My Introduction To Rape Culture

I remember exactly when I first understood what “rape culture” meant.

I was nineteen and a sophomore in college. I was talking with a woman I knew about gender and sexual politics, and I just wasn’t getting it. She was describing what it was like for her to move through the world as a woman, to be constantly under sexual surveillance, to always be worried about whether some guy would harass or attack her, to never know if she could walk down the street without getting cat called. This was pretty foreign to me, because I’d never seen any of this happening.

Partly, that was because I’d never really fit in with most other boys and I didn’t understand how the performance of masculinity encourages boys and men to compete with each other to demonstrate their manhood. I simply didn’t play those games. But more than that, it was because men don’t do the same things when they see a woman with a man. I had no idea that women’s experiences walking down the street were so different when I wasn’t there.

So my friend gave me a challenge that changed my life. She offered to walk down the street on a weekend night and allow me to walk behind her so I could see what happened. I took her up on it and the next Friday night, out we went. She was dressed in pretty standard “going out” clothes and we headed out to the strip of stores, bars, and restaurants that most college campuses seem to have within walking distance. I stayed about twenty feet behind her- close enough to observe without seeming like we were together. And I was shocked at what I saw.

Individual guys whispered or made comments about her as she passed them. They’d ask her where she was going or simply turn and stare at her ass. Groups of guys were worse, though. I could see them checking her out and talking to each other about her body and appearance. A few times, one guy in a group would say something and the rest of them would laugh while staring at her. And twice, one guy said something, followed by another guy escalating either the volume or the message, with another dude chiming in. I could see them all competing with each other to be the most macho, not caring that their games were at the cost of my friend’s feelings of safety.

It was an eye-opening experience for me. It was the first glimpse I got at the crap that women have to put up with, simply for moving through the world. I started paying attention to it more and thought about how I would feel if I couldn’t go anywhere in public without having to think about getting harassed, how I would feel if I couldn’t feel safe walking down the street. If a picture is worth a thousand words, getting to see this for myself was worth so much more.

Over time, I came to see that I needed to do more about this than simply not participate in it myself. In my workshops on sexuality, masculinity, and gender, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with people of all ages, genders, sexual orientations, and backgrounds about these topics. And one pattern that consistently shows up is that there are a lot of cisgender men who act like this without realizing the impact it has. Many of them are so surrounded by the Act Like a Man Box that they see it as totally normal. Some of them would like to break out of it, but they don’t know how and don’t have the support to do it. And a lot of them are scared to change because other people will attack and shame them back into the box. It’s not just men who reinforce this prison.

I also started to understand the connections between street harassment and sexual assault. One of the common threads is the belief that one person’s desires for sex, sexual attention, or validation as a man outweighs another person’s autonomy, safety, and consent. Another is that very few folks are actually teaching boys and young men about respect. Most of the conversations that I’ve seen center on shaming them without giving them the skills they need to navigate relationships. What if we could actually talk with boys about how to ask for sex, or ways to flirt without being creepy? I know some parents who are doing this, but the “boys will be boys” attitude is still common. Just as most people shy away from talking with girls about these issues out of discomfort with addressing adolescent female sexuality, we also avoid looking at adolescent male sexuality with any clarity. So is it any surprise that people grow up confused about relationships? Is it all that shocking that many of my coaching clients struggle with these same issues as adults?

I’m deeply grateful to my friend for showing me what rape culture is about. For helping me understand that the world she moved through was so different from the one I moved through. For making it possible for me to take my first steps towards understanding what she and other women deal with every day. If you’re a cisgender man, I really encourage you to ask a friend if she’d be willing to do this experiment with you. Trust me. It’ll change your life.

14 Responses so far.

  1. Sam says:

    Hey Charlie-

    I think I’d like to say a couple of words about my own with respect to what you’re saying about your experience and what that experience means in the context you’re describing. But I don’t have time for that right now, so I’ll just link to a post that I found in my newsreader a couple of clicks down from the one to your post. It’s about, if you will, the social construction of “rape culture” – or lack thereof -, and it shows that the very label itself is partly responsible for the problem it is describing. Very interesting, from socimages, and partly NSFW.
    More later

  2. Sam, are you kidding me? The post obliterates the experiences of many, many people of all genders who have, in fact, been hurt by penises. I’ve talked with a lot of people who have been sexually assaulted and ended up with long-term, physical injuries because of it. Some folks needed serious medical attention, some folks had injuries that literally took years to heal. Stop minimizing the very real, physical trauma that can happen with rape.


  3. Sam says:

    OK, so, couple of minutes left to write something –

    “One of the common threads is the belief that one person’s desires for sex, sexual attention, or validation as a man outweighs another person’s autonomy, safety, and consent. Another is that very few folks are actually teaching boys and young men about respect.”
    I find that odd, since pretty much all of my “how to be a man”-education, the man-box, if you will, was about how to suppress sexual desire because it’s at least latently sociopathic. Whenever I had to pick up my sister from ballet school it taught me something about problematic male desire. It’s not that these things aren’t talked abot, they are talked about ad infinitum, it’s part of the man box. The problem is not that these things aren’t talked about, but that they arren’t talked about in a way that allows men to experience their sexuality as something positive.

