Monday, November 24, 2014

Rape culture

[UPDATE: I expect everyone knows by now, but for the record see also this.]

If you haven't yet read this article about rape at US universities then you should (and then see this followup). (Also see this.) When I was an undergraduate a typical party involved bringing and guarding your own unrefrigerated beer (no one was rich or generous enough to provide free drinks for other people), possibly having a conversation or two with people who turned out to be no more interesting than the friends you had gone with, leaving once you had drunk your beer, and wondering why you had expected this party to be any different from the others. In the US there are fraternities that provide unlimited free drinks in a country where most students can't legally drink in bars. Drunkenness ensues. So does sex. And violence, especially sexual violence.

The Rolling Stone article focuses on the University of Virginia, where I got my PhD, but the problem is nationwide. We had a discussion this past week at VMI with students from Washington & Lee University about sexual harassment. Apparently it is common there. (It happens at VMI, too, but we don't allow fraternities or alcohol on campus, which I think makes it rarer.) At UVA when I was there some fraternities had a reputation for rape, but they won't be closed down unless specific allegations are proved. This is hard because rape is often hard to prove, because victims are especially discouraged from prosecuting in these cases (do you really want to harm the university's reputation?, do you know what this will do to your reputation?, do you want never to be invited to another party ever again?, etc.), and because the fraternity members all stick together in defense of their "brothers" and against women who go against them in any way. The only people I know who defend fraternities at all are people who were in one when they were in college and who point out that not all frat boys are rapists, that fraternities typically do charitable work as well as throwing parties, and that being in a fraternity provides an ineffable bond of brotherhood whose value can never be appreciated by outsiders. It is about as clear as it ever could be that the bad of fraternities outweighs the good. But universities won't get rid of them because parents and alumni support them, and these are the people who provide the money that keeps universities going. As with gun control, large numbers of people are prepared to accept violent crime against young people for the sake of the very dubious benefits of their own preferred way of life.

Lowering the legal drinking age to 18 would surely help, but something called rape culture is also said to be to blame. It is not clear what this idea amounts to. Part of it, I think, is that we live in a culture that is too tolerant of rape. Which is to say that rape happens in our culture, and happens far more often than it should. This is true. But part of the idea also seems to be that rape is a product of culture, so that to blame specific rapists is naive. It is more important, perhaps not more urgent but at least closer to addressing the problem at its root, to attack rape-friendly aspects of culture, such as rape jokes and pornography. This, I think, is less true, and perhaps not true at all.

I don't mean that rape jokes are OK. It's more that getting rid of rape jokes will not necessarily get rid of rape. Perhaps rape jokes make rape seem more acceptable to people who might commit or help cover up rape. But perhaps they don't. And perhaps it's more a case of actual rape making rape jokes, etc. more common than vice versa. Jokes about rape are neither funny nor sensitive to the suffering of rape victims. So I'm not defending them. But putting a stop to them will not necessarily do anything at all to reduce the amount of rape that occurs.

Focusing on rape culture rather than rape might therefore lead to efforts going in the wrong direction. It has other likely effects too. It makes the issue one about what might be called texts (jokes, movies, etc.) rather than people and how they treat each other. (Enter the theorists...) It also greatly increases the number of people who can be condemned. (Let slip the dogs of war...) In doing these things, i.e. making the issue one for theorists and one that directly involves far more people, there is a risk of watering the problem down. If it's a theoretical matter how concrete can it be? And if it's about offensive jokes, etc. then it certainly seems less serious than when it was about rape and only rape.

