Meet Rape Culture: Progress and the Long Road Ahead

That Donald Trump is the perfect spokesperson to spread awareness that rape culture has been a part of the human experience since recorded history is not terribly surprising.  Indeed, the only positive thing I can take from his successful run for the US Republican party’s 2016 Presidential candidacy is that his candor puts in sharp relief where we are with respect to Enlightenment ideals, and how much needs to be done.[1]


Prompted by the ground work of Annie E Clark and Andrea L. Pino the White House launched the “It’s on Us” campaign in 2014, and prompted by Amanda Nguyen‘s advocacy the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act of 2016 just this week became the law of the land.  We are, to be sure, a long way from dismantling rape culture, but the good news is that we now have under our belt several decades of advocacy to produce awareness of, and begin dismantling, rape culture.

How might we understand Trump’s remarks, which echo OJ Simpson’s alleged remarks in a bar about his then wife, Nicole:

“Ms. Brown also recalled another incident in 1989, when she, Nicole Simpson and Mr. Simpson were in a crowded bar where they were all drinking heavily.
“We were all drinking and goofing around and being loud and dancing and having a great time,” she said. “And then at one point O. J. grabbed Nicole’s crotch and said: ‘This is where babies come from. And this belongs to me.’
“And Nicole just sort of wrote it off like it was nothing — like, you know, like she was used to that kind of treatment. I thought it was really humiliating, if you ask me.”

At the level of text, this is the braggadocio stuff he says all the time: “I’m gonna build a wall”  “the best,” and so on.  But Wilson & Daly help us explain why rape culture has been part and parcel of the human experience.  It is universal across cultures and time.  If we want to dismantle it, we will do well do understand why it exists.  Further, it helps us avoid the mistake of imagining that rape culture has to be “normalized,” which is to say, that it is something other than a long run equilibrium status quo that has been normal for all of human experience.

Let’s begin with a stylized fact that the remarks of famous, wealthy men like OJ Simpson and Donald Trump are examples of.

Fantastically wealthy and powerful men neither forsake the acquisition of women nor use them to augment their wealth; they collect them. Neither can the agendas of harem holders be understood as the pursuit of mere sexual diversity: Monopolization is invariably a principal objective. Guarded harems constitute the hypertrophied manifestations of male ambitions released from the usual constraints of limited personal power, the fantastic products of a male psyche that evolved in social milieus in which extreme polygyny was impossible, but any increment in the numbers and/or the degree of monopolization of one’s mating partners would gain a selective advantage (Wilson & Daly, 301).

Of course, it is not just wealthy men: that would not be a cultural practice that affects all humans.

Only the richest and most powerful men could institute such elaborate arrangements to retain exclusive sexual access to many reproductively valuable women. However, millions of men have guarded and constrained “their” women by practices that seem to depart from those of despots only in degree. Veiling, chaperoning, purdah, and the literal incarceration of women are common social institutions of patrilineal societies, and it is only women of reproductive age who are confined or chaperoned. Prepubertal children and postmenopausal women enjoy considerable freedom, These practices are status graded (Dickemann, 1981): The higher the social status the more claustrated the women. Chinese foot binding was another such status-graded practice, which simultaneously made an ostentation of the male owner’s capacity to dispense with the woman’s labor and rendered her incapable of flight. There is considerable cross-cultural variation in the severity and institutionalization of such practices, but the repeated convergent invention of claustration practices around the world and the confining and controlling behavior of men even where it is frowned upon (Daly, Wilson, & Weghorst, 1982) reflect the workings of a sexually proprietary male psychology (p 301).

The 2015 #IAmNotADistraction hashtag of middle and high school girls, and their supporters, is one example of popular efforts to chip away at the ubiquity of rape culture.  It amazes me that the pair of Twitterpated scenes in Disney’s Bambi is not widely recognized for its role reproducing “rape culture.”



It is the Jezebel myth plan and simple.  I know plenty of parents who worry about their kids watching Bambi’s mother get killed, but where’s the concern over Twitterpated?  The shooting death of mom is the big concern?!?

