Robert Jensen :
Rape, rape culture, and the problem of patriarchy

I don’t believe feminists are unfair or crazy. In fact, I believe the only sensible way to understand these issues is through a feminist critique of patriarchy.


Image from Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER).

By Robert Jensen | The Rag Blog | May 5, 2014

By the end of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, two key questions were on the table for those who not only are aware of rape but would like to end men’s violence against women.

First, do we live in a rape culture, or is rape perpetrated by a relatively small number of predatory men?

Second, is rape a clearly definable crime, or are there gray areas in sexual encounters that defy easy categorization as either consensual or non-consensual?

If those seem to be tricky, or trick, questions, don’t worry. There’s an easy answer to both: patriarchy (more on that shortly).

This year’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April was full of the usual stories about men’s violence, especially on university campuses. From football-obsessed state schools to elite private campuses, the reality of rape and rape culture was reported by journalists and critiqued by victim-survivors.

But April also included an unexpected debate within the anti-violence movement about the appropriate boundaries of the discussion about rape and rape culture.

‘In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming “rape culture” for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses.’

“In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming ‘rape culture’ for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses,” wrote the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, or RAINN, in a letter offering recommendations to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault (see the government’s final report).

“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.”

RAINN expressed concern that emphasizing rape culture makes “it harder to stop sexual violence, since it removes the focus from the individual at fault, and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions.”

Feminists pushed back, pointing out that it shouldn’t be difficult to hold accountable the individuals who commit acts legally defined as rape, while we also discuss how prosecuting rapists is made difficult by those who blame victims and make excuses for men’s violence, all of which is related to the way our culture routinely glorifies other types of men’s violence (war, sports and action movies) and routinely presents objectified female bodies to men for sexual pleasure (pornography, Hollywood movies, and strip clubs).

Meanwhile, conservative commentators picked up on all this, using it as a club to condemn the always-demonizable feminists for their allegedly unfair treatment of men and allegedly crazy critique of masculinity.

I’m a man who doesn’t believe feminists are unfair or crazy. In fact, I believe the only sensible way to understand these issues is through a feminist critique of — you guessed it — patriarchy.
Rape and rape-like behavior

Before wading into the reasons we need feminism, let’s consider a hypothetical:

A young man and woman are on a first date. The man decides early in the evening that he would like to have sexual intercourse and makes his attraction to her clear in conversation. He does not intend to force her to have sex, but he is assertive in a way that she interprets to mean that he “won’t take no for an answer.” The woman does not want to have sex, but she is uncertain of how he will react if she rejects his advance.

Alone in his apartment — in a setting in which his physical strength means she likely could not prevent him from raping her — she offers to perform oral sex, hoping that will satisfy him and allow her to get home without a direct confrontation that could become too intense, even violent. She does not tell him what she is thinking, out of fear of how he may react. The man accepts the offer of oral sex, and the evening ends without conflict.

If that sex happened — and it’s an experience that women have described (see Flirting with Danger by Lynn Phillips and the companion film) — should we describe the encounter as consensual sex or rape? In legal terms, this clearly is not rape. So, it’s consensual sex. No problem, right?

Consider some other potentially relevant factors: If a year before that situation, the woman had been raped while on a date, would that change our assessment? If she had been sexually assaulted as a child and still, years later, goes into a survival mode when triggered? If this were a college campus and the man was a well-known athlete, and she feared the system would protect him?

By legal standards, this still clearly is not rape. But by human standards, this doesn’t feel like fully consensual sex. Maybe we should recognize that both those assessments are reasonable. In short, rape is a definable crime that happens in a rape culture — once again, both things are true.
What is patriarchy and why does it matter?

Patriarchy is a term rarely heard in mainstream conversation, especially since the backlash against feminism took off in the 1980s. So, let’s start with the late feminist historian Gerda Lerner’s definition of patriarchy as “the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in the society in general.”

Patriarchy implies, she continued, “that men hold power in all the important institutions of society and that women are deprived of access to such power. It does not imply that women are either totally powerless or totally deprived of rights, influence and resources.”

Feminism challenges acts of male dominance and analyzes the underlying patriarchal ideology.

Feminism challenges acts of male dominance and analyzes the underlying patriarchal ideology that tries to make that dominance seem inevitable and immutable. Second-wave radical feminists in the second half of the 20th century identified men’s violence against women — rape, child sexual assault, domestic violence, and various forms of harassment — as a key method of patriarchal control and made a compelling argument that sexual assault cannot be understood outside of an analysis of patriarchy’s ideology.

