'Rape culture' as a concept emerged out of the 1970's anti-rape activism in the United States. It refers to any aspect of popular or mainstream culture that endorses or trivialises acts of sexual violence. Significantly, feminists operationalised the term to shift the debate on rape from individually isolated acts of assault understood as ‘sex crimes’ (almost always assumed to be perpetrated by strangers) to structural gender inequalities and attitudes that underpin the constant possibility of rape and sexual assault (which includes the higher instances of intimate partner violence and domestic violence).
Rape culture is predicated on intrinsically connected ‘rape myths’. These include the presentation of sexual assault as acts of passion in what is assumed to be a heteronormative sexual culture. Aggression on the part of men gets naturalised in this understanding, and it is even encouraged as a necessary exhibit for masculinity (for instance, in college fraternities and freshers’ ragging where it becomes a part of dominance bonding for young men). Feminists call out these rape myths by connecting this violence to the way our culture makes this violence seem acceptable and as an inevitable part of our lived reality. This calling-out questions the silence against rape, the victim-blaming approach of the media and the judicial apparatus, the shaming and harassment of the women who speak out, and the support that rapists receive both institutionally and socially as their violence is trivialised and normalised. Feminists also endorse the term to challenge rape scripts where women are expected to bear the moral responsibility in threatening situations, or are blamed as women who were ‘asking for it’, and their past sexual history is invoked to slut shame them and discredit their claims.
Some of the debates around the boundaries of what constitutes ‘rape culture’ comes from its endorsement in current ‘gender speak’, the vocabulary of which keeps shifting. Further lack of clarity surrounding the term 'rape culture' stems from its circumspect cross-cultural usage because of its emergence in a specific context and period in America. However, most of the questioning around the existence of a rape culture comes from rape apologists, who either defend rape or claim that feminists are exaggerating the connection of rape to contemporary cultural beliefs. Considering the staggering amount of work that still needs to be done to oppose this apologism, it is sobering to remember how feminist Andrea Dworkin’s words still echo today: “and I want one day or respite, one day off, one day in which no new bodies are piled up, one day in which no new agony is added to the old, and I am asking you to give it to me… I want a 24 hour truce during which there is no rape” (1983).