Some libertarians have scoffed at the idea that a “rape culture” exists in America. Presley argues that according to the best social science, they’re mistaken.

Sharon Presley, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the Association of Libertarian Feminists and co‐​editor of Exquisite Rebel: The Essays of Voltairine de Cleyre. She is editor of Libertarianism and Feminism: Individualist Perspectives on Women, Men, and the Family, an anthology in progress. As a social psychologist, her specialties are gender studies and obedience and resistance to authority. A long‐​time libertarian activist, she is the co‐​founder of Laissez Faire Books. Her articles have appeared in Reason, Liberty, and other libertarian magazines.

In debates about the existence of controversial topics like rape culture in America, it’s common for people to take ideological sides. But often left unexplored is what social science research has to say about the effects of culture, let alone such a controversial subject as rape culture. Within libertarianism, there are some voices who claim that “rape culture” is a mere boogeyman used to garner support for statist policies, for example, John Stossel and Wendy McElroy. However, the best social science research supports the conclusion that rape culture is a real phenomenon.

What does “rape culture” mean, and what does one look like?

Let’s start with a definition of “culture.” People don’t grow up in cultural vacuums. That’s why we have anthropology, sociology, and social psychology, all of which study different levels of culture and human behavior. Here is a good example of how social scientists define “culture.” For our purposes, this is the most relevant part of the definition: “People within a culture usually interpret the meaning of symbols, artifacts, and behaviors in the same or in similar ways.”

Aside from the truism that cultures clearly vary, in any large and complex society like the US, there are also many subcultures. Just a few known examples include police culture, gang culture, and frat culture. Does the broader culture of modern America include a “rape culture?” Let’s see what the social sciences have to say.

Here’s one excellent definition of rape culture. The editors of Transforming a Rape Culture define it as “a complex of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women [and girls], a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent, and a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women [and girls] and presents it as the norm.”

What would such a “complex of beliefs” look like? In her response to conservative Caroline Kitchens’s article, political analyst Zerlina Maxwell lists examples of rape myths that contribute to rape culture. These include beliefs such as:

  • “Only ‘bad’ women get raped.”
  • “Rape is about sex.”
  • “Women incite men to rape.”
  • “Rape only happens to young attractive women.”
  • “Women secretly enjoy being raped.”

Rape culture, continues Maxwell, is when people say, “she was asking for it” and “Most rapes occur as a ‘spur of the moment’ act in a dark alley by a stranger.” She adds two expressions of rape culture that deal with recent cases reported in the media: “Rape culture is when the mainstream media mourns the end of the convicted Steubenville rapists’ football careers and does not mention the young girl who was victimized.” “Rape culture is when cyberbullies take pictures of sexual assaults and harass their victims online after the fact, which in the cases of Audrie Pott and Rehtaeh Parsons tragically ended in their suicides.” For more examples of rape myths and discussion, see here and here.

To briefly rebut the most common myths discussed above: Most rapes are committed by people the victim knows. Children, old women, and nuns get raped, as do men. Rape is physically and psychologically traumatic for women (and men), it’s not “fun” and they don’t “enjoy” it. Rape is a serious physical and psychological trauma. All these myths are without any evidential foundation.

The social science argument for the existence of “rape culture”

Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday’s study of rape prone cultures vs. nonrape cultures is an important and relevant piece of evidence in discussing this topic. It first appeared in the Journal of Social Issues , one of the major academic journals published by the American Psychological Association. She looked at 95 band and tribal cultures and found that 47% were rape‐​free; 33% had rape present but with frequency unknown but not atypical; and 17% were “rape‐​prone.” A summary of Sanday’s findings can be found here. The differences between the rape‐​prone cultures and those in which rape did not occur were clear and statistically significant.

According to Sanday, the outstanding feature of rape‐​free societies is the ceremonial importance of women and the respect accorded the contribution women make to social continuity, a respect which places men and women in relatively balanced power spheres. Rape‐​free societies are characterized by sexual equality and the notion that the sexes are complementary. In rape‐​free cultures, men and women are valued equally, females are respected, and there was economic equality, that is, women contribute in equal amounts to the economy of the society. Examples include the Ashanti and Mbuti of Africa. In subsequent research, Sanday found an additional example in the Minangkabau culture of modern Indonesia, who are characterized this way: “Missing from the Minangkabau conception of sexuality is any show of interest in sex for the sake of sex alone. Sex is neither a commodity nor a notch in the male belt in this society. A man’s sense of himself is not predicated by his sexual functioning. Although aggression is present, it is not linked to sex nor is it deemed a manly trait. The Minangkabau have yet to discover sex as a commodity or turn it into a fetish.” In other words, both women and men are equally respected. Isn’t that a stand compatible with libertarianism?

In contrast, continues Sanday, “in the more rape‐​prone societies, social relations were marked by interpersonal violence in conjunction with an ideology of male dominance enforced through the control and subordination of women.” “In these cases,” she adds, rape is the playing out of a sociocultural script in which the expression of personhood for males is directed by, among other things, interpersonal violence and an ideology of male toughness.” Examples include the Gusii of Kenya and the Mundurucu of South America.

