Sexual Violence: An American Problem

The Steubenville rape case along with the horrific gang rape in India has brought sexual violence to the media’s attention. Of course, we had GOP politicians who felt compelled by some ungodly force to speak about rape victims in demeaning and bizarre ways during the previous election. I know that my posts over the last six months have centered on the terribly depressing topic of sexual violence but I find that I am up to my ears in sexual violence as a soon-to-be-psychologist working in a public mental health setting. Last week I led a group with some women who had recently experienced sexual violence and they asked me a simple question: “Jeremy, you’re a guy. Do you know why guys think it’s OK to rape women?” This is a very difficult question and one that I had trouble answering. I responded with some vague statements about the ways in which our culture makes men feel entitled to have sex with women.

The Steubenville rape case has brought to light the ways in which an entire town banded together to protect a group of rapists who sexually tortured an adolescent girl who happened to be inebriated. The video exposed by Anonymous shows some teenage guys joking about sodomy, urination and the fact that this girl who has been sexually tortured might be dead. Apparently, it’s really hilarious to rape a girl who is unconscious. The beginning of the video includes a white teenage boy who makes jokes about dead people and rape for five minutes. The guy said, “they raped her more than the Duke lacrosse team! She is SO raped right now. She is deader than Trayvon Martin.” The second half of the video includes this guy arguing with another guy (off-camera) about the ethics of raping an unconscious, inebriated teenage girl. Anyone who is aware of the case knows that the boys also dragged the girl to various parties to rape, torture and humiliate her. Somehow, only two teenagers have been charged and the kid making all of the sadistic jokes in the video has not been charged with any crime.

So, in light of this case, let’s stop the examine the question I was asked: Do you know why guys think it’s OK to rape women?” Well, we have a couple of possibilities to consider. Based on this case in Ohio, the first response was to essentially hide the evidence to protect these student-athletes (and rapists). As Judith Herman has pointed out in her book Trauma and Recovery, one of the most natural responses to trauma is to avoid speaking about it. Roland Summit has also written about The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation System. He argues that we have a society that does its best to make sexually abused children keep their mouth shut so we can avoid all addressing the horrors of sexual violence. Adults tend to react with disbelief and suspicion when confronted with the child’s traumatic story. It’s clear that we also have a Rape Accommodation System in this country. Let’s not bother getting too involved. The underlying message from the town’s action is that boys will be boys. The media has also portrayed the town as “divided” over this issue and how they wanted to avoid the national spotlight. That is certainly understandable because no town wants to be associated with gang rape. However, this suggests that the media would likely attempt to portray Steubenville as some incredibly terrible city to localize the problem of sexual violence. A third common response is to avoid the question altogether and blame the woman. The reactionary might say “well, she was drunk so she did make herself pretty vulnerable.” This is a bizarre statement. I have never known any man who has gotten drunk and feared that he might be raped while under the influence because alcohol abuse does not warrant sexual violence. In fact, nothing warrants sexual violence because rape is bad. That should go without saying. I assume the most common response to these sorts of events is to pretend as if these teenage boys are exceptionally disturbed, conduct-disordered and sadistic. Undoubtedly, they will be subjected to superficial psychological analysis so we can avoid asking why they would find sexual violence acceptable. In many ways, this response parallels the ways in which gun-apologists are running to hide behind mental health to scapegoat the severely mentally ill for the gun violence problem in America. In other words, we get to avoid larger systemic questions by individualizing the problem.

Here’s what I think. I think we have a male-driven culture that encourages rape and sexual violence. Given the extraordinary rates of women who experience sexual violence (~30%), I think it’s safe to say that we have a lot of men walking around who commit heinous acts of sexual abuse. Are all these men budding psychopaths with personality disorders? I doubt it. I suspect that the astonishing behavior of these men is indicative of a culture that normalizes sexual violence. I had lunch with some colleagues a couple of months ago after the election and I said, “I really think the GOP shot itself in the foot when it kept speaking about rape. I know Americans can be dumb and evil, but most are united around the simple idea that rape is bad.” The very fact that we have individuals running for higher office who are equivocating on the vileness of sexual violence betrays a deep pathology and hatred of women that is endemic to our society.

What I also find is disgusting is how quick the media is to pathologize all of Indian culture after that horrible gang-rape while failing to raise fundamental questions about misogyny, childhood abuse, domestic violence and sexual violence that continues to terrorize women in this country. I think it’s about time we sat down and had a conversation about sexual violence and domestic violence in this country because clearly we have a serious problem whenever teenagers are casually sodomizing, raping and urinating on a fellow classmate on camera while laughing callously about it. That seems like a cultural problem to me.

5 thoughts on “Sexual Violence: An American Problem

  1. Three more thoughts.

    1) It’s events like these that empirically validate the existence of the death drive.
    2) I failed to mention Congress’ decision not to reauthorize Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Not cool.
    3) I’m not trying to discount the validity of personality factors because certainly they come into play. I’m merely skeptical that these sorts of events can be simply explained by the notion that these kids are all “bad seeds”. That’s too simplistic.

  2. The argument for other forms of violence (e.g. gun violence) is essentially the same. After every mass shooting, the government and media are quick to accuse and then prove that the shooting was a result of ‘mentally unstable’ individuals.

  3. I agree most definitely that we live in a culture that “legitimizes” sexual violence. I think a lot of women’s studies material has more than demonstrated this.

    I wonder to what degree race has entered into some of the experiences of the women you’ve spoken with, since race certainly intersects with gender here. Not sure if you’ve ever read Hazel Carby’s 1985 article (, but it certainly got me thinking the first time I read it. And I’d say it’s still relevant. Touches on sexual violence as a patriarchal tool, linking it to the imperial impulse.

  4. Yes, the answer is “a male-driven culture that encourages rape and sexual violence.” Rather than be scholarly and intellectual, let me speak from the streets. As an undergraduate and later as a graduate student, I was in many settings where sexual violence takes place. I even forcibly prevented it in a few cases. What I remember the most about these cases is standing next to a pack of guys at a party (it’s almost always parties or bars where drinking is involved), and hearing them luridly describe all the dehumanizing acts they would perform. Multiply that by dozens of times in my years, and I do not falter in saying that we live in a “rape culture.” Why, I even cringe when I hear gamers use the common expression “to rape someone,” meaning to have won a lop-sided victory over someone in a video game. Even the word is wholly desensitized. That is why I find the proliferation of the “new masculinity” groups and talks at Women’s Centers to be a good idea; it only takes one upstanding male to overhear what “the guys” are planning to do. Yes, it should disturb anyone to hear how public these kinds of events are, in fact. It’s often not an individual phenomenon, but among young males is bragged about in advance.

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