So I sympathize with this kind of statement from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network:
In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming “rape culture” for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses. While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.
While that may seem an obvious point, it has tended to get lost in recent debates. This has led to an inclination to focus on particular segments of the student population (e.g., athletes), particular aspects of campus culture (e.g., the Greek system), or traits that are common in many millions of law-abiding Americans (e.g., “masculinity”), rather than on the subpopulation at fault: those who choose to commit rape. This trend has the paradoxical effect of making it harder to stop sexual violence, since it removes the focus from the individual at fault, and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions. 
I sympathize, but I'm not sure I agree. Amanda Marcotte responds to the statement I just quoted that:
This doesn't make sense. People who use the phrase "rape culture" do not deny that rape is a matter of individuals making the active choice to rape. "Rape culture" is a very useful way to describe the idea that rapists are given a social license to operate by people who make excuses for sexual predators and blame the victims for their own rapes. Instead of recognizing this, or, at the very least, just not bringing it up at all in its memo, RAINN instead bashes a straw man, arguing that the focus on "rape culture" diverts "the focus from the individual at fault, and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions."
What's at issue here, it seems to me, is whether, or how, useful the idea of "rape culture" is. Does it help us refer to the way that rapists are helped by those who make excuses for them, or does it move our focus from where it belongs? I suspect it does both, i.e. it has both good and bad effects. Whether it does more harm than good is an empirical question that I'm not in a position to answer. Marcotte points out some of the good the term does:
The bill addressing sexual assault in the military that passed in December demonstrates the impact that "rape culture" as a concept has had. Most of the provisions—disallowing commanders to overturn rape convictions, making it a crime to retaliate against accusers, and giving civilian defense officials more power in prosecuting rape—stem from a new understanding about the way that a rapist's friends and colleagues will often give him cover and protection and blame the victim for her disruptive accusations.
There is a difference between the kind of provisions listed here and the much broader cultural features that critics of rape culture often condemn. For instance, Marshall University's Women's Center lists both "sexually explicit jokes" and "refusing to take rape accusations seriously" as examples of rape culture. The former, it seems to me, are not necessarily bad at all, while the latter is extremely bad. Mixing both types of behavior together seems both likely to be unproductive (although I can only speculate about this) and confused (because it shows no recognition that there are different degrees of badness here). The same website says that "rape functions as a powerful means by which the whole female population is held in a subordinate position to the whole male population." I don't deny that there is some truth to this. But the primary victims of rape are rape victims, not all women. And it seems especially unfortunate that a kind of rape metaphor (holding in a subordinate position) is seemingly used to explain the badness of rape. The primary evil of rape is the evil done to its victims, not the consequent psychological and social effects on women in general. (Which is not to deny that those effects exist and should be taken seriously.) If we did not already understand the evil of literally holding someone in a subordinate position then we would not understand the metaphor apparently presented to explain the effects of rape on society at large. There is an implicit recognition here, in other words, that what is primarily bad about rape is not these effects. They might exist, and they might be a real problem, but we do not need to be warned about them nearly as much as we need the kind of reminder of the horror of rape that the Rolling Stone article provides.      

I've gone off track. My main point was meant to be simply the fact that our culture appears to be more rotten and dangerous than most of us realized. My secondary point, though, is that the way to fix this is surely to attack the most rotten points, not to retreat into language-reform and theory. By all means let's fight not only against rape but against all sexual assault, all sexual harassment, and all sexist behavior. But let's not pretend to know that cultural factors are the most salient cause of rape, or that these factors can be altered by conscious actions, or that we know how to carry out cultural surgery or social engineering successfully. A misguided consequentialism, I suspect, lies at the root of the insistence that tasteless jokes must cause violent crime in order to be rejected. And then certainty that such jokes are bad leads to unproved claims that they cause rape. We cannot prove causal claims like this. What we can do is take the kind of action that is starting to happen now because of the Rolling Stone article. And when we read essays like that we do not want to tell or laugh at sexist jokes.


  1. The culture in question, if one would like to call it that, is "droit du seigneur". As can be seen from the follow up it has existed for quite some time. Some of us believe it has existed for a long time. Framing it in the form of rape culture and misogyny is just one more way of papering over what everybody knows, as Leonard Cohen would say. The US like every place else has a ruling class that acts with impunity. Few dare address this as Upton Sinclair made clear (in slight paraphrase): "It is difficult to get a man to understand (acknowledge) something, when his salary depends on his not understanding (acknowledging) it." It doesn't pay to question Moloch.

