As a writer steeped in feminist theory, Kate Harding is no stranger to the insidious nature of rape culture—the myriad ways in which victims are routinely held accountable for their own assaults, or deemed unbelievable by the public. She’s also familiar with the reality of sexual violence; a fellow student raped her during frosh week in college. But it wasn’t until she wrote about the 2009 arrest of Roman Polanski that Harding knew she had much more to say on the topic.
“I wrote something for Salon the morning after he was arrested, and the fury came out,” she recalls. “‘This man raped a child! Why the hell are we being so deferential and why are we trying to downplay that?’”
The piece got over a million page views. “I suddenly realized, ‘OK, someone needs to be saying this in venues where there’s a chance of it catching fire in the mainstream.’”
That revelation was one of a few cultural touchstones that “catalyzed” her to write her new book, Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture and What We Can Do About It (Da Capo $20). Part memoir, part polemic, Asking For It brings a conversation about rape culture into the mainstream.
We talked to Harding about victim-blaming, man-hating, and how it felt to write about her own rape 20 years later.
Rape culture is such a loaded term. How do you define it?
My quick definition of the term is basically that rape culture supports and protects rapists and consistently fails and isolates victims. Even that sounds so loaded if you haven’t given it that much thought. I think that’s another reason why I wanted to write this book; because I had completed that journey in my own mind of going from ‘Rape culture are you kidding me?’ to ‘Oh, yeah, I do get it and I see it everywhere.’
When I say that society protects rapists I mean we constantly blame victims, we downplay the experiences that we report, and we treat every woman who reports rape—I want to mention that men can get raped, too, and they do—as if there’s a 50-50 chance that the woman is lying…We act as though the possibility that some woman will have consensual sex with a guy and the next morning decide she regrets it and report him for rape is common. In reality, that happening would be like a lightning strike or a plane crash and we treat it as if it’s as common as a car crash.
That’s ridiculous because statistically the number of women who don’t report rape is much higher than the number of false rape claims…
Much higher and I’d like to point out that statistically men have a higher chance of being raped themselves then becoming the victim of a false report.
The magic trick of rape culture, as you point out in the book, is that it makes us identify with accused. Why would we do that, when we don’t really do it with any other crime?
I think the most basic answer, but still an accurate one is that it’s about gender… If men can’t imagine themselves experiencing something in our culture, then we don’t tend to treat it as an experience that really happens.
I’ve interviewed rape victims before and I’ll admit that sometimes I found myself privately thinking, ‘Why did you do that?’ Why are we oriented to analyze victims’ behaviour that way? What’s the payoff for women to buy into that kind of victim blaming?
I think the payoff for women is that if we can tell ourselves ‘Oh, if she hadn’t of done that she wouldn’t have been raped’ then that makes us all feel a little bit safer. It makes it sound like there’s a sense of control—that there’s something we can do to avoid it. I’ve been talking a lot about Chrissie Hynde’s remarks recently, where she takes full responsibility for her rape, and that’s another thing that happens.
After I was raped in college, I went through a phase where I sort of thought that, too. I was like, ‘OK, well everyone is saying it’s not my fault, but if I hadn’t gotten so drunk, if I hadn’t gone to that party, if I hadn’t left with him…’ Basically there were all of these variables that I told myself that I could control going forward and that kind of gave me back some of the sense of control that I had lost by being raped.
I understand that [blaming reaction] but you also have to think it through a bit further and remember the bottom line, and that is basically that there is no stupid or bad decision that should be punished by rape.
How has rape culture permeated prevention education for the last few decades?
I think so much of the rape prevention education is, basically, about teaching a woman to not walk into the path of a rapist and that we don’t think about how we can teach an entire generation or culture of men to have different attitudes towards women that might not result in that unbelievable sense of entitlement.
…I should say that people are constantly working really hard to improve rape prevention education. Colleges in the U.S. especially have really been woken up by these Title IX suits and investigations are happening to make sure that they are doing everything that they can to create an environment that is not sexually discriminatory. There are a lot of people working on the frontlines doing great work. The White House Task Force looked at rape prevention education and the formal programs that are in place at the junior high, high school and college levels to try and figure out which ones had the most rigorous evidence of effectiveness and found there were two six-week programs that stood out. It just wasn’t one one-off thing over frosh week, it was really talking to kids about healthy boundaries, and dating violence is a big portion of it, because intimate partners commit about half of rapes. It’s a matter of talking to kids much younger, ideally before they’re having sex, about what a healthy relationship looks like.
I was really surprised to learn that statistically my greatest risk for being assaulted comes from my friends, acquaintances, partners and relatives. I had gone my whole life thinking about the stranger idea.
The more we reinforce that message, the more people who do report being raped by someone they know will be believed. The problem is that often the response will be denial…I was raped by a guy that I met the same night—basically we were dancing and hanging out at a party—and the next day I saw him in the dining hall and said to another student, ‘Oh my god, that’s the guy from last night’ and she said, ‘Oh, no, I know him. He could never do that.’
It was sort of like, ‘Oh, that was that.’ …It’s this really weird form of gaslighting. If she had known that he had done it to other people there’s no way she would have tried to downplay it, but it’s just this knee-jerk response of like, ‘Oh, I’ve had a beer with that guy he can’t be a rapist.’ We have to break through that denial and it’s something that’s happening too with celebrities. Why do we need 50 women to come forward and say that Bill Cosby raped them before we believe it?
There are so many intelligent, empathetic women who still really balk at being publicly pissed off that some men do this and get away with it. Even when we speak out we’re often apologetic, i.e., ‘Don’t mistake me, it’s not that I hate men.’ Personally, I believe we have absolutely every right to hate these guys. Why are we so concerned about seeming angry?
Everything has been set on men’s terms for so long and then there’s this stereotype about feminists that we’re men-haters and that just shuts down the discussion because then feminists say ‘No, I’m not a man-hater.’ I even gave lip service to that in the book. Honestly, I don’t care if people think I’m a man-hater because the men in my life know that I’m not. What I hate is toxic masculinity and these terrible stereotypes that we expect men to live up to and that they’re encouraged to live up to that are so dehumanizing for the boys and men themselves… It’s not about hating men; it’s about hating this ideal of manliness that is so based in hating women and not having feelings and just being strong and domineering and violent.
Reading the book, and having some basic knowledge about what goes on in the world for girls and women on a daily basis, it’s hard not to be distressed. But what’s promising about the current situation?
In the book I’m talking about Western and primarily North American culture. I think the young people dealing with this have so much more of a no-bullshit attitude. Watching the way young women are organizing at their college or university—when I went to school in the ’90s we were lucky if we could put together a Take Back the Night march, and now these young women are putting up websites to teach people how to initiate a Title IX inquiry!
Part of what makes that possible is the Internet and the connectedness and the way that social media and the Internet have taken away a huge component of rape culture—which is the isolation that rape victims feel and their sense that there’s no one who supports them. All they have to do is go online and find that that’s not true…That’s a massive difference.
You talk about your own rape during college in the book. How did writing the book shift your idea about that experience?
I think it was good for me to have this experience so that I was more viscerally connected to this material and more than I might have been otherwise. It is personal to me. But I think it’s also important that it had been 20 years. I wasn’t raw.
This story is part of #Project97—a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit project97.ca for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #project97.
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