    You’re only looking at the situation you witnessed with your friend from her perspective, and yours, someone who’s – I think – unaccustomed to the feeling of sexual scarcity that goes hand in hand with being a cis-male-heterosexual. There’s tons of reasons for that, cultural reaons, but likely also biological reasons – this kind of disparaty apparently doesn’t exist in the gay community, but I’m not gay and so this is an outsider’s observation -, and discussing those is important, but a second step. The first step, I believe, would have to be to understand that scarcity, lack of feeling of wantedness, particularly sexually, is something that is so fundamental to most men’s experience, and this is something women don’t understand.

    Most men aren’t desired, most men don’t know what it feels like to be desired in the way they desire women. That’s the flipside of what you’re talking about, and it’s usually ignored in this discussion. It’s not (only) that guys don’t (sufficiently) consider the feelings of safety among women, it’s also that women don’t understand what most guys feel with respect to their own lack of desirability day-in and day-out.

    And I think it’s important to understand that any real discussion of “rape culture”, whatever the specific definition, must also include the male perspective if it is to lead to a healthier, more safe, and possibly more sexy, way of living together for everyone.

  4. Sam says:


    are you deliberately trying to misunderstand my point about the socimages post? That the social definition of problematic behaviour is *in itself* a contributing factor the the problematic experience of that behaviour. That in no way reduces the potentially traumatic nature of rape or sexual assault. It just states that socially defining something in a certain way will also make it more likely for people to experience something in that way.

  5. On the one hand I absolutely agree with the concept that men are by unconsciously disrespectful and that women should feel be allowed to feel safe. In fact I have spent years feeling alienated from, and disgusted by my own gender because so many men don’t even seem to be aware of the impact they are having. The damage they are causing. The fear, discomfort, and stress they are spreading. With seemingly harmless gestures, comments, even just thoughts.

    On the other hand I have spent many years feeling alienated from, and disgusted by my own gender. To the point that I vilified my own penis. I buried my own desires and impulses beneath so many layers in order to make the world “safe” from me.

    There has to be an answer that allows men to feel their feelings; own their desires, hormones, impulses; AND still be respectful, honoring.
    Instead of teaching men that such overtures are wrong or hurtful, men should be taught that there are actually appropriate situations and times when it is ok to feel desire, and even to express it. … When it is wanted, appreciated, even arousing.
    Instead of stifling, controlling, preventing, vilifying, weaponizing, … lets try accepting, examining, reflecting. Men lets drop our bravado, remove our armor, lay down our weapons, and expose our thoughts, feelings, instead of chaining our passions, lets free them without making them anyones responsibility, or covering them up or … I don’t know. I don’t feel like I have fully expressed what I am feeling, but I really have to drop everything and get to work right now. 

  6. Sam, there’s a difference between learning how to respect women as human beings and squashing our sexual desire as men out of a fear that it’s “at least latently sociopathic.” I know that a lot of men learn to deny their desires, and in fact, I had my own version of that.

    I most definitely understand the feelings of scarcity that a lot of cisgender men experience, even though I’m not straight. I’m actually working on a blog post on that because I think you’re touching on something important. That feeling of scarcity contributes to some of the patterns that result in these dynamics. At the same time, the point of this post was to unpack something different.

  7. Sam says:

    “At the same time, the point of this post was to unpack something different.”
    I kind of got that, and I after posting I wondered if my initial triggered reaction wouldn’t lead to an unhealthy comment thread. I’m glad that didn’t happen. I’m not saying it’s not important to talk about street harrassment in itself, I’m not saying it’s not important to try to put oneself in the shoes of women and understand their perspective better, without making that contigent upon them doing the same.

    That said, I do believe that without everyone making an effort to understand everyone else better we will not be able to improve this discussion. Particularly as it relates to the part of the world where people aren’t experts of themselves, their desires or how to talk about any of this, the world I often suspect people who do talk about this and/or do this professionally seem to forget. While I agree that there can be a “rape culture”, depending on the definition, it is also a problematic term in this context, because it, just like so many other feminist sociological axioms, starts from the assumption that whatever men do is done to oppress women, when it is really more a sign of male weakness and lack of confidence in themselves and their own (particularly sexual) desirability.

    I personally don’t understand street harrassment. It’s not flirting, it’s extremely unlikely to actually result in any kind of favorable reaction, so the only reason I see for it in cultures where it is not a socially accepted tool to keep women in the women-sphere (like in, say, some parts of some Muslim countries) is in-group posturing and a way of saying “please, please look at me, too” disguised in some sort of overcompensating pseudo-confidence. Will people who actually *know* who to talk and impress women in today’s Western social reality still keep doing *that*? If so, only for in-group posturing, and *that* part, I believe, is rather easily fixable when the *other* aspect is addressed, giving the guys proper tools to bang their chests instead of unhealthy, unsexy, dysfunctional ones that, moreover, make women feel insecure.
    That said, I’m totally looking forward to your blog post about the male fear of lack of wantedness.

