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University of British Columbia students walk past a sexual assault poster on the campus in Vancouver, on October 30, 2013. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)
University of British Columbia students walk past a sexual assault poster on the campus in Vancouver, on October 30, 2013. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

IAN BROWN

The raging debate over rape culture Add to ...

As a gross generalization, and all of them are, men of my vintage (there’s a word) who grew up in North America in the 1960s and 70s came of sexual age on our own, without much guidance. It was a murky, sometimes wild, often confusing passage. My parents would rather have set themselves on fire than discuss sex with me. The entirety of my mother’s bedroom advice consisted of her trilling, after several Manhattans, “All cats are grey in the dark,” by which she meant I might as well marry a rich girl, because coitus was the same with everyone.

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We had sex more easily in those pre-AIDS days, but I doubt we had it more readily than young men in these egalitarian times. Getting to the point of congress was still an unlit path, and you never really knew how close you were, or when you were going to put a foot wrong, politically. It was possible, for instance, though not common, to have a mostly sexual relationship with a woman, but calling it that was fraught: It was the 1970s, after all, the early days of second-wave feminism, when women were struggling to figure out what they wanted from men, or if they wanted it at all.

There was only one rule, at least among the men I respected and wanted to emulate: You didn’t force yourself on a woman. You especially did not do this if she was drunk, and you weren’t. As a pal of mine said the other day, “If a woman didn’t want to have sex with you, and then got drunk and said, ‘Come to bed,’ you walked away.” Not that this made us moral giants, and there were obviously far too many men who did otherwise – according to U.S. Department of Justice, the incidence of sexual assault 20 years ago was twice what it is today. But an honest man had a pretty clear idea of what constituted consent.

That is not the case any more. If you want to understand how fraught sex can be today, look no further than the raging debate over rape culture.

The term “rape culture” has been used by feminists for 40 years (Susan Brownmiller was probably the first, in her groundbreaking 1975 book Against Our Will) to describe an environment that abets the subjugation of women by paying insufficient attention to sexual violence.

Our culture qualifies. Every 17 minutes in Canada, a woman has intercourse against her will. A widely respected 2010 study of nearly 13,000 female undergraduates in the U.S. found 20 per cent had experienced unwanted sexual assault (the definition of which began at sexual touching and ended at anal rape). Most had been drinking, but that doesn’t excuse the assaults. Yet almost 60 per cent of rapes go unreported, and only 3 per cent of rapists ever do any time; sexual-assault offenders in Canada are sentenced to an average of two years.

There are many reasons for those stark numbers: The absence of a consistent procedure for transforming a rape that comes before a university tribunal into a winnable criminal prosecution in court is just one of them. You could forgive young feminists for thinking those statistics are the result of a conspiracy on the part of the patriarchy.

But social media has taken the narrowly defined concept of rape culture as identified by feminists and transformed it into both a rallying cry and a convenient, all-in-one cultural critique. Michaëlle Jean, Canada’s former governor-general, now the chancellor of the University of Ottawa, recently cited rape culture as a reason for a coast-to-coast spate of college sexual transgressions. “We are seeing this more and more frequently in Canada,” she said.

The phrase has its critics, but many more defenders. When Caroline Kitchens, a conservative at the American Enterprise Institute, took direct aim at “rape culture” in Time magazine earlier this month – “America does not have a rape culture; what we have is an out-of-control [feminist] lobby... its power to poison the minds of young women and lead to hostile environments for innocent males is immense” – thousands of women took to the Twitter hashtag #rapecultureiswhen in retaliation, leaving furious, witty and sadly harrowing evidence of how often they are alienated by hyper-sexualized modern life.

When CBC host Jian Ghomeshi tried to milk the brouhaha this week by asking a feminist and a conservative to debate whether “rape culture” is a useful phrase, online suffragettes called for his head. Many declared the subject beyond debate, and the debate itself evidence of rape culture.

The irony is that these fervent calls to the feminist barricades have been sparked by dissent within the ranks of rape-culture believers. At the end of February, the widely respected Washington-based Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the largest anti-sexual violence organization in North America, published its recommendations to the task force President Barack Obama has created to fight sexual abuse on campus.

Tucked in among a raft of wide-ranging recommendations – more research into what stops rapists, sharper definitions of what is and isn’t consent – was a bombshell.

“In the last few years,” wrote Scott Berkowitz and Rebecca O’Connor, RAINN’s president and vice-president of public policy, respectively, “there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming ‘rape culture’ for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses. While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.”

Researchers have repeatedly found that as few as 3 per cent of college men are responsible for more than 90 per cent of rapes (more than half of them are repeat offenders). That’s still a huge number that demands every effort to reduce it. But 3 per cent of a population is not an entire culture of rapists.

Furthermore, as the RAINN writers pointed out, “research has shown that prevention efforts that focus solely on men and ‘redefining masculinity,’ as some programs have termed it, are unlikely to be effective” – if only because it’s almost impossible to reprogram serial offenders with simple messages.

In other words, to stop sexual violence, we have to shelve the term rape culture. For starters, the claim that we live in a rape culture makes it seem like we are worse off now (in North America) than we were 30 years ago, which rudely ignores three decades of feminist achievement. But the more practical reason to stop clinging to rape culture is that, according to the evidence, blaming the patriarchy doesn’t work.

A few days ago, I called some men and women who are still in college. One of the young women I spoke to knew three friends off the top of her head who had been raped; two more who had been sexually assaulted; many others had been emotionally manipulated into having sex, though the latter number included victims and perps of both genders.

How then, I asked, did she know if sex or even kissing was consensual. “A lot of my friends insist on verbal consent,” she said, “a direct question and a direct answer, because verbal consent is the only way you can know. Which is not to say emotional manipulation has not played a role in obtaining your consent.”

She paused. “But it takes some romance out of it, you know what I mean?” She seemed to feel rules were the price one had to pay for sovereignty over one’s own body.

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