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Ma'Lik Richmond leans on a probation officer after his verdict was red in the Steubenville rape case in Ohio this week AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, Pool

Lisa McInerney Rape culture is a stupid, cruel response to a dark reality

Blaming sexual assault victims for their ordeals – such as in the recent case in Steubenville, Ohio – is retrograde and wrong.

THERE AREN’T MANY terms in the modern lexicon as contentious as ‘rape culture’.

Refusing to accept the existence of a culture that excuses rape seems largely tied to anti-feminist anxiety; the idea that Borg-like women are conspiring against men in order to take their joie de vivre and truss it up in Mormon underwear. The majority of us accept that rape is a serious crime, and as such claiming that there’s a culture of it can seem to implicate innocent men and women alongside convicted sex offenders. It’s a misunderstanding of the term, fuelled by tabloid visions of legions of disgruntled harridans falsely accusing ex-lovers, or notions of boys condemned to a life of surveillance, entrapment, and assumed guilt.

It’s a misunderstanding whose time is up.

Rape isn’t just a feminist issue, and it certainly isn’t a woman versus man issue. Granted, we cannot get away from the statistics that say that women experience sexual assault more commonly than men (the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre estimates the numbers at one in five Irish women and one in ten Irish men) and that male perpetrators are more common than female perpetrators, but that doesn’t mean that we have to relegate any meaningful discussion of the problem to gendered mud-flinging. Rape is a criminal act, not the perversion of the mating ritual.

How the mainstream media focused on the Steubenville perpetrators

The astonishingly public actions by the Steubenville rapists – the fact that they, and their enablers, recorded and shared evidence of the crime and broadcast their contempt for the victim all over social media – is a symptom of a society whose appetite for justice can be wan and picky. The rapists, their friends and the onlookers who did nothing to stop what was happening right in front of them have claimed that they didn’t think of what they were doing as wrong. If anything, they seemed to think it was pretty bloody amusing.

That’s not isolated psychosis. There have been myriad public statements, not only from friends and neighbours of the rapists, but from complete strangers who feel the need to loudly blame the victim for what happened to her. Some – like Nate Hubbard, an assistant coach for the football team the rapists played for – claimed the victim was just making up an excuse, so ashamed was she of her promiscuity. Some conceded that the victim was too inebriated to consent, but said it was her own fault for letting down her guard in a room full of young men incapable of acting with compassion what with all those primitive hormones backed up into their brains. Even mainstream media – CNN, for example – focused on the injustice of the rapists’ “promising futures” being eroded by guilty verdicts. We’re left to wonder, of course, what kind of promising future the victim may have had.

The Steubenville case is an example of rape culture at its most blindingly obvious. A 16-year-old girl was stripped, assaulted and raped, with the crime recorded and bragged about by its perpetrators, and a significant proportion of spectators claimed it was her own fault for daring to be vulnerable.

Nicola Furlong

Last week also saw the conviction of Richard Hinds for the murder of Irish student Nicola Furlong in Tokyo. Hinds’ defence team had put forward that he had met Nicola in a bar, that she had been drunk and on drugs, that she had died because of pressure placed on her neck during the rough sex she had demanded from him. The court rejected Hinds’ claims, and Nicola’s family were relieved that her good name had been restored. “We know that Nicola did nothing wrong”, her mother said, and no one could deny her that small solace; that their daughter was not a different person to the girl they’d loved and nurtured, that they were not wrong about her character.

There is a parallel to be drawn here between Nicola Furlong and the Steubenville victim; an attempt had been made to paint each as the instigator of her own downfall. The Furlong family worried that false, lurid details about their daughter’s private life could have been used to win reprieve for her murderer. The Japanese court rejected the claims of Hinds’ defence, but should another murderer have walked free if his victim had been drunk, had been a drug user, had demanded sex?

None of these factors should ever be used to relieve the perpetrator of the burden of blame. None of these factors should ever be used to blame the victim. And yet they are. All too often, the imperative is on the victim to prove their innocence in a society that often seeks to cope with sexual assault by perpetuating the fallacy that it only happens to those who ask for it.


Blaming victims of sexual assault for their own ordeals is a sad reaction to a frightening reality: that rapists aren’t made by the unfortunate wardrobe choices of others, that people of sound mind do choose to assault others, that victims don’t go around advertising their vulnerability… that it could happen to any of us. That’s what rape culture is. It’s an anxious, stupid, cruel response to a dark reality.

But let’s not be down about the fact that this horror has a name, and that it’s a term that seems to implicate all of us. The coining of a phrase doesn’t make criminals out of anyone that this heinous set-up isn’t already telling us is predisposed, by dint of their own rampaging virility, to force themselves on an unwilling victim. And this tendency some of us have to blame the victim and to absolve the wrongdoer is like any monster: once you put a name to it, you can see it for what it is, and you can beat it. After all, the only reason we know about the victim-blaming in the Steubenville case is because those who recognise the problem outnumber those who’d prefer to reject it.

It’s quite obvious we’ve gone beyond arguing semantics. Whether or not you feel comfortable with the term ‘rape culture’ is beside the point; snappy taxonomy is far from the greatest evil we have to deal with.

Read previous columns by Lisa McInerney >

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