Rape Culture in Our Daily Lives

By Ellen Cleary-Penninger, MSW, LICSW, and mental health care provider in the Seattle area.

The term “rape culture” has been known to be a wet blanket of sorts. Trust me; I have tossed said wet blanket out at many a party. If we can get past that initial knee jerk reaction to the phrase, the lens of rape culture serves to counter our seemingly good-intentioned hopes and wishes that sexual assault, and other manifestations of sexism, racism, and homophobia, are a thing of the past. The lens of rape culture reminds us, in all sorts of ways, of the work we have left to do. Every time I spot another clue pointing toward rape culture I feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz right after she saw what the wizard actually looked like—if rape culture is a construct, we must look behind the curtain in order to work on deconstructing it. 

You are probably aware of some blatant examples of rape culture—those stories that capture the direct ways individuals, families, legal systems, and the media blame victims of rape for the behavior of rapists. This post is not about those stories. This post is about the quieter ways rape culture appears in the day-to-day life of any person who doesn't subscribe to the humanity-limiting, emotionally-deprived, Voldemort caricature of masculinity. 

Let me tell you about the recent run-in I had with rape culture in a parking lot at Costco. Costco. In broad daylight. Without the myths about rape—no dark alley, no lurking, no keys knuckled-gripped in between fingers—just out in plain sight. My partner and toddler and I were enjoying an easy after work and daycare trip to the megastore. In the realm of a Costco trip, it was pretty up there. We got to snuggle a teddy bear the size of one of those tiny houses next to tubs of hummus and cases of coconut water. After running the food sample circuit and filling our cart with cases of pullups and coffee, we headed out to the parking lot.

We've been teaching Ms. Toddler to hold our hands and look for cars while in parking lots. This moment, for whatever reason, let's call it coincidence with a wink from a benevolent spirit, my partner picked up Ms. Toddler while we made our way through the parking lot. Behind us, we heard a sudden engine roar. An oversized blue pickup punched the gas and tore up behind us. We jumped out of the way, and I shouted through cupped hands, "SLOW! DOWN!"

The truck took a right at the end of the parking lane and squealed back to us, slamming on the brakes in front of us. "What did you say to me?!" shouted the man in the car.

"Slow. Down." I responded.

"I don't have to listen to ANYTHING you say," the driver, peering past his passenger, retorted. 

In a shaky voice, I said something about how there were children in the parking lot.

"Keep talking," he shot back in a threatening tone. He pulled into a parking spot near us and watched us pack the car. I was freaked out. When we pulled out of the lot, he followed us! I punched 911 into my phone, and as soon as I was ready to call, he turned off of our path. Many thanks to whatever shiny object diverted his attention that day.  

I immediately started to blame myself; tell myself I shouldn't have said anything—that it is my fault because I told him to slow down. And then I was reminded of all the parallels of this interaction with others, and how blaming myself for another’s behavior reeks of rape culture. I thought about cat calling, more accurately street harassment, how an audience for the perpetrator increases the likelihood that harassment occurs. I thought about the fact that the driver of the car was a white man. I wondered how this parking lot goblin would have behaved had he been alone—would he have even been driving recklessly?

I couldn’t stop shaking and thinking that if he could, that guy would have hurt me. How my experience was a small, insidious example of violence against women. I thought about his need to silence me, a loud-mouth woman. I told my husband that the incident stinks of white privilege and rape culture, and that I couldn’t distinguish where one ends and the other begins. That there are not enough words in the English language for me ever to convey what it feels like to live under the weight of society’s expectations that women protect themselves against sexual assault while also expecting us to shut up and stay quiet about rape culture and violence.

Kate Harding, author of the recent and outstanding Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture and What We Can Do About It, said, “It’s not a matter of Dad sitting down with his preadolescent son and incorporating 'Don’t be a criminal!' into the 'birds and the bees' talk. (I mean, that couldn’t hurt, probably. But it’s not the point.) It’s about teaching our boys to actively oppose sexual violence.” And, ultimately—it’s about teaching our children to actively oppose violence. 

What happened to me at Costco spurred a series of interviews with others, friends, colleagues, and strangers. So many people near you have one of these stories, at the intersection of rape culture, racism, and white supremacy. How do these phenomena interlock? Do you have a story of your own? Share yours in the comments below. Let’s keep taking about how we participate in and also work to opt out of rape culture and racism and all those other wires of oppression.

And for a bit of inspiration to keep the conversation going, a quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me: “The point of this language of ‘intention’ and ‘personal responsibility’ is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”


Rape Culture...

I have begun to think about the terror we might impose as possessors of all the vaginas, those spots locked closed until men perform certain rituals, when all we might need to do is... our hair. In some ways, this makes the people who force consent, who gain access, superheroes to a particular group.

I think about my recent venture into a bar, as a 60plus person, and watching men watch me, noticing three who began to converse amongst themselves appearing to be like a pack that has just seen something that might be edible. Sure enough, one of them sauntered up to me to ask he might buy me a drink--and he was all. of. 20.

Now that might be a good thing, except, it wasn't. I smiled and thanked him and said no.. He sauntered back, and the three of them looked disappointed. They sent another emissary, to be turned down. And their final emissary.

By now they had begun eyeing other women. I turned them all down, and I went to the women who also held the power to consent... asked them to consider how these men were in effect stalking us. Of four women? Three were grateful.

The men were far more ungrateful, who, the manager said, told him I was "spoiling their fun" because they were "looking for action." Right. Stalking women, getting them drunk, forcing consent. Fun. Uh huh. Hardly! Relationships are not sport, neither is rape. . Until this culture of pursuit and conquer is a little more mature, I personally have lots of other things to do.

Thanks for a clear example of the subtleties.

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