Photo by Oscar Keys

Photo by Oscar Keys

Recently, one woman’s horror and heroism has brought a much needed change in the conversation about rape in our society. Brock Turner’s rape of a woman at Stanford University, and his unacceptable six-month sentence, reveals not just a horrendous, all too common sexual assault, but a broken system that continues to protect male abusers, blame victims and condone violence against women. This case is so significant because the survivor’s brave and heart-wrenching account starkly brings to light the problem of rape culture (and white male privilege).

Rape culture is a term that was coined by feminists in the United States in the 1970’s, but rape culture exists in every country in the world. It refers to the normalisation or trivialisation of sexual violence against women in society.

Rape culture manifests in a seemingly endless number of ways . Rape culture is rape being used as a weapon of war. Rape culture is the way that the threat of sexual violence affects women’s daily movements. Rape culture is the narrative that sex workers can’t be raped. That conviction rates for rape are far lower than for other crimes. It is the fact that survivors of rape are continuously asked, “What were you wearing? What did you say? How much did you drink?” Instead of asking: “Why did he rape?” And rape culture is the sad reality that in 127 countries rape within marriage is still not considered a crime.

A few years ago I was involved in leading one of the largest studies in the world on men’s perpetration of violence against women including sexual assault - the United Nations Multi-country Study on Men and Violence. The study found that 1 in 4 of the 10,000 men interviewed across nine sites in Asia and the Pacific reported that they had raped at least one woman or girl in their lifetime. There was of course, great diversity in rates of violence across and even within different countries, but the study showed that men’s perpetration of rape was much more common than we could ever have imagined.

One of the most powerful findings was what motivated men themselves to perpetrate such violence. We asked men who admitted to having raped why they did it, what their primary motivation was. And consistently across the diverse sites, the most common motivation reported by men themselves was related to sexual entitlement. That is, the belief that they had the right to sex regardless of consent. The study also clearly re-affirmed that women were most at risk of being raped by their husbands or boyfriends. This is rape culture.

The viral response to the Brock Turner case, including Joe Biden’s letter and the ‘She is Someone’ PSA announcement from the cast of Girls have been moving and important in igniting a conversation worldwide. However, they primarily call for individuals to intervene, stand up and take action. While this is part of the solution, ultimately violence against women and rape culture, is about culture. It is systemic. Structural. Imbedded so deeply into our societies that often we don’t even notice it. This type of epidemic cannot be transformed by individuals alone. The evidence shows that we need long-term, holistic and comprehensive approaches that address the root causes of this violence: gender inequality, the objectification of women, and models of manhood that promote dominance over women and sexual entitlement.

So in addition to individual actions, we need:

  • Whole of school approaches that work with children from a young age to teach active consent and promote respectful relationships (for example Respectful Relationships Education in Victoria).
  • Multi-level community programmes that engage men in confronting harmful aspects of masculinity and as partners in addressing violence against women (for example One Man Can in South Africa).
  • Regulatory policies to stop the sexual objectification of women in advertising and the media.
  • Legal reforms to improve access to justice for survivors of violence in a way that does not re-victimise them and holds perpetrators to account.
  • Structural support for gender equality, for example supporting women’s social, economic, cultural and political participation, particularly in decision-making.

It is time to move beyond outrage and take real action. Governments need to address the political, social, and economic structures that subordinate women, and implement national plans and make budget commitments to invest in actions by multiple sectors to prevent and respond to abuse. Only then do we have a chance of ending violence against women and creating cultures of equality and respect.


Director of the Equality Institute, Dr Emma Fulu, has a regular blog on The Huffington Post where this article first appeared.