America Has a Rape Problem – and Kate Harding Wants to Fix It

'Asking for It' author discusses how pop culture and politicians feed rape culture

Kate Harding is the author of "Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture – and What We Can Do About It." Credit: Nate Ryan

In an author's note at the beginning of Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture – and What We Can Do About It, Kate Harding acknowledges that she had no idea how culturally relevant her book would end up being when she conceived of it in 2012. At the time, "[n]ews of the Steubenville, Ohio, gang rape case was picking up steam, and the memory of Missouri Representative Todd Akin's 'legitimate rape' gaffe was fresh in all our minds," she writes. Three years later, to her delight, "Americans are still talking seriously about rape and rape culture," with the mounting allegations against Bill Cosby, California's "yes means yes" bill and other stories relating to sexual assault regularly making headlines.

That's the good news. The more sobering news is that America continues to have a major rape problem, as Harding details in her smart, concise – and sometimes even funny – book on the subject.

Harding recently spoke to Rolling Stone about the book, pop culture depictions of sex and consent, and how Donald Trump is "the embodiment of entitlement."

Define rape culture.
In some ways I wrote the whole book to define rape culture, but the short answer is that it's a culture where we blame victims, where we disbelieve victims, where we act like rape is both uncommon and trivial. It toggles between, "There's no way one in five women are actually raped," and, "If that's true, it's no big deal."

It's a culture where we always identify with the person who's accused of rape instead of identifying with the victim. When someone reports a rape, we immediately start investigating that person – the presumption is that the person is probably lying – before we even think to investigate the person being accused. (I'm using the term "investigate" colloquially here, although certainly there are problems with the police as well.) Immediately the suspicion falls on the person who reported the rape.

It's a culture where we believe a lot of rape myths, such as, "She was asking for it." If you're drinking, if you're in a certain part of town, if you're wearing a certain outfit, people are going to say outright that you deserved to be raped.

The aggregate of all this is that it gives rapists the social license to operate, to use a phrase from Thomas MacAulay Millar, who was a main contributor to the Yes Means Yes blog and contributed to the book as well. The social license to operate means that a rapist in this culture looks at the incredibly small number of rapists who actually go to prison for rape, and looks at the way we respond to people who report rapes, and notes that he has a pretty good chance of getting away with it.

Is that what you mean when you say in the book that "every American boy is at risk of growing up to become a rapist"?
When I say that, I mean that American boys are all growing up in the same rape culture, so they're growing up with this incredible sense of entitlement to women's bodies. Boys are taught that sex is their right – it's on demand, basically – and that girls will resist, and their job is to overcome that resistance. Instead of teaching them about respecting girls as fellow human beings, they're taught that girls are sexual organs.

A culture that devalues girls and women gives social cover to people who want to rape. You don't know which boy is going to be the one who says, "I'm going to go for it." (And it almost always is a boy. There are cases of women raping both other women and men, but men are predominantly the perpetrators, regardless of the gender of the victim.)

So when I say that every American boy is at risk of growing up to become a rapist, I mean that we don't know which young boy is absorbing this message of entitlement. People like to think, "My child would never…" or, "I'm such a good parent." But when you see things like campus rape stories – your typical rapist is someone who knows their victim, someone who the victim trusts at least a little bit – that is the child of someone who thought their child would never do that.

Let's talk about one way people absorb these messages: TV and movies. What does entertainment teach us about sex and consent?
One thing we need to remember is that when people get together on screen, it's quite literally choreographed. There's very little dialogue, there's very little checking in with the partner, there's lots of flinging clothes, and backing up into a bed or whatever, and falling exactly where they're meant to fall. Whereas in the real world, sexual encounters involve a lot of, "Oh shit, you're on my arm," and, "We have to move because my leg is falling asleep."

In the real world, people are constantly checking in, verbally or nonverbally, about how their partner is feeling. The movies create this myth that sex is going to be this almost telepathic encounter, where it's only sexy if it's wordless, and we both have our eyes closed, and everything falls into place. There's this fear that the magic will dissolve if you stop and say, like, "Hey, are you doing OK?" or open your eyes to see if your partner has an enthusiastic look on her face, or if she's grimacing. Talking about sex and consent can be very sexy, but we don't ever see that happening on screen.

