The American Patriarchy and Rape
(Preface: I will be simplifying reality somewhat. For the purposes of this essay I will not be discussing rape of men, though it does indeed happen – the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network says that between 1995 and 2010, 9% of rape victims were male. This is not meant to discount the reality of male rape victims, it is simply meant to acknowledge the fact that the overwhelming majority of rape is perpetrated against women by men.)
Our culture is built on a very strong foundation of institutionalized patriarchy that, while sometimes covert, informs virtually every aspect of modern American life. Throughout American history, varying insular groups of men have historically been the primary driving forces behind legislation, including legislation regarding what constitutes rape. Because women are raped in much greater numbers than men are, it seems counterintuitive that men have legislated the definition of rape. This counterintuitivity stems from a larger societal basis of misogyny that permeates American culture.
Women have traditionally been disenfranchised in America; 1920 was the first year women could vote in the general presidential election. The first woman to be elected to Congress was elected in 1916, 140 years after the first Congress met.
There are people who deny the existence of a patriarchy in America; Cathy Young says in an article for Real Clear Politics that most people trying to prove patriarchy “focus on women’s abuse by men and on pervasive cultural biases against women, from beauty pressures to so-called ‘slut-shaming.'” She says of such internalized misogynistic tendencies that “such nebulous statements are nearly impossible to prove or disprove.” That may be true; body-shaming and beauty pressure are very difficult to quantify. However, we do have at our disposal several quantifiable statistics that clearly show the exact extent of the American patriarchy.
We see an underrepresentation of women in American politics to this day; the most obvious inequality is that America has had 44 heads of state, and 44 of those have been male. However, we see inequality in lower levels of government as well, as recently as 2014; Information Research Specialist Jennifer Manning makes this clear in a report on the demographic information of Congresspeople, where we can see that a record (!) 19.0% of Congresspeople are female. The Atlantic contributor Phillip Cohen says that looking at top political leaders are”low-hanging fruit” if you’re looking for a patriarchy, but he does concede that “…they probably are in the end the most important—the telling pattern is that the higher you look, the maler it gets.” We also see this in business — the Economist says that women, despite making up 46.5% of America’s total workforce, make up a mere 8% of all the top managers in this country. Cohen also brings up the seemingly-quaint custom of newlywed women changing their last names to match their husband’s. To us, that doesn’t seem strange at all; after all, that’s just “what we do.” However, Cohen observes “to an anthropologist from another planet, this…would be a major signal that American families are male-dominated.”
The simple fact of the matter is that we do in fact have a staunch patriarchy in America. That statement holds true in institutions as small as a nuclear family and as large as a national government. But how has such a patriarchy continued in this nation?
Erin McKelle, writing for Everyday Feminism, says that it comes down to socialization:
The ways in which we sit are gendered (like pretty much everything else that we do) and is something we learn through observation, or perhaps even direct education. Have you ever had someone tell you to “sit like a lady?” That’s socialization.
When you hear your mom talk about how fat she is or your uncle make a sexist joke; when you see diet pill commercials on television or listen to your babysitter call someone a slut – these instances don’t just go over your head, as many people like to believe. In reality, you’re taking in these messages.
She goes on to make the greater point that the millions of tiny misogynistic messages that are sent to women every day can add up; and when a woman lives her whole life hearing them, she can internalize that misogyny despite being a woman herself. Those messages, though, are not just sent to women; all of the examples that McKelle gives apply equally as well to males in American society. “Systemic inequality doesn’t just happen,” Phillip Cohen says. “People…get up in the morning and do it every day.” The American patriarchy is perpetuated by all of us.
One of the side effects of this patriarchy is that traditionally men have been the driving force behind making many of the laws in this country. While it might be preferable to have a more even distribution of genders, any reasonable person would agree that this inequality is not directly harmful to women. However, if we turn our attention to the legislation regarding rape the inherent patriarchical misogyny rears its head.
Statistically, according to RAINN, 1 in 6 women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. This compared to 1 in 33 men makes rape firmly a “woman’s issue.” It seems very counterintuitive that males, the sex which primarily commits rape in this country, are the ones primarily voting on legislation which legally defines the very act.
How did we come to live in this reality? This is yet another manifestation of the patriarchical culture in which we live. Erika Eichenberger, writing for Mother Jones, tells us that Mississippian laws regarding sexual assault are straight out of the middle ages:
During the 13th century, the severity of punishment under Saxon law varied according to the type of woman raped—whether she was a virgin, a wife, a widow, a nun, or a whore. That’s appropriately medieval. But in the United States, well into the ’90s (yes, the nineteen-nineties) some states still had laws that held statutory rape wasn’t rape if the woman was “impure“. Mississippi was the last state to ditch such a law—in 1998.
I mentioned earlier that 1 in 6 women will be raped in her lifetime, versus 1 in 33 men. This statistic makes the patriarchy that much more ubiquitous; it means that the same inherent misogyny that affects lawmakers also affects regular citizens.
We can clearly see that from the statistics presented by Amelia Thomson-Deveaux at Five Thirty-Eight; she tells us that a 2015 study reported that 10.8% of men on college campuses could be considered rapists by the FBI definition (“[p]enetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Source). That is up from the 6% that a 2002 study reported. One in Four, an organization that raises awareness of sexual assault, cites a 2011 study that says 1.27 million women experience rape yearly in the United States.
Suzannah Weiss, writing for Bustle, cites a study published in Violence and Gender:
In the previously-referenced survey published in Violence and Gender, 32 percent of college men said they would have “intentions to force a woman to sexual intercourse” if “nobody would ever know and there wouldn’t be any consequences.”
If that seems exorbitantly high, that’s because it is. Weiss explains the reason behind it perfectly when she says “[m]en are taught to pursue sex at all costs, and only take “no” as a “no”…women are taught that they are not capable of violating anyone’s boundaries, so they don’t even need to think about it.”
That’s exactly the reason, and it ties perfectly into the point made by McKelle about socialization; men are taught that sex is highly desirable, but they aren’t taught explicitly that the consent of their partner is paramount to that sex.
This is not to say that all men are rapists or potential rapists — far from it. Only 13.6 percent of the men in the study that Weiss quotes said they would have “any intentions to rape a woman.” The root of the problem is that these men simply don’t know what constitutes rape, because they aren’t taught that. It isn’t important enough to our society that young boys are taught good sexual ethics, but it is very important that they have a lot of sex.
If there is a bigger symptom of a deeply misogynistic society, I haven’t seen it. Speaking as a male who attends college, there is a very definite emphasis placed on someone’s “number,” the number of female sexual partners a man has had. Men look up to others who have a higher number, and in many cases ask for tips on “how to get girls.” This is deeply troubling — our society has trained these men to view women as something to “get,” something to acquire. That is the root. Until that changes, until all men view women as individuals and not as simply warm orifices, we will not see any meaningful difference in rape numbers or legislation or Congressional demographics, and we will not see any meaningful change in the counterintuitivity of men defining rape.