    According to Wikipedia "droit du seigneur" did not exist in Europe. Presumably this is because no one bothered to write it down on a piece of paper and the testimony of peasants is not worth the air it displaces.

  2. Rape as initiation into the ruling class fraternity. From the first article:

    —As the last man sank onto her, Jackie was startled to recognize him: He attended her tiny anthropology discussion group. He looked like he was going to cry or puke as he told the crowd he couldn't get it up. "Pussy!" the other men jeered. "What, she's not hot enough for you?" Then they egged him on: "Don't you want to be a brother?" "We all had to do it, so you do, too."

    The gang and the government...

  3. The UVA campus is merely a reflection of the world outside it:

    —"These schools love to pretend they protect the children as if they were their own, but that's not true: They're interested in money," Murphy says. "In these situations, the one who gets the most protection is either a wealthy kid, a legacy kid or an athlete. The more privileged he is, the more likely the woman has to die before he's held accountable."

    Business as usual.

  4. Yes, money has a lot to do with it. I still remember being a teaching assistant at UVA in a course on the philosophy of law and finding that my students seemed to think that it was OK for them to be drunk in public but that the police should crack down on other (i.e. working class) people who did the same thing. They literally thought the rules should be different for them, and they saw nothing wrong with this. (Perhaps most of my students did not think this, but as I recall it was the consensus view.)

  5. I want to say it is more than money, but that makes no sense. It's a certain sort of money that comes with privilege. As I pointed out above, the description given by the victim in the RS article suggests the act was a rite of initiation. The seven perps were pledges the seniors cheered on.

    I also have a problem with talk of there being a rape "epidemic" in the same context and by the same people who speak about rape "culture". It is not so much the acts of rape (which I take it is the main point of speaking about a widespread all-american rape culture which all male Americans carry around latently (to completely mix the already muddy metaphors)) so much as what surrounds it. See e.g. this piece on Dean Eramo:

    That is a culture of privilege.

    Anyway, the silence here below the line is odd.

  6. PS: Don't know what a change in alcohol policy would do. The cases I've read about the past few days suggest that the victims have been drugged.

    1. It is a culture of privilege, yes. Which has a lot to do with money but also involves other things, such as sexual attractiveness. Top athletes get into the most prestigious fraternities, at least at one college I know about. (I expect this applies far more to white athletes than others, if that doesn't go without saying.) The fraternity system makes explicit and celebrates the kind of pecking order that people with Enlightenment values either fight against or at least have the good taste to overlook. It's pretty much blatant master morality, or at least close enough to it to be shocking.

      Alcohol is relevant because that is one of the main things, probably the main thing, that draws non-fraternity members to their parties. Most college students in the US can't drink legally, but they can easily do so at a fraternity party. In the Rolling Stone story the woman thought she was on a date, but that's not the typical case.

  7. This is great. Thanks for this post, Duncan.

    I think I share your sensitivity—at least to the extent that you are complaining that the battle is often fought in the wrong places, and the criticisms are misdirected. But what you say makes me think that the criticism should be put in a slightly different way.

    One main question you ask is whether having the term “rape culture” in our vocabulary is good or bad. You say: “Whether it does more harm than good is an empirical question that I'm not in a position to answer.”

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding, but you seem here to be implicitly endorsing the idea that if the term ‘rape culture’ is useful, then its usefulness is something that we will be able to examine empirically.

    Now, I’m not sure what you mean here by “empirical,” but I think that even if it is empirical in some sense, it is not the kind that would make you unable to answer it.

    It seems to me that the question about the good of having the term ‘rape culture,’ among other things, is a question about the good of having a concept. And the good of having a concept is not the same as the good of having an umbrella when it rains.

