A Note About Rape Culture

Bill Cosby performing in Melbourne, Fla., on Friday, 21 November 2014. (Gerardo Mora/Getty Images)

Marc Lamont Hill offers a useful primer on the idea of rape culture:

Over the past few weeks, new attention has been paid to longstanding allegations that Bill Cosby sexually assaulted multiple women over the course of his career. As new information and accusers are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.

By “rape culture,” I refer to the ways that our society and its institutions normalize, promote, excuse, and enable sexual violence against men and women. While I cannot definitively say that Cosby is guilty of the crimes of which he is accused, the conversation about him epitomizes some of the most pernicious aspects of rape culture.

There are reasons assertions of rape culture are controversial, and it is important to recognize the two primary drivers of objections to the concept of rape culture are pride and, well, it would sound weird to say “capitalism”, and that isn’t quite right, but it has to do with opportunity and reward.

In the first place, rape culture isn’t something to be proud of; our contributions to such outcomes are often conditioned behavior, and in the end, even if we carry conscious misogyny, it is not like we would admit we have wrong ideas. Nobody enjoys self-indictment.

The second is the idea of a marketplace hungry for comfort. And this downright sounds silly until one pauses to consider the idea of men’s rights advocacy, and the basic controversy about what that phrase actually means. Paul Constant of The Stranger reminded earlier this year that there are fewer of these types than we tend to imagine, but “those few activists are exactly as terrible as you think”.

He referred to an event in Michigan earlier this year, the first “International Conference on Men’s Issues”, and for those hoping that such a gathering might produce something more than the usual misogyny we hear from this manner of asserting men’s rights, well, more fool you. Or, perhaps, in the context of a marketplace hungry for comfort:

The crowd broke out in laughter when one speaker suggested most alleged rapes on college campuses are fabricated.

“The vast majority of female students allegedly raped on campus are actually voicing buyer’s remorse from alcohol-fueled promiscuous behavior involving murky lines of consent on both sides,” said Barbara Kay, a columnist for Canada’s National Post. “It’s true. It’s their get-out-of-guilt-free card, you know like Monopoly.”

† † †

Janet Bloomfield, an anti-feminist blogger and spokeswoman for the conference, has suggested in the past that the age of consent be reduced to 13 because of a “mistake of age” can get unwitting men in trouble.

“The point being that it can be incredibly difficult to know, just by looking at someone, how old they are,” Bloomfield wrote, calling some teenage girls “fame whores.” Bloomfield also called protesters of the event, “Wayne State cunts.”

In a marketplace society, you can always find someone willing to sell what other people want. One of the foremost purveyors of what this market wants to hear is Wendy McElroy who wrote earlier this year:

April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, and it will be used to promote a big lie — namely, that we live in a “rape culture.”

Such an approach is not helpful, especially when it relies entirely on fallacy:

The idea that America is a rape culture is a particularly vicious big lie, because it brands all men as rapists or rape facilitators. This lie has been successful despite reality.

And there you have it. To the one, no national culture is monolithic; to the other, the only person asserting that “America is a rape culture” would be Ms. McElroy, in the course of building a windmill to tilt.

It is fascinating, in its own right, how we must necessarily, finally descend into this kind of pedantic discussion of cultural identifiers in order to appease conservative arguments that lack the basic sense to distinguish between disparate conditions. The discussion answering McElroy’s sleight is complicated only for its necessary details; there is a difference between cultures of human condition, the basic differences between ethnic, religious, sexual, and other heritages that have considerable influence over how a person is educated, presented, and perceived. At this level, a pocket of Russian culture in a small city would have to be discussed in other terms under McElroy, as “the idea that America is a Russian culture” is incorrect.

To the other, “the idea that America is a Christian culture” is controversial, but still oft-asserted.

What of the idea that “America is a patriarchal culture”? Not entirely, but the difference here is important; does the fact that Americans are not monolithically anything mean that these cultural expressions do not exist within American culture?