  8. M says:

    I think Charlie is agreeing that men and society in general can do better at holding and honoring male sexuality while still helping women feel safe and respected. It’s not my job as a woman to make every man I meet feel desired.  If a man has a pproblem not feeling sufficuently desired,  then he can work onhis stuff so that he finds people to develop relationships with who desire him and enjoy his sexuality.  I spent much of my life single and ‘undesired’ when I was younger,  because I was so uncomfortable in my own skin.  But I never took that out on passing men by catcalling them,  and I certainly never raped anybody.  I love expressions of male sexuality and I love men to distraction. But no man has the right to use his sexuality or lack of feeling desired to make me feel unsafe or disrespected. But when a man approaches me with respect and honesty, and spends the time to develop a relationship with me,  oh boy can I make him feel desired!  

  9. Jo says:

     <3 amazing. Thank you for sharing my thoughts also. 
    Respect speaks volumes to any heart. If you want a woman to desire you guys the first step is trust.

  10. Irene says:

    “so the only reason I see for it in cultures where it is not a socially accepted tool to keep women in the women-sphere”
    Um, that’s NOT what it is here? News to me.

  11. chi-tace-acconsente says:

    It is strange to read the comments to this article.
    As almost everyone is by now discussing the men’s problems who are not feeling desired and their connection to the behaviour that we describe as rape culture, I will discuss the topic as well.
    There is one important question: Why don’t people of all genders misbehave in this way if they are feeling undesired? It also happens to women. Not every woman is young and beautiful, and many have unfullfilled sexual desires. Many are not only undesired, but even berated for being ugly. People (men and women alike) behave hateful towards women who are not considered attractive. Yet these women do not harrass men, they do not catcall, they do not laugh at them or show the undesirable behaviour described in the blog article.
    Feeling undesired is not the only reason behind all this, and it is no excuse, sorry. We all have to cope with a certain amount of renouncement, or rejection.
    No one gets all the cars, the jewels, the job he or she wants, but some seem to put up with this better then others…

  12. Julia says:

    I agree. I myself can understand the story provided at the link as I grew up outside the US (not in a third world country). Teaching women that they become damaged goods as a result of man’s desires hurts them big time. I’m rather used to the notion that sexual attention and compliments are flattering (not to be confused with violence). That being sexually likable is empowering and socially advantageous, where no submission to desires of the other is required, just being nice is enough, leave alone men could be a big subject to manipulation (when blood goes to a penis, it leaves the brain). And don’t ignore women worldwide that don’t share your cultural ideas and don’t make a horror story out of a street walk like your friend! 
    Also interesting that from what I learned, the “rape culture construct culture” is relatively new in the US and didn’t come all the way from the Victorian era. The definition of “rape” was hugely expended in 80s and early 90s when colleges started disseminating to female students cleverly written questionnaires labeling any imperfect sexual experience as “rape” even when the subjects didn’t feel it as rape. There was a paper written in early 90s, which I can’t find anymore, where the author was questioning whether it was fine to convince the subjects of the feelings they didn’t have. The reason was to attract money to the college growing “date rape combating industry” (is it one of the reasons why education is getting more and more expensive?). Today it’s a rule to provide freshmen students with brochures ‘splaining to them what they are supposed to feel about their own experiences. This is brainwash, period. Women can’t qualify their own experiences, can’t communicate their desires, they are like little children… Come on, where does this sexist attitude come from? Funny, that this approach will never end real rape and violence, it’s not even intended to as some people capitalize on blowing it out of proportion. 

  13. Dee says:

    I am a 56 year old woman.   My closest friends will confirm that I was a model in my late teens, twenties and early thirties.  I was considered beautiful.  Beauty had a terrible price.  There were no words like ‘rape culture’ back then to describe what I had to go through every time I walked out my door.  Every time.  The yelling, the hollering, the whistling, the cat calls.  Some words that were too crude and vulgar to even repeat.  And the looks.  The looks were the worst.  Silent but deadly.  Most men behaved like sociopaths.  They would look at me and other women like we were a piece of meat to be cut up and eaten.  It was frightening.  It was scary.  I am a Christian and have been since I was about twelve.  I recognized that what those men were doing was evil.  I did not provoke them.  I dressed modestly (and still do).  Those men thought they were entitled to look at me like I was just a masturbation tool for them.  Yes – there is a mentality of ‘rape culture’.  It’s been going on for a LONG TIME.  And it needs to stop.  
    Thank you Dr. Glickman for be brave enough to voice this.  Now it’s up to the other men to brave enough to DO something about it.  I hope those men that terrified me those many years ago have daughters of their own now.  I hope they have grown up and will now DEFEND their daughters, and remember that every women is somebody’s daughter.

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