This matters because for a lot of us, when we've never done it before, TV and movies are our introduction to seeing how sex happens; you don't get to see people making out in real life.

Are there any particularly bad offenders you want to call out?
Something I write about in the book is the recurring phenomenon in pop culture where consent is clearly not there at the beginning of a sexual encounter, but by the end you're supposed to believe the woman has consented. It happens in the movies Crank and Observe and Report and also on Game of Thrones. It's this idea that consent can be retroactive – that if she's screaming or pushing you away or saying no at first, all you have to do is persevere, and by the end she'll be moaning and super into it. That perpetuates the "no means yes" myth, that a lack of consent is simply a hurdle to clear on the way to getting the prize.

Speaking of pop culture, we can't have an interview about sexual assault in 2015 without mentioning Bill Cosby. In less than a year, we went from more or less ignoring the allegations against him to seeing three dozen of his accusers featured on a much-lauded New York Magazine cover. Why are we, as a society, now taking those allegations more seriously? What changed?
I would love to say that as a society we're getting better about rape – and we are, compared to decades past – but I think it was more that we had the Internet and social media as a vector for the story, so it couldn't fade away before it had maximum impact. It's the difference between the way media spread in 2003 versus the way it spreads in 2015. You can't shut things up as easily. Also, there are all these online feminist communities that have strong social media presences that are there to support people who accuse a celebrity. And then it was just victim after victim after victim coming forward that kept it going. 

The Cosby story is an example of the media helping to bring attention to victims' stories (if not in a uniformly positive way). At the same time, I think it's fair to say there are still many problems with how the media covers rape. What are some of the biggest problems you see?
There's this idea that to appear objective you have to give equal weight to anyone who has an opinion on the subject, no matter how well considered it is. And that if you're going to give air time to a victim's report of her rape, you have to also give equal time, with no editorializing, to the notion that she might be lying.

You need to be able to be fair and protect the rights of a person who is being accused without being abusive to the victim, and without presuming that any woman who reports a rape is lying about it, or has the motivation to lie. The best estimate is that there are between 2 and 8 percent of police reports of rape that are unfounded in some way. But it gets treated like there's a 50-50 chance that any woman could be lying.

There is a fine line to walk; you should be very circumspect about putting serious accusations into the world without fact checking, or without at least giving the person who's accused the chance to respond. But the unfortunate consequence of this faux objectivity is that it makes people think that there are a lot more false accusations than there are, and that women lie at the drop of a hat. So whenever a celebrity is accused of rape, the immediate thought is that the woman is looking for a payday. Sure, settlements do happen, but it's absurd to think that this is a good get-rich-quick scheme: to have sex with a celebrity, and then wake up the next morning and say, "It was rape!" You're going to have everyone calling you a slut and a gold digger, and risk being prosecuted for making false statements to the police, but you'll go through all that to take a shot at getting money through a lawsuit? That's insane. It's not something people do, and it reveals such a bleak view of women. The relentless interrogation of every woman who reports a rape is premised on the idea that any one of us could be that manipulative and evil. We're so unwilling to believe that any man could be a rapist, but any woman for sure could be a vengeful, horrible beast.

What did you make of the story that resurfaced recently in the Daily Beast about Ivana Trump saying Donald Trump had "violated" her, and then later walking it back to say it wasn't rape in the "criminal sense"? What does that tell you about how our society views marital rape?
I mean, if you look at rape as a crime of toxic entitlement, it's not shocking that someone who is the embodiment of entitlement might have done that.

In terms of the actual allegation and the withdrawal of it, I have no idea; I haven't read the book where the story was first reported. But the most shocking thing about the Daily Beast article was Trump's lawyer and spokesperson saying that there's no such thing as marital rape, which is absolutely untrue. It's horrifying to hear someone – and a member of the bar! – say that so confidently, but a lot of people believe it. A lot of people think marriage is a contract that says that you own each other's bodies, or that the man owns the woman's body.

Also, in the story itself, it should have said right up front, right after that explosive quote: "Actually, marital rape is illegal in all 50 states." Otherwise you're just making the problem worse.