    I think what may get confused here is this: We may ask ourselves what causes rapes, and then hit upon the expression “rape culture,” and think that the claim involved is that rapes are caused by rape culture. That would involve a familiar kind of empirical investigation—or at least the vague idea of one, because as you point out, the term “rape culture” is very vague, and it is not clear how it can have empirical consequences. The vagueness here may cause the criticism to get misdirected, and the whole investigation to get confused. – This is the kind of consequentialism you reject.

    Alternatively, however, we can think of “rape culture” as a cluster of states of mind and ways of explaining, and understanding things—a conceptual scheme. The claim then will be that entering that state of mind makes people less likely to see what they are doing in terms of rape. Concepts can make things visible or invisible. – This, I think, would be a non-consequentialist way of defending the idea that it is useful to have the term “rape culture.”

    What matters, as I think you are saying towards the end, is that our sensitivities change—what we find funny or attractive or worth preserving. And attention to our conceptual schemes can have a positive effect. So I think you are right that the idea of “rape culture” can misguide when taken as part of some social consequentialism. But the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater. The idea of ‘rape culture’ can yet be useful. (I’m not saying you are saying it can’t. I just think we need more clarity what usefulness it might still have.)

    1. Thanks, Reshef.

      I was on the way to arguing that the concept of 'rape culture' is simply bad, both vague and likely to draw attention from where it is most needed. But then I read Amanda Marcotte's piece, which claims that the concept has helped produce better anti-rape legislation. That's the kind of thing I think is empirical: did the concept have the influence Marcotte claims?, will it produce similar good effects in future? And I don't know the answers to those questions.

      Does that agree with what you're saying?

    2. Thanks.

      I don’t think it disagrees, but it says something different. I am simply more interested in the good non-empirical effects that the concept might have, and I think that potentially there are some—in particular the idea that a certain kind of atmosphere and education and manner of life, may facilitate a certain kind of “meaning-blindness.”

      There is a question of blindness here. A question about why people don’t call things by their rightful names. And the problem here, I think, is not that we don’t know the causes of that, but that we don’t yet have a good enough description of the phenomenon itself: we don’t yet even know WHAT to explain. The idea of rape culture may help with that.

      And I’m not saying that everyone really does understand the idea of rape culture in this way. Probably not. But this is the best use of it I can think of.

    3. Are you suggesting that people don't always call rape 'rape'? Or aiding and abetting rape 'aiding and abetting rape'? And that we can think of this as being a result of rape culture?

      I don't know whether this kind of denial or blindness is a problem (i.e. whether it happens), but it probably is (does). I imagine that would be because we think of rapists as masked men in alleys rather than people we know (or are). And aiding and abetting is likely to be thought of as admirable solidarity or brotherhood, with a strong commitment to the principle that people are innocent until proven guilty. So the problem is one of framing, or something of the sort. Orwell's idea that we should stick, as far as possible, to concrete particulars seems relevant to this. Rape culture would then just be an aspect of the wider evasive-language culture.

      Orwell seems to think that bad uses of language (e.g. people not calling things by their rightful names) both come from and encourage bad thinking, so that we get a vicious circle that can be broken only by careful attention to language and conscious avoidance of imprecision, evasion, ugliness, etc. This might help, and would certainly not be a bad thing, but I wonder if the root cause isn't more to do with how we live. Evasive language seems most likely to be effective when you're addressing an audience that is not directly involved in the realities you are evading and that cannot ask a lot of awkward questions about what exactly you mean. And the evasion of the realities of rape is probably easier when, for instance, you live in an all-male community in which the accused are more real to you, more part of your daily life, than the outside accusers.

      But I don't know whether I've understood your point or made mine clear.

    4. You ask:
      “Are you suggesting that people don't always call rape 'rape'? Or aiding and abetting rape 'aiding and abetting rape'? And that we can think of this as being a result of rape culture?”

      Yes. But perhaps it would be better to say: ‘People don't always call rape 'rape,' and that IS rape culture.’ That is, talk in terms of “results” still preserves a scent of consequentialism.

      You say:
      “I wonder if the root cause isn't more to do with how we live.”

