Chances are, you know someone (or are yourself someone) who has been raped. Rape culture surrounds us all the time. Sometimes it seems like every time you turn around there is another news story featuring a celebrity accused of rape or a fraternity on a college campus making a sport out of raping freshman girls. Yet, less than one-third of all rapes are ever reported to the police. Rape is thought to affect one out of every six women in her lifetime, though the statistics we are able to collect will likely never be truly accurate because of rape culture itself, which discourages victims from ever reporting crimes committed against them.
Kate Harding’s Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture – and What We Can Do About It does for rape culture what Katha Pollitt’s PRO: Reclaiming Abortion Rights did for abortion.
In Asking For It, Harding systematically outlines and then debunks key cultural myths surrounding rape in our culture. She explores why it is so often the victims who are put on trial rather than the perpetrators, and why it is easier to view women as lying, vengeful sluts than to believe almost any man is capable of rape.
“Because we have this myth that consent is this incredibly complicated issue,” Harding explained in an interview, “that there is no way for someone to know whether their partner is enthusiastic or not – which is just obviously false – then men that would never rape anyone think, ‘Oh God, I am so afraid I could have consensual sex with a woman that could turn around and accuse me of rape the next day.’” She continued, “Then they have a vested interest in giving cover to these actual rapists by constantly calling victims’ testimony into doubt and putting all the responsibility back on women.”
In the book, Harding explores the fact that while we know most instances of rape are acquaintance rape (including date rape and marital rape), our cultural myth of rape is by far that of a (white) woman being viciously attacked by a man (of color), leaving the woman covered in obvious bruises and injuries proving how hard she fought back. Anything less and people (including police officers and jurors) immediately start to ask what she was wearing, how drunk/high she was, and whether she might have actually been, well, asking for it.
“These myths that prop up rape culture exist for a reason,” Harding asserted. “And one reason is that the idea of victim blaming. When you don’t put in those terms, when you think of it terms of ‘here’s what a woman can do to not put herself in a position to be raped,’ that gives you a false sense of empowerment and a false sense of control over the problem on the women’s side.”
Underlying rape culture is the virgin/whore myth and a lot of slut-shaming. The idea that if a woman openly admits to enjoying sex and even seeking it out, what’s one more penis inside her vagina? Additionally, the fear of miscommunication about sexual consent stems from the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” mythology, which can lead heterosexual couples to believe that communication with “the opposite sex” is complicated and terrifying, if not downright impossible.
Harding continued, “I always want to emphasize that men are also the victims of rape sometimes, and that, in fact, women can be perpetrators (although that’s quite rare). But typically when we’re talking about rape culture and the messages we get, it’s very much about men and women and gender – rigid, traditional gender roles.”
Harding argued that for women, myths about rape culture encourage “this faux empowerment feeling: ‘If I just don’t get drunk and don’t go there and don’t leave with a guy, etc. etc. If I just restrict my own movements and behavior I won’t get raped.’ On the other side of it you have men having an overblown fear of being accused of rape. Admittedly that is a terrifying thing. Occasionally it does happen. The fear of it promotes these myths that any woman could be lying at any time for any reason. That a woman will just casually accuse a man of rape because she wants revenge, because she’s mad he didn’t call, because she wants some money – that kind of thing. It’s not only untrue, it is incredibly offensive to see women as that underhanded and callous about how they would take other people’s lives in their hands.”
As a culture, we don’t want to believe that otherwise “nice guys” are capable of something as horrifying as rape. But by creating a culture where a woman is put in the position of fearing negative repercussions against herself for reporting a crime, we are actually callously disregarding rape while at the same time pretending to find it morally repugnant. This is the catch-22 of rape culture. By holding up one particular type of rape as “legitimate rape” or “rape rape,” our culture can ignore the multitude of ways in which the patriarchy encourages a culture of violence against the autonomy of the female body and female sexuality.
Harding was motivated to write this book as the result of her own rape at the age of 17, shortly after she started college. “There wasn’t really anything recent in book form as a single author perspective trying to look at rape culture as a whole – at least as it applies in the US and a little bit more broadly to Western culture.” Speaking to those who would read her book, Harding said, “I would hope that they can start to see why rape culture is actually an accurate term and not just a ridiculous thing feminists made up, and how all of these systems work together to create this protection for rapists and this just consistent failure for victims.”
Engaging and thought-provoking, Harding’s book isn’t bleak despite it’s focus. Harding is sassy in her dismantling of rape culture and ends on a positive note, exploring her hopes for the future and the ways rape culture might be dismantled. Harding believes one important way to fight back against rape culture is education: sexual assault education that begins in junior high but which is on-going and repeated throughout adolescence and into college, the incorporation of consent education into sexual education curriculum, and perhaps most importantly, the adoption of affirmative consent as our cultural model.
“It’s the 21st century,” Harding said. “Women do have sex and should be able to have sex free of judgement consentually. If that’s true, if we take away that women have to feel dirty and slutty for having sex consentually, then there’s no motivation for them to then turn around and say, ‘I’m embarrassed to have had sex with this guy so I’m going to say you raped me.’ You have to be able to say yes to say no. If we can talk about sex realistically, you can easily tell the difference between an enthusiastic partner and one who is unsure or unwilling. It makes sense that the standard should be affirmative consent and not ‘She didn’t seem to be fighting me off.’”
Harding continued, “I have seen sportswriters writing things, saying, “We can’t just do what we always do here. We can’t just say shes a lying gold-digger slut. We have to consider the possibility that our heroes sometimes do terrible things. That even just because someone is an amazing hockey player or football player or basketball player doesnt mean he is actually a heroic person in real life….Male sportswriters saying, ‘We have to let go of our heroes if there’s a possibility they did it,’ I think that is an amazing step forward.”
Harding will be doing a reading and signing of Asking For It at BookWoman in Austin on Monday, September 14 at 7pm. “I’m really excited to be speaking at Bookwoman,” Harding said. “I immediately said to my publicist, ‘I want to go to the feminist bookstores that are left in the US.’ I think that is really exciting. I am thrilled this is getting mainstream attention beyond the feminist bookstores and feminsit writers and readers.”
Harding continued, “I am doing something that builds on the work of a lot of people who have been writing about these subjects for at least the last 40 years. There have been a lot of people keeping the flame alive and thinking writing and teaching about these things before I ever came of age and before I ever started reading about it. It’s exciting to get to be a part of that continum of thinking and writing about these issues.”