You point out in the book that a lot of politicians, including our current president, frequently use "wife, mother, daughter" language to talk about issues like sexual assault. You aren't a fan of that framing. Why not?
Because it positions women as "others." It ignores the fact that when you're addressing the American people, 50-odd percent of them are women, and it's sort of weird to be addressing a group of women and say, "Imagine that your wife or mother or sister was raped" – not that you wouldn't be just as upset if they were.

It also reinforces the pernicious idea that the genders are such different creatures. (I'm speaking in terms of the mainstream-accepted gender binary here, men and women.) We're Mars and Venus, we speak different languages. We can't possibly just empathize with each other as human beings and imagine what it's like to be each other. So what I say in the book is: Don't talk about rape in terms of your mother, wife, or sister. Talk about it in terms of yourself. Imagine you're the one who's raped, and you go to report it to the police, and they treat you like maybe you're the criminal. And that does happen to male victims too, so it's not this unimaginable thing for them.

That language also puts men in the role of the protectors, where it seems like their focus is, "If my wife was raped by a stranger, it would be terrible because my duty is to protect her, and I would have failed." But now you're making your wife's rape all about you. Another thing that happens is men find out their loved ones were raped, and they go, "I'm going to kill him" – "someone who was unauthorized to touch one of my women has done so." But it would actually be more useful if you just offered support to your loved one who's been raped, and continued being a calm, steady, loving, non-threatening male presence in her life. That's going to do a lot more good than beating some guy up.

You write that one of the things you're hopeful about is policy – legislative efforts to address rape culture.
Yeah, the affirmative consent law that was passed in California last year was a huge and important step in the right direction in terms of how we think about these things. It says universities that receive public funding must use affirmative consent as their standard in evaluating rape and sexual assault reports. So it's a "yes means yes" model, rather than "no means no." The onus is on the rapist, or the alleged rapist, to prove that enthusiastic consent existed – rather than having to show that the woman resisted to the utmost.

But I also don't know that changes in legislation are really what we need, because most of these things are already illegal. Rape is illegal. Sexual assault is illegal. We even give lip service to saying that they are generally terrible crimes. But where it breaks down is in terms of how police and prosecutors handle these things. So it's not so much that we need new laws as we need new ways of responding to victims and investigating cases.

How do you respond when people say, "Feminists are always saying 'believe women,' but what about 'innocent until proven guilty'?" I've certainly had guys at cocktail parties ask that question when they find out I cover women's rights, and I usually just end up rambling.
First of all, innocent until proven guilty: that's a legal term. As long as I'm not on a jury, I can have any opinion I want on a man's guilt. I can't print it in a publication if I don't have any grounds for it, but I can privately think it.

Innocent until proven guilty does not mean that no rape occurred until a jury says it did. A rape occurred or it didn't, and it's a matter of looking at what evidence you have and making an educated guess about what you believe really happened. If you realize that rape is much more common than many people want to believe it is, and that almost all women who report it are telling the truth, and that so many women don't report it because they're afraid of not being believed, and you weigh that against the possibility that some woman has lied for fun and profit, that seems very unlikely.

That doesn't mean you should be hasty about ruling out the possibility that a rape didn't happen, but the default should be believing anyone who reports a rape. It comes down to "trust but verify," and looking at it in terms of verification: "Let's make sure this story checks out," as opposed to, "Let's see if we can undermine this story."

The other thing to remember about innocent until proven guilty is that if we believe every person is obligated to look at it that way, there would be no prosecution of crime. There's a difference between the justice system not being able to punish someone who hasn't been proven guilty – which is not even true, because obviously you can hold someone without bail – and investigating suspects, and prosecutors deciding, "Yeah, I think this guy's guilty, and I'm going to bring this case to trial." The idea that no one is allowed to consider the possibility that someone is guilty until a jury has decided is just ridiculous on its face.

It also frustrates me when people treat rape like it's a thought experiment. Rape is common, so anyone you bring it up with might be a survivor themselves, and might not want to sit there and talk about rape with someone who's skeptical. Even if you haven't suffered sexual assault or rape, you're a woman in this culture, and you're constantly getting this message that a) it could happen to you at any time, and b) if it does, nobody's going to believe you. And then to have some jackass at a cocktail party be like, "Well, let's just say..." It's like, my life is not a thought experiment! Being a woman is not a thought experiment! We actually have to live with this. And sometimes we want to go to parties and talk about things that aren't rape, you know?