Several years ago, I had a student in one of my International Relations courses named John, a 20-year-old who’d done a tour of duty in Afghanistan. One day he came up to me after class, during which I had led a discussion on women’s rights. “Feminists in this country shouldn’t complain,” he confided in me. “I’ve seen what women go through in Afghanistan and they have it way worse over there.”
After conceding that women in Afghanistan are worse off, I explained that should hardly be the measure by which we judge our society. To be content with not being as bad as Afghanistan on women’s rights means that we could still tolerate and practice staggering amounts of misogyny, which is why such casuistry is no substitute for serious analysis of our own moral failings. Women in the United States still face hurdles to equality, and no amount of sexism in Afghanistan or anywhere else is going to change that.
At the same time, while many American feminists have adopted downright apocalyptic rhetoric about the state of women in the U.S., this rhetoric is more befitting what’s been happening to women in Afghanistan than America. According to these feminists, our society is plagued by a patriarchy-fueled “rape culture.”
This is an idea that’s become a pillar of modern feminism, and at this juncture the purported existence of rape culture has become such an unassailable orthodoxy, to challenge it means running the risk of being labeled a sexist or a “rape denier.” For a brief moment last year, a now discredited report by Sabrina Rubin Erdely in Rolling Stone lent major credence to this narrative. But even after the piece’s central story involving a woman allegedly gang-raped at a fraternity was debunked, those who pushed the rape culture narrative are turning the fiasco on its head. A case in point is Amanda Marcotte, who actually had the temerity to write, “The culture warriors who were sharpening their knives, eager to use this debacle as a pretext to make the discussion over campus rape about the extremely rare problem of ‘false accusation,’ will be disappointed.”
That is ironic, given that it was the feminist blogosphere who dug out their knives immediately after the Rolling Stone story was published to take aim at the fraternity implicated in the story because it seemed to be a classic manifestation of “rape culture.”
As with most terms, there is no universally accepted definition of “rape culture,” but generally it’s understood as “a culture in which rape is prevalent and pervasive and is sanctioned and maintained through fundamental attitudes and beliefs about gender, sexuality, and violence.” In applying this label to American culture, feminists are saying that our society is so patriarchal and so sexist, that we actually tolerate and perpetuate sexual violence against women to the point where it is the norm. Some even say we’re in the midst of a rape epidemic.
But by any objective measure, this is simply not true.
In 2013, there were 300,170 sexual assaults in the U.S., according to the National Crime Victimization Survey. This figure includes sexual assaults that were and were not reported to police, as the NCVS “collects information on nonfatal crimes reported and not reported to the police against persons age 12 or older from a nationally representative sample of U.S. households.” While this is 300,170 sexual assaults too many, in a country of 320 million people, this means that less than one one-hundredth of the U.S. population was the victim of sexual assault in 2013.
That is not “prevalent.” It is not a norm. And as the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network has noted, sexual assaults have decreased by more than half since 1993.
What about the idea that rape is “sanctioned and maintained through fundamental attitudes” embedded in American society? Again, there’s little evidence to support the claim. No doubt, the system has failed some victims of sexual assault by failing to process rape kits or by failing to administer appropriate sentences, but to suggest that the act of rape — which to remind, is criminalized by all 50 states and the federal government — is the perfectly natural result of a culture that condones it is absurd on its face. Try putting “rapist” on your LinkedIn or Facebook profile and you’ll see just how “sanctioned” rape supposedly is.
Or just take Paul Nungesser — the Columbia University student accused by classmate Emma Sulkowicz of raping her. Neither the university, nor police found sufficient evidence of wrongdoing on Nungesser’s part. Of course, this hardly means he’s innocent of the charge, but nonetheless he’s now a pariah at the school, which flies directly in the face of the notion that our society sanctions rape.
Which brings me back to Afghanistan and what a rape culture actually looks like.
There was a story on CNN on Tuesday about the marriage in Afghanistan of a rapist and his victim, a young woman named Gulnaz, who was imprisoned for adultery because her attacker was married. It took a pardon from then President Hamid Karzai amid global outcry to free her. Upon her release, Gulnaz found that although there were some activists willing to help her seek asylum in neighboring Pakistan, the cultural logistics would’ve been too difficult. As her attorney told CNN, “As an uneducated, young, single mother with no family support, it would have been an uphill battle for Gulnaz and her daughter.”
In a 2011 interview with NPR, Gulnaz was prophetic about (if not resigned to) her fate after spending two years in prison on the “adultery” charge. “Once I am out of here, I have no choice but to go back to the person who raped me,” she said before her pardon. “My life is over. I have no choice but to marry him.”
And so, CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh explained, “Local pressure won out. She was introduced to her attacker in the shelter where CNN first interviewed her upon release from prison. They talked and it was agreed she would marry him.”
This arrangement and its absurd antecedents would be unthinkable in the U.S. Yet this heinous state of affairs is actually common in Afghanistan, where rape victims like Gulnaz are routinely imprisoned for adultery, or even threatened with death through so-called honor killings. Although Afghanistan technically prohibits rape, enforcement is abysmal. Part of the reason is that the country prohibits family members from testifying against the accused, which means that Afghan men are free to assault their wives and daughters with impunity. In other words, in Afghanistan, rape truly is sanctioned by society.
Afghanistan is what a rape culture really looks like.
None of this is to minimize what some women in the U.S. endure on a regular basis. Again, no amount of monstrous violent misogyny abroad should make us complacent regarding whatever ills remain at home. However, the claim that rape is so endemic in our society that there’s actually an epidemic of it just isn’t true, and plainly so.