Some of those feminists argued that “rape is about power not sex,” but other feminists went deeper, pointing out that when women describe the range of their sexual experiences it becomes clear there is no bright-line distinction between rape and not-rape, but instead a continuum of sexual intrusion into women’s lives by men. Yes, men who rape seek a sense of power, but men also use their power to get sex from women, sometimes under conditions that are not legally defined as rape but involve varying levels of control and coercion.

So, the focus shouldn’t be reduced to a relatively small number of men who engage in behavior we can easily label as rape. Those men pose a serious problem and we should be diligent in prosecuting them. But that prosecution can go on — and, in fact, will be aided by — recognizing the larger context in which men are trained to seek control and pursue conquest in order to feel like a man, and how that control is routinely sexualized.
Patriarchal sex

If this seems far-fetched, think about the ways men in all-male spaces often talk about sex, such as asking each other, “Did you get any?” From that perspective, sex is the acquisition of pleasure from a woman, something one takes from a woman, and men talk openly among themselves about strategies to enhance the likelihood of “getting some” even in the face of resistance from women.

Rape is about power and sex, about the way men are trained to understand ourselves and to see women.

This doesn’t mean that all men are rapists, that all heterosexual sex is rape, or that egalitarian relationships between men and women are impossible. It does mean, however, that rape is about power and sex, about the way men are trained to understand ourselves and to see women.

Let me repeat: The majority of men do not rape. But consider these other categories:

  • Men who do not rape but would be willing to rape if they were sure they would not be punished.
  • Men who do not rape but will not intervene when another man rapes.
  • Men who do not rape but buy sex with women who have been, or likely will be, raped in the context of being prostituted.
  • Men who do not rape but will watch films of women in situations that depict rape or rape-like acts.
  • Men who do not rape but find the idea of rape sexually arousing.
  • Men who do not rape but whose sexual arousal depends on feeling dominant and having power over a woman.
  • Men who do not rape but routinely masturbate to pornography in which women are presented as objectified bodies whose primary, or only, function is to provide sexual pleasure for men.

Those men are not rapists. But is that fact — that the men in these categories are not, in legal terms, guilty of rape — comforting? Are we advancing the cause of ending men’s violence against women by focusing only on the acts legally defined as rape?
Rape is rape, and rape culture is rape culture

Jody Raphael’s book Rape is Rape: How Denial, Distortion, and Victim Blaming Are Fueling a Hidden Acquaintance Rape Crisis points out that if we use “a conservative definition of rape about which there can be no argument” — rape as an act of “forcible penetration” — the research establishes that between 10.6 percent and 16.1 percent of American women have been raped. That means somewhere between 12 million and 18 million women in this country today live as rape victim-survivors, if we use a narrow definition of the crime.

Because no human activity takes place in an ideological vacuum — the ideas in our heads affect the way we behave — it’s hard to make sense of those numbers without the concept of rape culture. A rape culture doesn’t command men to rape, but it does make rape inviting, and it reduces the likelihood rapists will be identified, arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and punished. It’s hard to imagine any meaningful efforts to reduce, and someday eliminate, rape without talking openly and honestly about these matters. But RAINN argues that such denial is exactly the path we should take.

Why should we fear talking about the socialization process by which boys and men are trained to see themselves as powerful over women and to see women as sexual objects? Why should we fear asking critical questions about all-male spaces, such as athletic teams and fraternities, where these attitudes might be reinforced? Could it be a fear that the problem of sexual assault is so deeply entwined in our taken-for-granted assumptions about gender that any serious response to the problem of rape requires us to all get more radical, to take radical feminism seriously?

If we want to stop sexual violence, we have to confront patriarchy.

This does not mean all men are rapists, that all male athletes are rapists, or that all fraternity members are rapists. It does mean that if we want to stop sexual violence, we have to confront patriarchy. If we decide we aren’t going to talk about patriarchy, then let’s stop pretending we are going to stop sexual violence and recognize that, at best, all we can do is manage the problem. If we can’t talk about patriarchy, then let’s admit that we are giving up on the idea of gender justice and goal of a world without rape.

