape. It’s not that one in five men are rapists; it’s there’s a smaller number of men who really like to rape and do it on purpose all the time.

You mentioned that this idea of rape culture got new life in the 1990s, and then again in the past decade. What did you see happening?

I think these things are cyclical in general. We talked about it in the 1970s, again in the 1990s, and again now. I was only aware of the conversation in the 1990s, and that was when I was in college, a young 20-something. It seems like we started talking about it—there were Time and Newsweek articles and that sort of thing, and the national discussion just petered out. Partially because we didn’t have the same outlets for discussing it that we have now.

A big difference today is the internet. And the fact that there are so many places for people to discuss this; the ability to connect up conversations that are happening in places that might have been isolated before; the ability for survivors to speak out and find each other. It’s just a whole different conversation now that isn’t ending.

And it’s allowed academics to go straight to an audience, rather than being filtered through a handful of publications.

A lot of academics are trying to make their work more accessible and available. As time goes on, it’s going to get better. I have friends who are academics who, five or six years ago, would only blog under pseudonyms, would never put their names on any online writing, but now, at this point, are realizing that can almost be seen as an asset. The academy’s going to take awhile to catch up, but more and more, things are becoming more accessible to non-scholars. And I think that that’s really exciting work.

My experience online is that there was an incredible flourishing of the feminist blogosphere in the last decade.

That was a huge thing. I became a part of that because I started as a reader, and loved what so many of these feminist bloggers were doing—Jessica Valenti and the Feministing crew, Feministe and Jill Filipovic, Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon. All those people are friends now, but when I started reading in 2003-2004, these were the people out there doing it. And I was saying, “This is the kind of stuff that I want to write,” and I started my own feminist blog.

But it was also an incredible education for me, because I don’t have a background in women’s studies. It was just a personal interest. There was so much I learned—things like intersectionality, and recognizing my own blind spots on race, and class, and things like that. I really got my women’s studies 101 from the blogs. And then went on to, as I learned more, pass it along.

One of the things it allows people to do, is that if you can resist commenting, you read things that make you uncomfortable. Your knee-jerk reaction is ‘that’s bullshit!’, [but you] just keep reading and keep learning until you realize, yes, I’ve had my mind changed. You don’t have to go with your knee-jerk reaction.

I’ve had plenty of issues—when someone says “No, Kate, you’re being kind of a blinkered, privileged jerk,” and I’m like “I am not!” And I realize that if I sit with it, and just get through that, maybe I am going to find that this is something that I need to change my mind about and change my thinking about. If you do have that fundamental willingness, that information is there, via the internet, to find the arguments and take them in at their own speed.

One of the most interesting parts of the book to me is the education of boys—what actually works. The experience I had, when I had a daughter, is that you hear “it’s terrifying to raise a daughter in this kind of culture.” And that’s not wrong, exactly, but honestly I’d be more scared to raise a boy in a culture of toxic masculinity. To put it bluntly: would you rather raise a victim, or a victimizer?

I don’t have kids and am not going to, but when I was still thinking about it, I was grappling with that, too. I would feel competent raising a girl, and I don’t know about raising a boy at this point. It’s so complicated at this point, and the peer pressure can become a force that I don’t completely understand. One of the things I talk about is, you see in these gang rapes—from the one in Glen Ridge, New Jersey in 1989, the subject of Our Guys

That’s an amazing book.

Yeah. From that, to Steubenville and beyond, there are always kids in the room when it starts who just leave. They don’t intervene but they know something is wrong. Even if everybody there says “I didn’t know that’s what rape was,” there are kids who say “That’s not cool, I know something is wrong,” and they leave. You can be a good kid who recognizes it’s wrong, and yet still not feel that, socially, you have the freedom to stop it, to say to your friends, “What the hell are you doing? This is a crime.”

There’s a whole thing of entitlement, toxic masculinity, the way it reinforces itself. It’s terrifying to me.

In the last couple years, there’s been a report out on evaluating the effectiveness of various sexual-assault awareness and education programs, going from the junior-high level to the college level. They evaluate a bunch of these, and what they found was that only two of them [Safe Dates and Shifting Boundaries] actually had rigorous evidence of effectiveness, and those were both programs that were aimed at younger kids. Ideally starting in the junior high level. They went over six or eight weeks.

These interventions have to start with younger kids over a long period of time, so there’s a consistent framework for discussing this. It gives them information on healthy boundaries, on what consent is, on dating violence, the broader framework that really sets up a conversation about what it is to have a healthy relationship versus “how do you not get yourself raped.”

I had no idea that people were even trying something like that.

It’s really exciting to see that happening. Some states are actually passing laws. California is passing one that affirmative consent has to be taught as a standard in high schools, in part because they passed a law last year saying that’s the standard colleges need to use to evaluate reports of rape. This needs to be part of our sex-ed curriculum, and it’s exciting that it is, but there’s still such a long way to go when we’re still fighting abstinence-only [education]. Which is proven not to work, on so many levels, but it’s still the standard in so many places. It’s going to be a long time before we get effective sex-ed that includes consent education, and that starts at a younger age.

