In the last couple of years, there’s been renewed debate about whether rape culture exists, much less what it looks like.
Much of the debate centers around the exact degree of the prevalence of rape. 20% on college campuses? 1 in 60 on college campuses? Believe victims? False rape claims?
For the purposes of this post, that’s not my focus. I’m interested in whether popular culture minimizes the violence and wrongdoing of rape – or even romanticizes it.
Last year Caroline Kitchens wrote an editorial for TIME magazine entitled It’s Time to End ‘Rape Culture’ Hysteria. Written in response to the White House’s taking up the issue of campus rape, Kitchens maintains that rape is not tolerated in America, not even a little bit:
Are you sure about that Ms. Kitchens? How do we measure the effect on young men of Pharrell (whom I adore) bopping and singing a “No means yes” message? Certainly the women in the video being cajoled by Thicke – “You know you want it” – appear intrigued and sexually aroused. Does such content have any effect on the brain of the typical 14 year old guy?
The most offensive volley by the rape culture folks, according to Kitchens, is the requirement many schools have instituted that freshman attend workshops on sexual violence and consent. College student George Lawlor became a poster boy for this point of view when he held up a sign after being summoned to a workshop
No doubt Lawlor is not and never will be a rapist – studies show that only a small percentage of men are active sexual predators. But looks have nothing to do with it. What we don’t know is what messages reside in Lawlor’s (or anyone else’s) brain. And what effect those messages may have in influencing behavior, especially in different contexts, like intoxication or wanting to appear cool in front of male peers.
Let’s look at some real examples of popular ads that glamorize, romanticize or laugh about rape. This first ad providing a strategy for date rape was in the Bloomingdale’s holiday catalog just last month
Notice how she’s enjoying herself with someone off camera while her “nice guy” best “friend” contemplates the Bill Cosby strategy.
And Calvin Klein has been using images of bang gangs for years to sell jeans.
Ads glamorizing sexual harassment are even more common. Here’s one advertising a cool new translation gadget:
It has been suggested that this ad was inspired by Pickup Artist Julien Blanc’s instructions to white men that they should feel free to grab and grope women in Japan.
While we cannot measure precisely what effect these kinds of ads have on young men as they come of age, it is undeniable that they are frequently being exposed to images and storylines that encourage harassing strangers, preying on female friends, and using alcohol to render women unable to refuse sex. It seems reasonable to assume that over a period of years, absorbing ads that make light of sexual assault would warp a young man’s sense of what’s normal or OK.
Ads such as these do the following:
Use misogynistic language.
Objectify women’s bodies.
Glamorize sexual violence.
That’s 3 for 3 – I believe we have met the criteria of rape culture. It is absurd to claim that all men are rapists. But it is also demonstrably true that all men are being fed images on a regular basis that define masculinity in toxic ways. Touching strangers on the street, giving them date rape drugs or alcohol, or outright accosting them while smirking are all promoted in this small sample of ads by men who will certainly appear successful to young and impressionable male minds.
Pop culture feeds rape culture. How can we stop it? Keep in mind, these ad campaigns have gone through a whole Mad Men-style process. They’ve been pitched, developed and approved by senior management at each of these companies.
So far, women and men on social media have been extremely effective in spreading the word. Several of these companies have been forced to apologize, but naturally young men don’t get that second message. So when you see something, say something. Tweet it out.
For my part, I have no problem boycotting all of these products – even though Bloomingdale’s is my favorite local department store. This is just not OK.
We have the power to influence companies to stop poisoning the media with this promotion of rape culture as marketing strategy. Let’s do it for the young men.