It’s easy to understand why people don’t like this formulation of the problem, given that anything beyond a tepid liberal, postmodern feminism is out of fashion these days and radical feminist analyses of male dominance are rarely part of polite conversation. Sometimes people concede the value of such an analysis, but justify the silence about it by claiming, “People can’t handle it.” When someone makes that claim, I assume what they mean is “I can’t handle it myself,” that it’s too much, too painful to deal with.

That’s not hard to understand, because to confront the reality of rape and rape culture is to realize that vigorous prosecution of the small number of men who rape doesn’t solve the larger problem.

If anyone still doubts that rape culture exists and is relevant, how else would we explain the Yale University fraternity members who marched on campus while shouting sexist chants, including “No means yes, yes means anal,” as part of a 2010 pledge event?

Everyone recognizes the mocking reference to the anti-rape message, “No means no,” which expresses women’s demand that men listen to them. These Yale men reject that. The second part of their chant — “Yes means anal” — states that women who agree to sex are implicitly agreeing to anything a man wants, including anal penetration. This will make sense to anyone who is aware of the prevalence of anal penetration in today’s pornography marketed to heterosexual men. In those pornographic scenes, women sometimes beg for that penetration and other times are forced into it, but the message is the same: Men’s pleasure is central.

In this one chant, these men of Yale — one of the most elite universities in the United States, which produces some of the country’s most powerful business and political leaders, including five presidents — clearly express a patriarchal view of gender and sex. Their chant is an endorsement of rape and an expression of rape culture.

Is a feminist critique of rape and rape culture a threat to me as a man? I was socialized in a patriarchal culture to believe that whatever feminists had planned, I should be afraid of it. But what I have learned from radical feminists is that quite the opposite is true — feminism is a gift to men. Such critique does not undermine my humanity, but instead gives me a chance to embrace it.

This article was published at Waging Nonviolence and was cross-posted to The Rag Blog by the author.

Read more articles by Robert Jensen on The Rag Blog and listen to Thorne Dreyer’s Rag Radio interviews with Jensen.

[Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest books are Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue and We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out. His writing is published extensively in mainstream and alternative media. Robert Jensen can be reached at]

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6 Responses to Robert Jensen :
Rape, rape culture, and the problem of patriarchy

  1. Extremist2TheDHS says:

    Lets count to 4 shall we: (i would need to count to 400 to list ALL the errors in this article)
    1) Rape is caused not by cultural factors …
    2) A young man and woman are on a first date ….
    3 he woman does not want to have sex, but she is uncertain of how he will react if she rejects his advance ….
    4) Later while alone in his apartment ….

    While one of my sons has his PhD, I do not. Apparently the authors education is of NO value in training him to think logically.

    Of course its cultural professor. And the values that created, nurtured and helped cultivate our modern rape culture, are progressive and very clearly focused on destroying any notion of morality.

    Take out a paper and pencil and take notes while I give the good professor a class in common sense.

    1) any woman who finds herself in the company of a man who on the first date is making it clear he wants sex and wont settle for no should take a trip to the rest room and not return. 2) a woman who fears how a man might respond when told “no” should not be alone in his apartment later that evening.

    Now if this was a young woman raised in a home with strong and confident parents, a moral compass, and a sense of her own self worth, she wouldn’t be trying to determine if a blow job will suffice or if she needs to actually be penetrated before she is allowed to depart. She wouldn’t measure her self worth by how frequently and well she rolls onto her back.

    She would raise an eyebrow at her “date” tell him to fuck off and indicate she knows how to deliver a devastating blow to his raisins if he is within 5 feet of her ever again.

    But, as should be apparent if you have been following along with my lesson, that response would require the good Professor to admit that his personal, political and cultural philosophies of and those of his progressive mates have been wrong and counter productive for the last 50 years.

    – Extremist2TheDHS

  2. joe manning says:

    To acknowledge rape culture is to recognize patriarchy, which is to threaten mores. Public education can make clear the distinction between rape and sex but can’t expose patriarchy without offending bourgeois morality. To put rape within its patriarchal context is proper but gets lots of friction. For example Shulamith Firestone’s “The Dialectic of Sex,” was roundly condemned for positing parthenogenesis as the solution to institutional patriarchy.

  3. Ian Monoe says:

    “…it becomes clear there is no bright-line distinction between rape and not-rape …”

    Well that sure sounds like “constructive dialogue” to me. But preacher Bob has made a career out of being a hater. On the other hand, since he contradicts himself a couple paragraphs later who knows what he really believes. Perhaps he should get together with Pat Robertson and go bowling.

