Last week, Caroline Kitchens penned an op-ed arguing the term “rape culture” is a myth because “America does not have a rape culture,” but instead “an out-of-control lobby leading the public and our educational and political leaders down the wrong path.” This assertion kicked off a robust discussion about rape prevention, and whether or not America has a track record of being complicit in sexual assault because of its antiquated views of women.

Kitchens, a research associate for the Conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, writes:

“Rape is as American as apple pie,” says blogger Jessica Valenti. She and her sisters-in-arms describe our society as a “rape culture” where violence against women is so normal, it’s almost invisible. Films, magazines, fashion, books, music, humor, even Barbie — according to the activists — cooperate in conveying the message that women are there to be used, abused and exploited. Recently, rape-culture theory has migrated from the lonely corners of the feminist blogosphere into the mainstream. In January, the White House asserted that we need to combat campus rape by “[changing] a culture of passivity and tolerance in this country, which too often allows this type of violence to persist.”

Tolerance for rape? Rape is a horrific crime, and rapists are despised. We have strict laws that Americans want to see enforced. Though rape is certainly a serious problem, there’s no evidence that it’s considered a cultural norm. Twenty-first century America does not have a rape culture; what we have is an out-of-control lobby leading the public and our educational and political leaders down the wrong path. Rape-culture theory is doing little to help victims, but its power to poison the minds of young women and lead to hostile environments for innocent males is immense.

Kitchens argues that rape culture has led to censorship and hysteria, rather than preventing assaults. She asserts that advocating parents/programs explicitly teach men not to rape does little more than “vilify the average guy,” because only a small portion of the population assaults women.

She explains:

“No one would deny that we should teach boys to respect women. But by and large, this is already happening. By the time men reach college, RAINN explains, “most students have been exposed to 18 years of prevention messages, in one form or another. The vast majority of men absorb these messages and view rape as the horrific crime that it is. So efforts to address rape need to focus on the very small portion of the population that “has proven itself immune to years of prevention messages.”

By blaming so-called rape culture, we implicate all men in a social atrocity, trivialize the experiences of survivors, and deflect blame from the rapists truly responsible for sexual violence.

However, this is simply not true.

Recognizing how the very real and harmful messages we are taught about women—that we are less valuable than boys, are disposable, weak, and often possessions of men—does not absolve rapists of their crimes.

But while most Americans would agree that they “despise” rapists, fact is, many cannot reach a consensus on what actually constitutes rape.

And that’s the problem.

Though most people would readily identify a woman being sexually assaulted by a stranger as rape, the discussion will quickly splinter into different factions of blame if a victim knows her attacker, or wears a sexy outfit, or consents to make out with her rapist, but not sex, or is a “fast-ass” teenager.

Date rape, statutory rape, spousal rape, acquaintance rape all carry “rape” in the title, and yet many turn a blind eye to these types of assaults because of cultural beliefs.

For instance, when rape and child pornography accusations were levied against R. Kelly, many were hesitant to call Kelly a rapist, asserting his 13-year-old victim was probably just “fast.”

While some were repulsed by Kelly’s actions, others did not think he was a predator because the young girls he assaulted looked and “acted” like willing participants. Only, they weren’t. At 12, 13, or 14, Kelly’s victims could not legally consent to sex with the singer, who regularly trolled schools and targeted teen girls. And yet Kelly never faced rape charges and was acquitted on engaging in child pornography, because being seduced by a 12-year-old can totally happen, right?

Most recently, the case of former NFL player Darren Sharper has once again ignited a debate about what is and isn’t rape. While some argued Sharper is “too handsome” to even need to tape women, others wondered why a woman would be alone in Sharper’s room in the wee hours of the morning if she didn’t want to have sex.

To dismiss rape culture as mere “hysteria” when more than 237,868 men and women are sexually assaulted in the U.S. each year, but only three percent of attackers go to jail, is naïve at best and dangerous at worst.

To dismiss how we are socialized to view everything female as bad (i.e. throwing like a girl, acting like a b*tch, crying like a girl, etc.), while simultaneously sending messages to young boys that girls are property that can be “banged,” “scored,” and disregarded, is not only wrong, it’s irresponsible.

Today, writer Zerlina Maxwell took to Twitter to break down exactly what rape culture looks like with the hashtag, #RapeCultureIsWhen. While Kitchens may dismiss rape culture as feminist hysteria, several men and women explained just how the things we say and do can contribute to a culture that devalues women and even promotes/protects rape.

I agree with Kitchens on one thing. Most men are not rapists and most have been told not to rape.

However, when men and women grow up on steady diet of “b*tches ain’t sh*t,” “bros before hoes,” and “if I pay for dinner, she owes me,” the lines between what they’ve been told by their parents and what they’ve been fed by society can quickly become blurred.

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