Some Simple Ideas to Change Rape Culture

I need to say this right off the bat, otherwise I think the rest of what I have to say will be misinterpreted. Telling someone to take responsibility for a problem does not imply that they are to blame for that problem. Look at the revelations about the use of slave labor in Thailand’s shrimping industry. The U.S. state department’s annual human trafficking report chronicled many forms of human rights abuses within that industry, including how “men from Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand are forced to work on Thai fishing boats” are  “forced to work 18 to 20 hours a day.” The non-compliant face beatings. The report suggested that between 17 and 57 percent of fishermen were treated this way. In a $7 billion industry that employs 650,000 people, those numbers are staggering.

It would take some seriously convoluted logic to imply that average shrimp-eating Americans are to blame for slave labor in Southeast Asia. But, aware of these facts, any American that continues to eat shrimp imported from Thailand has become complicit in the slave trade. To say to people, “Stop eating shrimp imported from Thailand until they eradicate slavery!” is not to blame the consumer for the situation. Rather, it is a reminder that they have the power to promote change. It is also the right thing to do. Rather than saying, “It’s not my fault!” we should embrace that responsibility.

Now hold that thought.

We have believed for years that alcohol disinhibits. That is to say, when we have had too much to drink, we are more likely give in to impulses we would easily resist while sober. As Malcolm Gladwell put it, “Alcohol disinhibits, we assume, as reliably as caffeine enlivens. It gradually unlocks the set of psychological constraints that keep our behavior in check, and makes us do things we would not ordinarily do.” We also tend to believe that drinking alcohol causes self-inflation and reduces anxiety. But all of these tend to be inaccurate. While drunk, we may be disinhibited in one context but inhibited in another. We may see some parts of ourselves through rose-tinted glasses, but only if we largely thought that of ourselves to begin with. And as far as reducing anxiety goes, Gladwell says it well: “Put a stressed-out drinker in front of an exciting football game and he’ll forget his troubles. But put him in a quiet bar somewhere, all by himself, and he’ll grow more anxious.”

Some psychologists have begun to think that alcohol is not a disinhibitor. Rather, they argue that its “principle effect is to narrow our emotional and mental field of vision.” Claude Steele and Robert Joseph said that alcohol causes “a state of shortsightedness in which superficially understood, immediate aspects of experience have a disproportionate influence on behavior and emotion.” Gladwell summarizes,

Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the thing in the background disappear. That’s why drinking makes you think you are attractive when the world thinks otherwise: the alcohol removes the little constraining voice from the outside world that normally keeps our self-assessments in check. Drinking relaxes the man watching football because the game is front and center, and alcohol makes every secondary consideration fade away. But in a quiet bar his problems are front and center—and every potentially comforting or mitigating thought recedes. Drunkenness is not disinhibition. Drunkenness is myopia.

When we start drinking, we get more sensitive to our environment. This is true both in the sense of what is immediately in front of us – music or television, say, or other people – but also in the sense of what our preconceptions of our environment entail. Someone drunk at a football game might be loud, rowdy, and argumentative; that same person at a funeral might be just as calm and quiet as everyone else, but might also be crying a little bit harder.

Now think of some of rape culture’s hotspot environments: bars, clubs, and frat houses. These places are problematic because they draw a lot of people together under competing assumptions and circumstances. Plenty of people who go to these places often just want to have a fun time with friends, food, a few drinks, and maybe some dancing. But countless films, television shows, rap videos, and anecdotes lead people to believe that these places are an easy place to get unrestricted access to sexual partners. On the one hand, people looking for exactly that are drawn to those locations; on the other, people who didn’t necessarily have that in mind start acting that way once there. “Persons learn about drunkenness what their societies import to them, and comporting themselves in consonance with these understandings, they become living confirmations of their society’s teachings,” say the anthropologists Craig MacAndrew and Robert Edgerton. “Since societies, like individuals, get the sorts of drunken comportment that they allow, they deserve what they get.” MacAndrew and Edgerton might as well have been talking about rape culture.