The Twitterpated scene, like Delilah’s betrayal of Samson, are cultural tropes that help boys “learn” that women are dangerous: they have “wiles” and can trick you into acting against your best interest.  What do we need to do when facing something scary and threatening?  Control it, of course.  And middle / high school dress codes are a cultural “solution” to this “problem,” produced for males, by males, and of course, supported by high status women.

Let’s return to Wilson & Daly.

What about mate guarding plain and simple? Are men inclined to dog their fertile mates like songbirds during egg laying? In patrilocal societies, where wives are surrounded by their husbands’ relatives, a man may be content to leave his wife under the scrutiny of his mother or other kin. But in many societies – including the foraging (hunting and gathering) peoples who provide the best contemporary models of the ecological and socio-political contexts within which the human psyche evolved – people were mobile and group compositions variable (p 302).

Here is the take away: Lots of possible equilibria exist for solving the “problem” of male insecurity induced by the dramatically different roles played by humans with a womb and those with testicles in our species reproduction.  None of the solutions have confronted the Enlightenment ideals of human equality.

Let us now turn specifically to rape.  While Steven Pinker is hardly an excellent source (in my view, he has not yet appreciated the full implications of his commitment to Enlightenment ideals when it comes to gender), he offers a useful pithy account of the history of rape in human culture.

While rape is a human universal, so are proscriptions against rape.  Yet one has to look long and hard through history and across cultures to find an acknowledgment of the harm of rape from the viewpoint of the victim…  Rape was seen as an offense not against a woman, but against a man–the woman’s father, husband, or in the case of a slave, her owner.  Moral and legal systems all over the world codified rape in similar ways  (pp 394-5).


When did this all begin to change?  The rise of Max Weber’s state (which monopolizes the legitimate exercise of coercion) shifted the crime of rape from one against a man to one against the state.  Progress?  Sort of?

When medieval European governments began to nationalize criminal justice, rape shifted from from a tort against the husband or father to a crime against the state, which ostensibly represented the interests of women and society, but in fact titled the scales well toward the side of the accused (p 395).

Why?  Because men, who created these legal systems, have an incentive to recognize one another’s “property rights” over women.  Why?  Because it limits the internecine conflict that would otherwise occur.  That is, the Weberian state produces an equilibrium that reduces homicide among males competing for control over women.

Though the more blatant tropes of the women-as-property metaphor were dismantled in the Middle Ages, the model has persisted in laws, customs, and emotions into the recent present (p 397).

First, custom, as practiced in the West and, increasingly, diffusing beyond.

Women, not men, wear engagement rings to signal they are “taken,” and many are still “given away” at their weddings by their fathers to their husbands, whereupon they change their surname accordingly (p 397).

Now law.

Well into the 1970s marital rape was not a crime in any state (p 397).

Yup.  That began to change in the 1970s.  Not the 1870s.  Not the 1770s.  The 1970s.  Until the changes that began in the 1970s

legal system[s] underweighted the interests of women in [non-marital] rapes.  Legal scholars who have studied jury proceedings have discovered that jurors must be disabused of the folk theory that women can be negligently liable for their own rapes (pp. 397-8).

Finally, emotion.

In the realm of emotions husbands and boyfriends often find themselves cruelly unsympathetic to their partners after they have been raped… It’s not uncommon for a marriage to unravel after a rape (p 398).

Wilson & Daly (p 305) are more blunt.

Reactions to rape provide a particularly revealing window on the psychology of male sexual proprietariness (Thornhill & Thornhill, 1989). Men often reject raped women as “damaged goods,” sometimes accusing the victims of having provoked or enjoyed the rape (e.g., Brownmiller, 1975; Burgess & Holmstrom, 1974; Karkaria, 1972; McCahill, Meyer, & Fischman, 1979; Miller, Williams, & Bernstein, 1982; Weis & Borges, 1973). Even where there is no issue of the illicit copulation having been other than coerced, men still seem to perceive the woman as diminished in value: “She was all mine and now she’s been damaged,” says one participant in a therapy group for American men whose partners have been raped; “Something has been taken from me. I feel cheated. She was all mine before and now she’s not,” says another (Rodkin, Hunt, & Cowan, 1982).

