This paper will focus on the social and cultural conditions that intensify or perpetuate rape. The causes and reasons for rape are deeply entrenched in our social structure. We can explore some of the motivations and circumstances which lead men to rape. We have learned that some men rape out of anger and a need to overpower, dominate, and humiliate. We can also look at some of the historical attitudes from which today’s beliefs and stereotypes have evolved. However, we must look beyond both rapists’ motivations and history if we are to truly understand the act of rape.
Why does rape exist and what causes it? What is it about our society that makes rape one of the fastest growing violent crimes in this country? One way we have tried to deal with this problem is through rape prevention. These techniques are very important in decreasing the vulnerability of individuals, but in order to eliminate the occurrence of rape from our society, we must first examine its causes more deeply so that we can take collective action. We must understand the sociology of rape in order to effectively work towards the elimination of it.
Despite the necessity for rape prevention, it must focus on eliminating the conditions in society which make women easy targets for rape. Victim control teaches women to avoid rape, but doesn’t reduce the threat of rape. Furthermore, rape cannot always be avoided, no matter what precautions the woman takes. It also puts part of the responsibility and blame for rape on the victim. Rapist control confuses prosecutions with prevention. There is little evidence that punishment serves as a deterrent. Besides, very few rapist are ever incarcerated.
From very early ages, men and women are conditioned to accept different roles. Women are raised to be passive and men are raised to be aggressive. We are conditioned to accept certain attitudes, values and behaviors. Our conditioning is continuously and relentlessly encouraged and reinforced by the popular media, cultural attitudes and the educational system. The media is a major contributor to gender-based attitudes and values. The media provides women with a complete list of behaviors that precipitate rape. Social training about what is proper, as well as what is powerful and macho, teaches women to be victims and men to be aggressors.
The high incidence of rape in this country is a result of the power imbalance between men and women. Women are expected to assume a subordinate relationship to men. Consequently, rape can be seen as a logical extension of the typical interactions between women and men. Women’s vulnerability to rape is a result of this subordinate relationship. There are a number of sexist dictates that serve to maintain this subordinate relationship one of which is: Rape as a means of control over women. Rape plays a role in maintaining patriarchy by perpetrating the threat of violence. The acts of just a few violent men can terrorize all women and can control women’s lives. The indifference of other men reinforces this effect.
A strategy for eliminating women’s vulnerability to rape involves altering the power relationship between women and men. Women’s vulnerability will not end with individual change alone; there have to be social change as well. Society trains females to be physically and
emotionally unequipped to respond effectively to danger. Training begins at an early age. Boys and girls are channeled into different physical activities, because of the believed differences in physical and muscular development and stamina. Consequently, as adults, females are unable to gauge both their own bodies’ resistance to injury, and their own strength and power. Learning self-defense in schools and on the job would be a step towards alleviating women’s vulnerability, as would providing girls and women with equal opportunities and encouragement to engage in sports. I was glad to hear that MIT set up a self-defense class for women. How many women will actually take the time to take it, who knows? We haven¹t been taught that we need to be aggressive and protect our own bodies. The emotional training women receive also contributes to their inability to successfully fight back. Women learn to be passive, nurturing, accepting and compliant. Most rapists select victims they can intimidate and overpower. Most women are reluctant to challenge men’s offensive behavior because of their emotional training and conditioning.
Frequently, women psychologically distance themselves from the issue of rape and from each other by adopting the attitude that, “It can’t happen to me,” or, “Only immoral women are raped.” Because there are many factors which enforce the belief that “a woman’s place is in the home², women tend to be displaced from the mainstream of community action and decision making.
One of the most important societal changes deals with how our justice system deals with rape. In other words, when a woman is raped, it is not uncommon that some of the blame and responsibility for the rape is put on her. This is probably one reason for the incredibly low conviction rate of rapists. Our criminal justice system reflects the prevailing societal attitude that women are partially responsible for rape. Consequently, juries rarely find a man charged with rape as guilty.
Rape must be viewed as a political issue, not just another crime or mental health problem. It must be seen as an issue which affects all women. Rape is not just a women’s problem–it is a community problem.