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.