Some may see this as an insurmountable obstacle. I see simple opportunities to influence enormous change. If we – all people who are concerned with rape culture and the indifference society shows towards it – stopped going to these places until they made changes, we could have a profound impact on rape culture at large. Women in particular should pick up this baton – not because they are the primary victims (though they are), but rather because they hold an enormous amount of power. If women stopped going to clubs, clubs would go out of business. If women stopped going to frat parties, the appeal of fraternities would greatly diminish. Just like the American shrimp consumer, it’s not as though women are to blame for the state of things. But they do have the power to help change that state.

One might ask, “How? What could we demand?” I have a few simple ideas. Some of them might be bad ideas, some might be good. I don’t know. The psychologist Tara MacDonald conducted a study that took three groups of people: sober people, drunk people, and drunk people with the words “AIDS Kills” stamped on their hands, and made them imagine this scenario. You meet an attractive person at a bar, walk him or her home, and you end up in bed. Then you discover neither of you have a condom. Then they were asked how likely they were to still have sex. The sober people were somewhat unlikely to have sex. The drunk people were likely to have sex. The drunk people with the hand stamp were the least likely of the group to risk sex in that situation. So what if, instead of using a Sharpie to mark an X on entrants, clubs used stamps that said “Rape is wrong,” or “It is not okay to grope” or something more pithy than what I can come up with? Could that help reduce sexual violence?

Or how about implementing a system that scans and stores ID information at the door. To gain entry to a bar, you have to swipe your driver’s license. Then there is a record of who was present, which could help make identifying and arresting predators much easier. (Additionally, it takes any guesswork out of identifying fake IDs.) Or what about a demand for well-lit parking lots, or free valets for women, or a free-ride service for those too drunk to drive home?

Again, I don’t know if any of these ideas have any particular merit. Some of them would be simple and cheap to implement. Some would require a bigger investment. (None really seem to apply to frat parties.) But to give these places a free pass – to continue to let them make money off of a passive endorsement of rape culture – is to endorse rape culture ourselves. It’s the social equivalent of continuing to buy shrimp from Thailand. Demanding change is simply the right thing to do.



3 thoughts on “Some Simple Ideas to Change Rape Culture

  1. While I agree with what you’re saying, I think a simple “stay away” message sounds easy, but would be unlikely to be effective. People staying away from the rape hotspots is not nearly as simple a decision as not eating shrimp from Thailand (although I do realize that you weren’t saying these two situations are exactly the same).

    Staying away from rape hotspots involves a cultural entertainment change and a mentality change. People would need to be enormously committed to ending rape culture in order to give up these primary entertainment venues. But the very young women who are flocking to them have the mentality that “it won’t happen to me” but my social life will be dead if I don’t go.

    Practically speaking, I think it would be easier in the short term to pass the responsibility to businesses to implement some of the other suggestions you made.

    • Those are all valid points. I don’t know how to combat the feeling of invincibility. Another valid concern is that making certain venues “safer” could also give mystique to the venues that don’t follow suit.
      I think you’re right that the responsibility ought to be passed to the businesses — both clubs and shrimp importers. But the only way I know to do so is to force them to respond to financial incentives.
      I suppose someone could make a pitch that being proactive in these areas could give them meaningful publicity.

      • Invincibility only fades with age, but it can be mitigated with a well-designed education campaign.

        When it comes to the financial incentives for businesses to change, there’s always the carrot or the stick. In this situation, the carrot would be much harder to accomplish, as it would involve educating businesses on financial incentives to make safety changes.

        I think this is one area in which the stick of government regulation might produce better results, or at least more widespread results. But, of course, that would require the work to get government involved and the uncertainty of how the government involvement would actually turn out.

        Because of the deep personal stigma attached to rape (as well as the shaming for the irresponsible behavior that “caused” it) and the relative invisibility of the damages, it will be hard to get people outraged enough about rape culture to become committed to making the social changes necessary.

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