Rape culture: menace or myth?

Sunday 18 October, 10.00 until 11.30, Frobisher Auditorium 1, Barbican Feminism and Its Discontents

Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism Project defines ‘rape culture’ as ‘a culture in which rape and sexual assault are common… in which dominant social norms belittle, dismiss, joke about or even seem to condone rape and sexual assault’. Those who believe our culture fits that description point to figures suggesting 85,000 women are raped and 400,000 sexually assaulted in the UK every year, while only a tiny proportion of rapists are ever punished. Moreover, it is said that our overly sexualised popular culture adds to the acceptance of rape by ‘normalising’ sexually aggressive behaviour. Across the country, students unions have thus banned Robin Thicke’s pop song ‘Blurred Lines’, widely denounced as a ‘rape anthem’ on the basis that it includes the lyrics ‘you know you want it’. Meanwhile, a National Union of Students’ ‘Lads Culture Summit’ has targeted ‘banter’ and ‘misogynist jokes’ and social activities such as ‘Rappers and Slappers’ club nights that allegedly promote rape culture.

Nevertheless, the idea has not been universally accepted. Not only are the statistics disputed, but some worry that focusing on everyday sexist culture as ‘rapey’ trivialises actual sexual assault. Other critics point to the lack of evidence connecting the prevalence of rape with sexism in wider society. In his new book, Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth, Luke Gittos argues that belief in a ‘rape culture’ has led to an expansion of the law around rape and a drive to prosecute more and more people, with damaging implications for legal rights. In part, this expansion is based on social psychological research into ‘rape myth acceptance’ that purports to demonstrate that the public do not understand rape, or what is required to obtain legally satisfactory consent. Crime surveys routinely suggest that women have experienced rape even when they do not see themselves as rape victims, suggesting they have internalised rape as a normal part of their sex lives. So is society in denial about rape, or have the experts adopted an understanding of it that is hopelessly at odds with common sense?

Do we live in a rape culture? Does sexism in wider society mean that rape has become normalised today, or has the threat and prevalence of rape been overblown? Is it helpful to describe society as a ‘rape culture’ or does the idea make us unduly wary about the perils we face in our intimate lives?

Watch the debate

Ian Dunt
editor, Politics.co.uk; political editor, Erotic Review

Susan Edwards
dean of law, University of Buckingham

Christina Hoff Sommers
writer and resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute; host, weekly video series, The Factual Feminist

Kaitlynn Mendes
lecturer in media and communication, University of Leicester; author, SlutWalk: feminism, activism and media

Phil Rumney
professor of criminal justice, Bristol Law School, UWE; co-author, Understanding and Responding to Sexual Violence: a multi-disciplinary approach (forthcoming)

Luke Gittos
criminal lawyer; director of City of London Appeals Clinic; legal editor at spiked; author, Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth: From Steubenville to Ched Evans

Produced by
Luke Gittos criminal lawyer; director of City of London Appeals Clinic; legal editor at spiked; author, Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth: From Steubenville to Ched Evans
Recommended readings
‘Rape by deception’ should not be a crime

We are blurring the line between sex and rape.

Luke Gittos, spiked, 17 September 2015

Rape culture and the crisis of intimacy

A new book warns of the threats posed by the obsession with rape.

Ann Furedi, spiked, 28 August 2015

How the 'SlutWalk' Has Transformed the Rape Culture Conversation

It started with two college students who were sick of people victim-blaming rape victims.

Kaitlynn Mendes, AlterNet, 12 August 2015

Rape culture panic is not the answer

Sexual assault on campus is a serious problem—but,

Christina Hoff Sommers, American Enterprise Institute, 19 May 2014

Rape Culture Is Real

Simply put, feminists want equality for everyone and that begins with physical safety.

Zerlina Maxwell, Time, 27 March 2014

This is rape culture – and look at the damage it does

We live in a world where sexual assault can be dismissed with jokes or excuses, even used in a chatup line or plastered across a T-shirt. The UK rape statistics are shocking, and so are these harrowing reports to the Everyday Sexism Project

Laura Bates, Guardian, 14 February 2014

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