    And citing fraternity rituals isn’t a very scientific way to make your case either.
    But the fact is this: violence in all categories has (in the US and including rape) has been steadily declining since the 70s, while porn has become much more pervasive, so if one was disposed to associate correlation with causation the logical conclusion is that porn is not patriarchical but feminist–a reversal of the point Bob is trying to make. Although to be honest, I’m not sure what point he’s trying to make here.

    All in all, not a very good performance by a professor of journalism. My suggestion to Bob is that if he doesn’t like sex … don’t have any.

  4. Metric says:

    What at a reactionary, and frankly speaking, sexist viewpoint you’re promoting here.

    Not only does newspeak like this always reduce women to oppressed (whether they know it or not) victims of “patriarchy”.

    It also ignores the women who DO commit sexual assaults, and the many women who experience sexual arrousal from depictions of rape, or sexually aggressive behavior from men.

    The fiormer is well documented in scientific literature on human biology and sexuality, and the latter I know from my circle of girlfriends is a common experience, as opposed to fretting about an alleged “rape culture”. A phenomenon which, just like “patriarchy”, I must admit I have literally never heard mentioned by any female.

    Granted, I don’t often socialize often with the only people who are likely to use those two words without a smirk: My fellow sisters of that particularly narrow circle of insular, Marxist theoreticians, and their fellow travelers: The very people who have spawned and invented the identity politics that radical feminism is infected by.

    But the biggest problem isn’t, that radical feminists (like feminists in general, I might add) aren’t taken seriously by the people they claim to represent.

    The biggest problem with the radical kind of feminism that your blog post represents, is that it’s an extremely nasty, divisive and extremist ideology: Everyone is either an oppressor, enabler and perpetrator, or a “survivor”. Evil or good. There is no middle ground.
    (And of course the “abuse” and “violence” that the “survivor” has gone through, can be nothing more than what most people would describe as a “verbal argument” or name calling. Yes: In these extremists playbook, calling somebody something derogatory or raising your voice, is considered “verbal violence”… )

    And if you question the perpetrator? Or ask the kind of questions that would be normal to ask, when you’re investigating very serious accusation? Well, then youre clearly enabling her abuser and either “silencing” or “blaming” the victim.

    Despite the fact that patently false rape accusations is an issue every police precinct has seen at some point, or the fact that false rape accusations have a long history of being used to legitimize a lynching, according to this particular cult, anyone who doesn’t unconditionally believe a rape accusation is an enabler and perpetrator.

    • Totally agree with you Metric. I feel sorry for our society, where ideas are spawned not for a valid exploration of ideas, but as weapons. The Marxist line of this strange piece is the arsenal of non-people, who now turn students in Journalism, economics and sociology into more non-people. Joe Manning’s response is interesting. Suggesting that exposure of the “patriarchy” is impossible because of a conspiracy of “bourgeois morality” – a phrase we all thought dustbinned by 1990, emerging only in the occasional satire on the ’60s – is the thinking not of a human, but a computer with a set program. The parthenogenesis line is the vitriol of minds that have sublimated, if that can be the right word, what was a set of living emotions into a mere ideological program. Your mistake is to imagine your response is to a human. These people are all mind, no heart, and no soul.

  5. ELois P. Clayton says:

    As ‘JUST DETENTION’ says, “rape is not part of the punishment”!
    This seems to be this “persons” reason for committing rape, IF this woman decides to refuse to have sex with this “man”.
    When a person says NO(be it man or woman), that’s EXACTLY that they mean!
    The rapist has (for many years), fooled themselves into believing that they should get away with raping someone because they have fooled themselves into believing that it was consentual.
    Some(for example) administrators at mental hospitals like Chester MHC, has fooled themselves(“retired” Patricia Kelley-Mosbacher), into believing that they should keep TRYING to get away with saying that, “any sex acts that happen at Chester, is consentual”.
    ATTN: Chester MHC, is a HOSPITAL and REGARDLESS of WHERE a person is confronted with such ill behavior, NO, MEANS NO!
    ATTN: ANOTHER state of Illinois “employee” who is involved in this COVER UP, is DHS Secretary, Michelle Saddler!
    ATTN: These invididuals MUST be KEPT EXPOSED and PROSECUTED(just as Jon Burge were));but more extensively!
    This ABUSE on vulnerable individuals, MUST BE STOPPED!

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