Is there a rap culture? A heavy metal culture? These obviously aren’t the same as cultures of the human condition, but they are also different from cultures of circumstance such as “Hollywood culture” or “music [industry] culture”. These latter do provide a useful consideration, however, and that is the idea of cultural expressions derived from circumstance; despite everything else, “Hollywood” and “music” cultures, in this context, look and behave as they do as a result of the circumstances in which they developed. “Wall Street culture”? Again, the cultural expressions arise out of circumstance; there are reasons why people were happy enough to get caught on tape laughing about swindling the elderly, or a bank didn’t notice one of its investment agents running rogue until the losses were in the billions of dollars. And where the politics often divert at this point to discuss questions of justification and what people deserve, the fact remains that there are institutional ideologies in play guiding these outcomes; it might behoove us, as a society, to account for these ideologies.

Yet America is not “Wall Street”, either.

In reading Dr. Hill’s consideration of rape culture, bear in mind that the foremost refutation of rape culture depends on representing the nation and its culture monolithically—i.e., requires and fundamentally is a fallacy at its heart.

Hill considers patriarchy, denial, victim-blame, mythopoeia, trivialization, and victim transferrence, none of which are, in their living effects, unfamiliar to anyone who has survived sexual violence or who stands with those survivors.

Meanwhile, history points away from the McElroy lie. As Hill notes in considering trivialization:

In all likelihood Cosby saw no connection between this standup routine, which was wildly popular among fans and critics, and rape culture. Unfortunately, that is precisely the point. Jokes about Spanish fly, pro-rape college chants and nearly universal axioms about “not dropping the soap” in prison are all part of a perverted cultural logic that minimizes the immorality, illegality, and trauma of rape.

And here we might find an occasion for “mansplanation”: As a male of Generation X, recalling my youth, the assertion that these aspects of our masculine culture are mysterious, occult, or otherwise unknown, would be extraordinary.

And nearly every man my age knows that is true.

Neither do those behaviors define America monolithically; nor did anyone ever assert that they do.

Remember that, when someone offers you the McElroy lie: No culture is monolithic, and nobody save Ms. McElroy asserts that rape culture is the whole of American culture.

Meanwhile, what do we actually witness going on in our society?

Bill Cosby is not going to spend a day in prison over these allegations and issues. And history certainly suggests persuasively that there is some kernel of truth at the heart of the accusations; he has settled out of court before. So it might well be that the greatest measure of justice society achieves from this is whatever progress it might harvest from the general tragedy. And it may well be that, in terms of victim transferrence, what we must guard against is our degrees of sympathy and empathy. That is to say, Mr. Cosby has accomplished a tremendous amount over the course of his life’s work, and in this chapter he now sees everything he built crashing to the ground. And, perhaps we might suggest that some younger superstar, falling from his pedestal, might well spend the rest of his life in youth-like rage over what he has lost. But we already know that Bill Cosby is a very smart, very perceptive man. And in every way he is up against the wall, he is smart enough to know it, and perceptive enough to see every brick shake loose and tumble to the ground. Yes, this hurts.

And it’s true, people tend to feel some sort of kindness toward that kind of anguish. But it is also true that watching Bill Cosby watch his own empire falling to dust and scorn may well be the only measure of justice society at large gets. He will not serve prison time; he will not be sued into bankruptcy. But everything he has accomplished will exist without him, now, as his very name will bring to it a shadow of infamy. That is to say, black actors will still get lead roles in television dramas, at least insofar as they once in a while do in the contemporary marketplace. Society isn’t calling off all that progress. But where once Bill Cosby’s legacy was the magnitude of his work in advancing civil rights, family dynamics, educational principles, and community ethics, now he’s just that creepy comedian who drugs and rapes women. And that may be all society gets out of this.

Which only reminds that there is no context for this in which it is not a tragedy.


Hill, Marc Lamont. “Cosby controversy: 6 signs of rape culture”. CNN. 21 November 2014.

Constant, Paul. “There Are Fewer Men’s Rights Activists Than You Fear, but Those Few Activists Are Exactly as Terrible as You Think”. Slog. 2 July 2014.

Neavling, Steve. “8 ugly observations about conference on men’s rights in metro Detroit”. Motor City Muckraker. 29 June 2014.

McElroy, Wendy. “The Big Lie of a ‘Rape Culture'”. The Future of Freedom Foundation. 7 April 2014.

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