      I think by “more” you mean more than rape culture—i.e. the bad distorting use of language. But this again has too much of the empiricist-consequentialist spirit in it. Mostly the word “cause.” I again don’t think of my suggestion as contradicting what you are saying. The idea of rape culture in the way I suggest we use it (and I think it is actually sometimes so used) is not just about how we talk. The idea is partly that how we talk reflects how we live: what we find funny, or attractive, or interesting, or childish, or sentimental, and also what we pay attention to, or find worthy of attending. All that describes the way we live, and is reflected in language in all sorts of ways. So I agree with you (I think), even if I am agreeing with you by saying what you are saying in a slightly different language. (I only disagree with you if you think we talk about different things.)

      You also talk about evasiveness. And I think this raises an important issue that I didn’t notice before: What ought we to say about the people living the rape culture—are they evading something, or are they blind to it? (Because in order to evade something we have to see it.)

      My thoughts before following what you wrote were mostly about cases of blindness. And one thing that I think deters people from talking of such blindness, and makes them rather talk about evasiveness, is that they feel that blind people cannot be blamed or held responsible for what they don’t see. – I disagree. I think in some cases people ought to see certain things, even if their culture does not prepare them for it. But what you say now, I think, is also important. I don’t want to deny that the situation is usually not so clear-cut, and that not only that in many cases people are not blind but evasive, but sometimes it is not so easy to distinguish between blindness and evasiveness (or laziness, or squeamishness, or smugness…).

      We may even want to talk about all this (evasiveness, laziness, squeamishness, smugness…) as elements of a culture. And we might say these are elements specifically of “rape culture.” But this would involve a different use of the term than the one I suggested. – Perhaps this is the use that you find unhelpful?

      (I’m taking the discussion now to be about the usefulness of the idea of “rape culture. I think that one reason (perhaps not the main reason) you think that the term “rape culture” is bad is because it seems to be vague on purpose. – Right? I am annoyed by deliberate vagueness too (even if it sometimes has welcome consequences). But I still think it is worthwhile clarifying the different uses ‘rape culture’ might have, and sorting out the good from the bad.)

    5. Thanks. This helps a lot.

      I agree that people can be blamed for not seeing certain things, and this has to do, I think, with the connections that sometimes exist between blindness and evasiveness. Blindness that results from successful evasion is bad, after all. But I don't mean to say that this is the only kind of blindness for which people can be held responsible.

      I don't know whether the term 'rape culture' is deliberately vague, but it is vague. And this vagueness allows for a kind of misdirection, taking attention away from rape to rape culture and then to whatever supposed part of this culture someone happens to want to focus attention on. Rorty contrasted American feminists with French ones, saying that American feminists wanted more childcare while the French ones wanted more people to read Derrida (or something along those lines). I don't object to a childcare-plus-Derrida approach (I'm not saying I'm for it either), but if someone claims that the real issues are theoretical then I think that's bad (because I think the claim is false and because I think it is likely to have harmful consequences).

      A culture in which people do not see rape as rape is bad, though, I agree. And I see no reason not to call this rape culture.

    6. I don't feel very happy with this last comment of mine, so here's more. Associating feminism with childcare might make it sound as though Rorty or I think that feminism is all about, or ought to be about, enabling women to conform to traditional gender roles. It is meant, instead, as shorthand for practical measures, such as legislation, policy measures, etc. And the reference to Derrida might come across as tedious bashing of Continental philosophy. But it's meant as shorthand for any kind of theory or philosophy. The solution to rape is not more Wittgenstein or anything else of the kind, that's one of the points I want to make. And I have heard and seen people in discussion of this issue say that the real issue is 'rape culture'. They don't, of course, say that we should not pay attention to rape itself, but this does seem to be the implication of their view. And that's a problem. (I don't mean that they keep their real views hidden from view. I mean that they simply aren't thinking very clearly, as far as I can tell.)

      Are Wittgenstein and Derrida and co. then completely irrelevant to this issue? I hope not. But our ability to improve behavior by improving thinking is far from proven, and I don't think we should rely on it as our primary response to criminal behavior.

