For centuries, women’s bodies were thought to be at the disposition of men and as such, sexual violence against women was, and sometimes still is, normalized by society. This is part of what is called rape culture. Rape culture is a constant stigmatization of the victims to find excuses for the perpetrators by creating an atmosphere in which sexual violence and sexual misconduct towards women is excused and normalized. In a study conducted in 2015, by the Mémoire traumatique et victimologie association, on 1001 French people, from 18 years old onwards, results showed that 63% of the participants believed that it was more difficult for a man than for a woman to control their sexual desires. Those numbers imply that there is a bias in the population ; that men are victims of their own sexual desires and can’t control themselves, thus reducing their responsibility towards sex.
When I started university, I was once explained why women who sleep with several men are considered to have ‘little virtue’ and why, on the contrary, men should take pride in sleeping with a lot of women. They used to explain it this way : «a penis is like a key and a vagina is like a lock. If a key can open several locks then this key is quiet powerful but if a lock can be opened by several keys then it’s not a very good lock. And nobody wants that kind of lock on their doors». Putting aside the obvious objectification of human bodies, hearing this repeatedly when you are still a child plays a big role in shaping your views on relations between men and women. It even plays a big role when you are all grown up, at university, but surrounded by people who think that way. The story says it all, if men have sex with a lot of women, it makes them powerful, they proved their masculinity, their superiority over the ‘weaker’ gender. But when women have sex with several men, then they are not worth being looked at anymore. Everybody wants to have sex with them but nobody wants to bring them home to meet the parents.
I strongly believe that sexual assault occurs because men are taught that «a woman’s vagina is just an underground railroad to masculinity» (Francisco R., 2013). It is not just about sex. Perpetrators of rape and sexual assault have access to consensual sex (University of Michigan, 2008) ; but we have lived, for a long time, in a society where men feel entitled to have sex whenever they want with whomever they want. «Yes, men who rape seek a sense of power, but men also use their power to get sex from women» (Jensen, 2014).
Consent is a crucial part of sexual activities, at least it should be. But it is one of the most ignored concepts of all times. Even today, among very educated people, some men understand consent as ‘women should say no if they don’t want to have sex’, and even then, no may sometimes mean yes. Whereas consent actually means that they need to look for the willingness of the other person, the ‘yes, I want to have sex with you’. And when they encouter a person who is too drunk to say anything, they use it as a cover to do what they «have» to do, because after all, when interogated, the majority of men (and women) still believe that men’s sexual desires are more difficult to control than those of women (Perry, 2016).
One of the main cases illustrating the impact of rape culture is last year’s People v. Turner case in California. Brock Turner was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious student on campus. There were two eyewitnesses and he faced up to fourteen years in prison but was sentenced to only six months (Hunt, 2016). How is it possible ? How can we admit that the crime for which a person is judged can send them to prison for up to fourteen years and then only sentence them to six months ? The judge justified this decision by saying that a long sentence would have a «severe impact» (Hunt, 2016) on Brock Turner’s life. In addition, facts were minimized and trivialized. Turner’s father even wrote a letter in which he said that it was «a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20-plus years of life» (Hunt 2016). The victim was also questioned about what she was wearing and her drinking habits, as if the answers could have diminished Brock Turner’s responsibility. This is what rape culture does. Of course, it does not order rape or explicitly state that it is acceptable but it does make rape inviting by conveying the message that the person who rapes will face little consequences anyway.
Moreover, the legal definition of rape is very restricive in some countries considered to be more ‘developed’, more ‘modern’. That is why, we often have to make the distinction between rape and sexual assault. For example, according to California state law (the state where Brock Turner was judged) and English law, rape only involves penetration by a penis. Objects and fingers are not involved in the definition of rape. As such, any man who sexually assaults a woman by putting his fingers inside her genital part (what Brock Turner was accused of doing) will not be considered a rapist. On the contrary, in Belgium, a law was passed, in 1980, defining rape as «any act of sexual penetration (in the mouth, the vagina or the behind of a person) by a genital part or an object (…)»
(art. 375 of the Belgian Penal Code). These differences highlight the varity of views on rape and how slowly the law evolves with regards to prosecuting it. But how can we expect to eradicate rape culture in our society when even the law has loopholes in favor of the perpetrators ?