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In a bizarre coincidence, just three days before my lecture on rape culture Christina Hoff Sommers happened to weigh in on the topic. I haven’t seen the video yet, which puts me in a great position to lay a little groundwork and make some predictions.

First off, we’ve got to get our definitions straight. “Rape culture” is the cloud of myths about sexual assault that exist within our society, which make it easier to excuse that crime and/or tougher for victims to recover or seek justice. Take Burt’s 1980 paper on the subject:

The burgeoning popular literature on rape (e.g., Brownmiller, 1975; Clark & Lewis, 1977) all points to the importance of stereotypes and myths — denned as prejudicial, stereotyped, or false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists — in creating a climate hostile to rape victims. Examples of rape myths are “only bad girls get raped”; “any healthy woman can resist a rapist if she really wants to”; “women ask for it”; “women ‘cry rape’ only when they’ve been jilted or have something to cover up”; “rapists are sex-starved, insane, or both.” Recently, researchers have begun to document that rape myths appear in the belief systems of lay people and of professionals who interact with rape victims and assailants (e.g., Barber, 1974; Burt, 1978; Feild, 1978; Kalven & Zeisel, 1966). Writers have ana-
lyzed how rape myths have been institutionalized in the law (Berger, 1977) […]

Much feminist writing on rape maintains that we live in a rape culture that supports the objectification of, and violent and sexual abuse of, women through movies, television, advertising, and “girlie” magazines (see, e.g., Brownmiller, 197S). We hypothesized that exposure to such material would increase rape myth acceptance because it would tend to normalize coercive and brutal sexuality.
Burt, Martha R. “Cultural Myths and Supports for Rape.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 38, no. 2 (1980): 217.
http://www.excellenceforchildandyouth.ca/sites/default/files/meas_attach/burt_1980.pdf

You can see how the definition has shifted a little over time; objectification certainly helps dehumanize your victim, but it’s not a strict necessity, and while in all modern societies that I know of women are disproportionately targeted for gender-based violence, there’s still a non-trivial number of male victims out there.

There are two ways to demonstrate “rape culture” is itself a myth. The most obvious route is to challenge the “rape myth” part, and show either that those myths are in line with reality or are not commonly held in society. For instance, either good girls do not get raped, or few people believe that good girls do not get raped. Based on even a small, narrow sample of the literature, this is a tough hill to climb. I did a quick Google Scholar search, and even when I asked specifically for “rape myth acceptance” I had no problem pulling a thousand results, with Google claiming to have another 2,500 or so it wouldn’t show me. There must be a consensus on “rape culture,” based merely on volume, and to pick a side opposing that consensus is to be a science denialist.

The less obvious route to challenge the “help perpetrators/harm victims” portion. Consider the “rubber sheet model” of General Relativity; we know this is wrong, and not just because it depends on gravity to explain gravity, but nonetheless the model is close enough to reality that non-physicists get the gist of things without having to delve into equations. It’s a myth, but the benefits outweigh the harms. Sommers could take a similar approach to sexual assault, not so much arguing that rape myths are a net benefit but instead riding the “correlation is not causation” line and arguing the myths don’t excuse perpetrators or harm victims. This approach has problems too, as correlation can be evidence for causation when there’s a plausible mechanism, and past a point this approach also becomes science denialism. Overall, I think it’s Sommers’ best route.

If she gets that far, of course. The standard approach for those challenging rape culture is to either to avoid defining the term “rape culture” at all, or define it as actively encouraging sexual assault instead of passively doing so, setting up a strawperson from the get-go. Sommers herself is a fan of cherry-picking individual studies or case reports and claiming they’re representative of the whole, and I figure we’ll see a lot of that. There’s also the clever technique of deliberately missing the point or spinning out half-truths: take this video about date rape drugs by her partner-in-crime Caroline Kitchens, for instance. Her conclusion is that date rape drugs are over-hyped, and having looked at the literature myself I agree with her… so long as we exclude alcohol as a “date rape drug.” If you include it, then the picture shifts dramatically.

Numerous sources implicate alcohol use/abuse as either a cause of or contributor to sexual assault. … Across both the literatures on sexual assault and on alcohol’s side effects, several lines of empirical data and theory-based logic suggest that alcohol is a contributing factor to sexual assault.
George, William H., and Susan A. Stoner. “Understanding acute alcohol effects on sexual behavior.” Annual review of sex research 11.1 (2000): 92-124.

General alcohol consumption could be related to sexual assault through multiple path-ways. First, men who often drink heavily also likely do so in social situations that frequently lead to sexual assault (e.g., on a casual or spontaneous date at a party or bar). Second, heavy drinkers may routinely use intoxication as an excuse for engaging in socially unacceptable behavior, including sexual assault (Abbey et al. 1996b). Third, certain personality characteristics (e.g., impulsivity and antisocial behavior) may increase men’s propensity both to drink heavily and to commit sexual assault (Seto and Barbaree 1997).

Certain alcohol expectancies have also been linked to sexual assault. For example, alcohol is commonly viewed as an aphrodisiac that increases sexual desire and capacity (Crowe and George 1989). Many men expect to feel more powerful, disinhibited, and aggressive after drinking alcohol. … Further-more, college men who had perpetrated sexual assault when intoxicated expected alcohol to increase male and female sexuality more than did college men who perpetrated sexual assault when sober (Abbey et al. 1996b). Men with these expectancies may feel more comfortable forcing sex when they are drinking, because they can later justify to themselves that the alcohol made them act accordingly (Kanin 1984).

Attitudes about women’s alcohol consumption also influence a perpetrator’s actions and may be used to excuse sexual assaults of intoxicated women. Despite the liberalization of gender roles during the past few decades, most people do not readily approve of alcohol consumption and sexual behavior among women, yet view these same behaviors among men with far more leniency (Norris 1994). Thus, women who drink alcohol are frequently perceived as being more sexually available and promiscuous compared with women who do not drink (Abbey et al. 1996b). … In fact, date rapists frequently report intentionally getting the woman drunk in order to have sexual intercourse with her (Abbey et al. 1996b).
Abbey, Antonia, et al. “Alcohol and sexual assault.” Alcohol Research and Health 25.1 (2001): 43-51.
http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-1/43-51.htm

I don’t think Sommers will take that approach, preferring to cherry-pick and fiddle with definitions instead, but as a potent tool of denialists it’s worth keeping in mind.

With that preamble out of the way, we can begin….

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