Here I want to pause for parents of young males.  Have you a plan for helping your son(s) negotiate the fuktup emotional shite that is male jealousy with respect to female infidelity?  Perhaps “that is wrong” might work.  But I am guessing that many of you do not endorse a “post the 10 Commandments” in our schools as a solution to problems.  Cultures reproduce themselves because they are equilibria over which we as individuals exercise no choice.  They are collectively (re)produced.  And rape culture culture has millenia behind it, and is around us anywhere you care to look for it.

To reduce the ubiquity of rape culture to the poor behavior and attitudes of men like Donald Trump is to misdiagnose the problem.  To be sure, we must call him out.  But the question is: do we demonize him, or do we hold his statements up as a symptom of a larger cultural problem?  Is this a moment to help more people see how deeply embedded are these views in our cultural and legal systems?

Let Pinker summarize for us.

The history of rape, then, is one in which the interests of women had been zeroed out in the implicit negotiations that shaped customs, moral codes, and laws.  And our current sensibilities, in which we recognize rape as a heinous crime against the woman, represents a reweighting of those interests, mandated by a humanist mindset that grounds morality in the suffering and flourishing of sentient individuals rather than in power, tradition or religion (p 398).

One of the intriguing things to me about Trump’s “bragging” to Billy Bush is the fact that he kept mentioning that the object of his unwanted sexual attention was married.  He repeats that point over and over again.  Why?  Well, I don’t know as I am not Trump.  But my first conjecture is because it establishes his dominance: he doesn’t respect the “property rights” of other males.  Indeed, he’ll use his wealth to lure “other men’s women” into an interaction, and then take what he wants from her.


Outro: Some Porn Genres

The foundation of rape culture is the idea that men agree to respect one another’s claims to women’s bodies.  If that implicit bargain is the equilibrium so many of us believe it is, then we should be able to find evidence for it anywhere we care to look for it.  We should see groups of young males declaring their “fitness” by declaring their intent to “have their way” the “other men’s daughters,” and every fall we do.  If you have not watched it, The Hunting Ground documentary is worth your time.

Here is the Wikipedia entry for Captain Aardvark, a character in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.


Is there demand out there for the “tricking dumb girls” into gang rape?  The google search below demonstrates that the Trumpish attitude Joseph Heller called out in 1961 is alive and well today.  And if parents imagine that their adolescent children are unlikely to learn of the genre, whose narrative has been with us forever, I beg to differ.


That search produces less than 1 million pages.  What happens when we get more graphic and search for rape fantasies?  We get close to 4.5 million pages.

rapefantasyFor those who are unaware, credit cards disappeared as a necessary condition to view such material several years ago.  The only thing stopping someone from viewing (and sharing) these sorts of videos is revulsion.  Many humans find such material revolting.  Many of us are curious and wonder what the hell that could be all about.  Most among us are titillated at violating taboos, secretly, when there is limited risk of being seen or caught.  And too many among us find these narratives inherently appealing.

Let me exit by asking you to see the glass as half full.  Judged by the standard of equality our species is a fucking mess.  But judged against our past we are making remarkable, jaw dropping, shocking progress.  The information revolutions induced by the printing press, telegraph, wireless radio, telephones, satellites, cable networks, and the Internet have played a foundational role in making slow, uneven, but persistent progress toward Enlightenment ideals possible.  We have a long way to go, and lots of work to do.  But if we are diligent, remind ourselves not to embrace the simplistic Manichaean narratives that demonize “the bad apples” and ignore the systemic problems, we can continue to change the status quo.


Correction: In my initial posting this sentence was incomplete: “We should see groups of young males declaring their “fitness” by…”

[1] The most alarming part of Trump’s success, for me, is the potential collapse of one of the two major parties.  Given electoral rules the US functions most effectively as a two party system, and the Republican party is not functional at present.  That does not bode well for the prospects of union as the US marches toward the demographic transition that no democracy I know of has faced, much less survived: the ethnic majority losing its electoral majority status.


Wilson, Margo & Martin Daly. 1992. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Chattel. In, J.H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, J. Tooby, Eds. The Adapted Mind. Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. 1992. Oxford University Press.

About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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