But what about the U.S.? Sanday considers the U.S. a rape‐​prone culture, noting that “socialization for male sexual dominance and control is suggested by numerous studies on U.S. campuses.” She notes, for example, that “Boeringer reports that 55.7% of the males in his study at a large southeastern university obtained sex by verbal harassment (ie. “threatening to end a relationship unless the victim consents to sex, falsely professing love, or telling the victim lies to render her more sexually receptive,” the variable labelled Coercion.) One‐​quarter of the males in Boeringer’s study reported using drugs or alcohol to obtain sex (Drugs/​Alcohol) and 8.6% of the sample reported at least one use of force or threatened force to obtain sex (Rape.)”

“The sexual aggression evident in these particular [campus] cases,” continues Sanday, “does not mean that sexual aggression is restricted to fraternities or that all fraternities indulge in sexual aggression. Sexist attitudes and the phallo‐​centric mentality associated with ‘pulling train’ [men lining up to have sex with a victim] have a long history in Western society. For example, venting homoerotic desire in the gang rape of women who are treated as male property is the subject of several biblical stories…Male bonding that rejects women and commodifies sex is evident in many other social contexts outside of universities. Thus, it would be wrong to place blame solely on fraternities. However, it is a fact also that most of the reported incidents of ‘pulling train’ on campus have been associated with fraternities.” Is this not a “rape culture?” Is this not a subculture of people interpreting the “meaning of symbols, artifacts, and behaviors in the same or in similar ways;” in these cases, sexist and phallo‐​centric attitudes, women as sexual objects, hostility toward women, blaming women, and sexual aggression against women? Is any of this compatible with the libertarian emphasis on individual rights? I don’t think so.

Other studies back up this conclusion. Psychologist Neil Malamuth has studied rape proclivity for many years. “In these studies,” he writes, “an attempt was made to identify individuals with such a proclivity by asking male college students how likely they personally would be to rape if they could be assured of not being caught. On the average, about 35% indicated some likelihood of raping.” Of course most of these men would not act on this idea. But as writer and editor Nikola Gavey, in her book Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape , points out, “…nevertheless the research on self‐​reported rape proclivity is interesting to some extent irrespective of whether or not it actually predicts rape or aggressive sexual behavior. Even if the gap between imagining being able to rape and actually raping is a big one, the fact that so many men report than they could imagine themselves raping does at the very least endorse feminist arguments that the building blocks of rape exist within or alongside normative heterosexuality, rather than being the preserve of only an isolated deviant few.” Furthermore, Malamuth and Check found that many “normal” men become sexually aroused in response to rape depictions. Gavey quotes them: “32 per cent of rapists and 28% of carefully selected non offenders showed arousal to coercive sexual scenes that was equal or greater than their arousal to consensual sex.” Why would normal young men be aroused by sexual coercion? Why isn’t this evidence of a pervasive cultural attitude of male dominance, acceptance of violent sexuality, and female subordination?

One of the most consistent findings in the social science of rape is that acceptance of rape myths is associated with greater likelihood of blaming the victim, with attitudes of physical and sexual violence against women, and with hostility toward women. It is also found to be correlated with other “isms,” such as racism, heterosexism, classism, ageism, traditional gender role beliefs, and fundamentalist religious beliefs. Am I cherry‐​picking to “prove” my point? No, not at all. Here are 63 studies that involve men’s attitudes; they all show basically the same thing and they aren’t even all of the studies that point in this direction. Here’s another study not on that list. And here’s another and another. The evidence is overwhelming. There is a subculture of sexual hostility toward women.

How is rape culture perpetuated?

Sanday’s study of fraternity rape shows how one subculture (fraternities) can perpetuate another (rape culture). But the media plays a big role too. Rape myths permeate ads, news stories, and even romance novels. As these sociologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara write: “The media partakes in agenda setting, running news stories about sexual assaults committed by unknown criminals, while disregarding the majority of cases that are committed by acquaintances. The attitudes men have toward women is one of the best predictors of whether or not they are perpetrators. Men who hold negative and hostile views against women can believe that they are inferior human beings who must be stopped in trying to attain equality. These same men also believe most of the rape myths, which are strongly reinforced by the media.”

Here’s an example of how the media influence how people view rape. One study found that “male participants exposed to myth‐​endorsing headlines were (a) less likely to think [Kobe] Bryant [an athlete accused of rape] was guilty than those exposed to non‐​myth headlines, (b) more likely to hold rape‐​supportive attitudes than those exposed to non‐​myth headlines, and (c) more likely to hold rape‐​supportive attitudes than were women.” Here is another study of how the media, in this case film, play into the rape myths.

Is there a subculture of people who hold sexist attitudes toward women, are hostile toward women, who have no problem with sexual violence or rape? The evidence is overwhelming. That’s what social scientists mean by rape culture. Not that everyone in the culture is like that. Rape culture skeptic Christina Hoff Sommers attacks a strawman when she claims that “Rape culture means everything in society is reinforcing (rape).” Nor does “rape culture” imply, as Wendy McElroy claims, that all men are rapists. Neither McElroy nor Sommers reference social science research to back up their claims that this is what “rape culture” entails.

Rape culture leads to great harm to both women and men, girls and boys. Rape is a violation of rights. It is a serious issue and needs to be understood through careful analysis and relevant research, not through ideological baiting or appeals to “political incorrectness.”