Domestic Violence

Words Matter: How Language Promotes and Sustains Rape Culture

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Words matter. Language matters. Pictures matter. Imagery matters. These are tools used to create and sustain rape culture, where actions hurt people. Rape culture is not about raping. It is about the myths and stereotypes that are pervasive across all communities and manifested through things like language, behaviour and attitudes, which then encourage violence towards women.

 “Language constructs reality, and the way we speak about gender, the way we speak about sex, the way we speak about women, all of these can combine to construct a culture which is enabling of rape.”

— Barbara Boswell, senior lecturer Wits

What is rape culture? Rape culture can be defined as “a culture in which dominant cultural ideologies, media images, social practices, and societal institutions support and condone sexual abuse by normalizing, trivializing and eroticizing male violence against women and blaming victims for their own abuse” (Huffington Post).

Examples of Rape Culture

  • Blaming the victim (“She asked for it!”)
  • Trivializing sexual assault (“Boys will be boys!”)
  • Sexually explicit jokes
  • Tolerance of sexual harassment
  • Inflating false rape report statistics
  • Publicly scrutinizing a victim’s dress, mental state, motives, and history
  • Gratuitous gendered violence in movies and television
  • Defining “manhood” as dominant and sexually aggressive
  • Defining “womanhood” as submissive and sexually passive
  • Pressure on men to “score”
  • Pressure on women to not appear “cold”
  • Assuming only promiscuous women get raped
  • Assuming that men don’t get raped or that only “weak” men get raped
  • Refusing to take rape accusations seriously
  • Teaching women to avoid getting raped

Victims Blaming

One reason people blame a victim is to distance themselves from an unpleasant occurrence and thereby confirm their own invulnerability to the risk. By labeling or accusing the victim, others can see the victim as different from themselves. People reassure themselves by thinking, “Because I am not like her, because I do not do that, this would never happen to me.” We need to help people understand that this is not a helpful reaction.

Why Is It Dangerous?

Victim-blaming attitudes marginalize the victim/survivor and make it harder to come forward and report the abuse. If the survivor knows that you or society blames her for the abuse, s/he will not feel safe or comfortable coming forward and talking to you.

Victim-blaming attitudes also reinforce what the abuser has been saying all along; that it is the victim’s fault this is happening. It is NOT the victim’s fault or responsibility to fix the situation; it is the abuser’s choice. By engaging in victim-blaming attitudes, society allows the abuser to perpetrate relationship abuse or sexual assault while avoiding accountability for his/her actions.

How Can Men and Women Combat Rape Culture and Victim Blaming?

  • Avoid using language that objectifies or degrades women
  • Speak out if you hear someone else making an offensive joke or trivializing rape
  • If a friend says they have been raped, take your friend seriously and be supportive
  • Think critically about the media’s messages about women, men, relationships, and violence
  • Be respectful of others’ physical space even in casual situations
  • Let survivors know that it is not their fault
  • Hold abusers accountable for their actions: do not let them make excuses like blaming the victim, alcohol, or drugs for their behavior
  • Always communicate with sexual partners and do not assume consent
  • Define your own manhood or womanhood. Do not let stereotypes shape your actions.
  • Be an Active Bystander!

Adapted from Marshall University and Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness

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