The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 19, 2014

Attempting to end rape culture, one community at a time

August 19, 2014

0818blogRape

A lot of people are talking about rape culture. In news outlets, classrooms, magazines, and feminist blogs, pundits are discussing what actually contributes to rape culture—the concept that sexual violence and harassment is normal, expected, and acceptable—and the damage it has on different communities.

In recent years, several incidents have made headlines. Viral videos and pictures of unconscious teenage date-rape victims in Steubenville, Ohio and Houston, Texas spurred national outrage. The masses quickly took to Facebook and Twitter to organize anti-rape culture demonstrations and campaigns after a public safety officer told a group of college women to avoid dressing like “sluts” to avoid sexual assault.

Even President Barack Obama has weighed in on the discussion through his renewed call to action to end sexual assault on college campuses, with advisor Valerie Jarrett writing that the country needs to change its “culture of passivity and tolerance” that too often “allows this type of violence to persist.”

But rape culture often rears its head in far more subtle and varied ways, making it a difficult problem to tackle.

What does rape culture look like?

Rape culture is present in every facet of American society. It can be as flagrant as military sexual assaults to as seemingly mild as the innuendos referenced in rape jokes.

It condones the merging of sex and violence in easy-to-access pornography, music, and product advertisements. It’s the perseverance of antiquated gender norms that encourage aggressive and dominant masculinity. It’s about victim blaming and humiliation.

Rape culture is so much more than sexual assault. It’s a learned, desensitized attitude toward people (particularly women and girls) being violated. There may be consensus that rape culture is real and is severely damaging to society as a whole, but it involves much more complexity than the wider public seems prepared to acknowledge.

What does rape culture mean for society?

Rape culture may vary by place and have different consequences for different groups. Young people may be more likely to develop negative attitudes toward women and develop low self-esteem. Girls may be more likely to suffer from anxiety. Historically disenfranchised groups may be more likely to internalize victim-blaming and neglect.

So how do we determine the best intervention strategies to end something as complex as a culture of rape? How do we design effective practices that reduce the problem if we lack a concrete shared language when talking about it?

Moving the needle in one community

In collaboration with a team of experts, including our University of California San Diego partner, we’ve defined rape culture as a public health problem called “coercive sexual environment,” or CSE—a concentrated area or neighborhood where harassment, pressure to become sexually active at a young age, and intimate partner and sexual violence are all routine.

Benning Terrace, our Washington, DC HOST demonstration site, is such a neighborhood. For over a year, Urban researchers have been working with residents to promote sexual health and safety. We’ve been engaged in a community-based participatory research project to address what we think are some of the negative effects of CSE for youth—risky sexual behavior and sexual assault, dating violence, teen pregnancy, and the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Residents are engaged—we’ve been talking to parents, and we created a steering committee and a youth community advisory board to talk about how sexual pressures, abuse, and victim blaming connect to the undesirable outcomes we’re seeing for youth. And we’ve worked closely with partners and local service providers like the DC Rape Crisis Center and the Metropolitan Police Department to develop a custom-made intervention called Promoting Adolescent Sexual Health and Safety (PASS) to emphasize these connections.

PASS is about shifting rape culture through public health education strategies. The place-based curriculum focuses on improving gender and relationship dynamics as well as reducing risky behaviors. It teaches sexual health education, healthy communication skills, peer leadership, and how and when to intervene when someone’s at risk.

Organizing an intervention to target rape culture is fraught with special challenges, resistance, and the potential for misunderstandings. It’s not something tangible, like a smoking cessation program. We’re talking about reducing risky behaviors that have deep histories, debunking long-held myths, and addressing the overlooked trauma and abuse of whole families and generations in just 10 sessions. We’re trying to promote adolescent sexual health and safety in an environment where feeling unsafe is both normalized and trivialized. This project literally requires naming the unnamed.

But we believe PASS is a step in the right direction, targeting a very difficult problem that has very real implications for people’s daily lives. We believe this will be a helpful tool that can be applied in other communities—and one that will help vulnerable teens and their families confront some of the most sensitive yet disregarded challenges they face.

Photo: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand speaks about sexual assault on college campuses.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) 

Next: The author shares her experience working with youth on the PASS project.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.