  8. There is something here that I feel is kind of slippery.

    You talk of the idea of the solution being more Derrida, or philosophy more generally. You also talk of the claim that ‘rape culture’ is the real problem.

    What is slippery, I think is that both those claims can be taken in two different ways. Roughly, I want to say, one way is good and one is bad. (So I think there is a good way in which those claims could be meant.)

    What you are worried about, I think—and I think it is a good point—is a kind of abuse of those claims. Mostly, if I understand, you worry that the real problem will become absent from the discussion, and that we will somehow confuse ourselves, and forget what the real concern is. You are concerned mostly with uses of those claims that have such (bad) effect.

    And I agree. This is a real serious concern. That is, it can happen that we lose touch with our real concerns, and philosophy can be a part of that. Philosophy can be abused, or misused; and not necessarily intentionally. It sometimes just happens. We get confused.

    However, I think it would not be an exaggeration to say that it is usually, almost normally, the case with moral problems that there is a question about what the problem really is. That is, very often, it is part of the character (grammar) of moral problems that the debate about them is also a debate about what the problem is: what the real concern is. So, for instance, in the case of sexual misconduct, we might get so fixated on one kind of harm, that we forget other related forms of harm—we may get focused on sexual assault, and not notice cat-calling, for instance.

    So in a discussion about moral problems, there is usually room (need), I think, for having a discussion about what we need to discuss—a meta-discussion. Perhaps we can even say that the meta-discussion in such cases will be part of the discussion itself. But if that is the case, then we should not necessarily consider it a problem that people have different concerns, and want to emphasize different things. And it should not be a problem that people devise all sorts of tactics—philosophical, terminological—to highlight, and to make themselves and others sensitive, to certain aspects of the problem.

    And this, I think, indicates a good way of using philosophy or the term ‘rape culture’ in a discussion about sexual misconduct: That is, not in such a way that replaces or clouds the real concerns (and again, I agree with you that this happens all too often), but in a way that helps us to better see what the real concerns are.

    Does that make sense?

    1. I think so. And I agree that there is something slippery--I feel that I myself am slipping at times, but can't always see clearly in what way this is happening, or if it really is. So let me try to restate your thinking to see if I really have it.

      My primary concern is with people who say, "Of course, the real problem is..." and then mention something other than sexual assault. That seems to me to draw attention away from sexual assault. But I don't mean to deny that whatever they go on to talk about is not a problem. It just isn't the problem in the sense of being either more serious than sexual assault or else being the known true cause of sexual assault.

      How could the ideas that the real problem is rape culture and that the solution is more philosophy be meant in a good way? By more philosophy I suppose we would have to mean more careful thinking, more awareness of what we think, do, and want, for instance. And by 'rape culture' I suppose would be meant a pattern of thinking and behaving that fails to give the right weight to sexual assault (and, as part of this, to related forms of behavior). Philosophy would come in, then, as a kind of weighing, or a feeling of the weight for purposes of reminding, of such things as sexual assault.

      Is that what you mean?

  9. Yes. I accept that.

    But I’m also saying that part of the disagreement here might turn out to be about choice of words. I mean, when someone says “the real problem is…” it can be interpreted in two ways:
    1) as saying that something else is not the problem—in our case sexual assault.
    2) as saying that what we already think is the problem should be reconceived—in our case, it would probably mean that sexual assault would need to be taken more broadly or thought of as a more complex phenomenon. (How broadly or complexly, the claim does not specify).
    The first kind of interpretation is meant to divert our attention, and make us look at something else. The second kind of interpretation is mean to help us see better what we are already concerned with.

    And when people speak, they don’t always know which one they mean.

    I think you are objecting to a bad view (and I share the objection). I only think that the way the bad view is sometimes expressed can also be utilized to express a good view. In this case, I think there might still be room for objection, but if there is, it will only be objection to a way of expressing ourselves, not to a view.