When consent education comes up—and I’m really a lot more familiar with it at the college level—a lot of times there’s real hostility towards it. Why is that?

In part it’s because people haven’t thought it through. A lot of times all it takes to make it click is to just point out, “Who wants a partner that’s not consenting? Who wants a partner that’s not into it?” Enthusiastic consent is about making sure that everyone’s willing and excited to do this. That’s the kind of sexual experience you want.

I think people fear that it’s going to go too far—before you touch anyone anywhere you’re going to have to have a contract written and signed and notarized. That’s not what we’re talking about at all. There are all sorts of ways to gauge your partner’s consent; it’s not just about verbal consent. The whole point is to reframe our discussion about sex and rape and the difference therein to recognize that consent needs to be active and ongoing. To eliminate this gray area where people can claim “Oh, I was confused, I thought she was into it, she wasn’t fighting me off.” OK, but was she saying “yes,” verbally or non-verbally? What was she doing that gave you the idea that she was willing to have sex with you, that she was enthusiastically enjoying this?

And honestly, the fear of being falsely accused of sexual assault or rape is so overblown in society. I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of that kind of thing happening or the fear of it, but the reality is that only between two and eight percent of reports of rape are false; mostly they are not the result of consensual sex where someone comes in and accuses someone who they slept with last night. Typically they are people who come in accusing a nameless stranger, and all they want is the sympathy and attention. They don’t want the cops to go find someone and put them in prison.

It’s so much less common, but we end up with this idea that there’s a 50/50 chance when someone does it, but in fact there’s [only] a small chance that someone who goes to the trouble of reporting a rape is lying about it. It’s similar in numbers to the people who would lie about getting mugged or burglarized. So we have to be more realistic about what that risk is. It’s like the difference between being afraid of dying in a plane crash and dying in a car crash. One is much more common than the other. This fear of false accusations drives so much of rape culture.

I have a big chapter about false accusations, because it’s something we should be talking about and tackling head on, and we should be looking at the anatomy of false reports that have gone all the way to putting an innocent man in prison. It’s way too simplistic to say “a woman lies and a man ends up in prison.” A woman lying is step one in a massively multistep process that leads to the wrong man being in prison. When you look at that process, it reveals so many flaws throughout our justice system, and in our thinking, culturally. You’re more likely to be believed if you come in with a story about a stranger rape, and a weapon, etc.

There are so many steps where it’s not just about the woman’s word having this incredible power to ruin a man’s life. It’s about an entire system that is broken.

And the red flags that come up in these cases are not dissimilar to other cases of false accusation.

Absolutely. You look at something like the Duke lacrosse case—more than anything, that was a case of an incredibly overzealous prosecutor who was willing to simply just push the facts aside because he decided he was going to stake his career on this conviction.

And while I want to acknowledge that lots of rape victims do change their stories in some ways, they do recant, they’ll lie about some things, like if they were drunk, or using drugs, or doing something illegal at the time, they will lie about that to try and make themselves look better, and later on that’s used to completely discredit them. Stories do change, victims do recant because they’re afraid of the person who did it; they’re afraid of going through the process, etc. I don’t want to give the impression that a victim changing her story a little bit or recanting doesn’t mean the rape didn’t happen.

But when you look at Crystal Mangum, who was this very mentally ill woman on different drugs, with this wildly inconsistent story—how did that actually ever get to a prosecution? It’s unreal when you go back and look over it, read the reports on that. Mike Nifong, the prosecutor, ended up being disbarred over that. It started with one woman’s lie, but became this thing that had almost nothing to do with her.

Have you been following the dialogue over the Patrick Kane case at all?

Not a ton. But it’s great an example of when people ask me what changes are hopeful. I really loved this one columnist [Tim Baffoe] who wrote this amazing piece right after the news broke saying, basically, we can’t do what we always do when a sports star is accused, and just call her a gold-digger and assume that she’s lying, and that we have to be ready to let go of our heroes. That’s such an amazing message that was never there before.

Compare it to Ben Roethlisberger, who I write a lot about in my book—who hasn’t been convicted of anything—but the last time a woman accused him of rape, the police response was so shady it was unreal. The response to that so much, when I was looking it up, was so much about gold-diggers, liars, and sluts. So to see a male sportswriter come out right at the beginning of the Patrick Kane investigation and say “let’s not do that this time,” was really heartening.

So much of your book is about how important is to look at the way we talk about things. And a lot of that originates in academia. We pigeonhole it as the ivory tower, but it changes the language people use and the categories they have.

That’s one of the great things that academic areas of women’s and gender studies have done for us, and various other cross-disciplinary approaches to marginalized and oppressed groups, is it gives us this new language. That’s where academics can really go in and analyze what’s happening, and try to create the language that we use to describe it.

It’s one of those things—I talk about having this response myself. “Rape culture” sounds like this alarming and instinctively wrong kind of idea. But then you look at why people started saying that, and you realize, oh God, that really is the accurate term. One really wonderful thing that academics do is circle around stuff, looking for more accurate language. And it can result in things that sound ridiculous, but it can result in things where they really pinpoint something we couldn’t have talked about before we had a name for it. And rape culture is absolutely one of those things.

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