Culture

Why Do Feminists Promote Sexual Liberation If They Believe We Live In A Rape Culture?

By Gwen Farrell··  6 min read
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The rhetoric of today, especially around women’s rights and female liberation, is both unapologetically obsessed with promoting sexual liberation through the colloquial “hookup” and simultaneously preoccupied with so-called rape culture, which we use as a catch-all term for the more serious topics of intimate partner violence, rape, and sexual assault.

But it’s time that we realize that there is indeed an undeniable correlation between sexual liberation and rape culture, so why would we promote one if it might lead to the other?

Surprisingly enough, no, this conversation is not just another tactic by the religious right or group of heterosexual white men aimed at controlling the sexual choices of women, as has long been the go-to claim. This conversation is actually, finally, being held in the most progressive of environments with the people it affects the most: on college campuses with young people.

There are detractors, of course, who argue that the two have absolutely no bearing on each other. But how could they not be inextricably linked, especially in a culture wherein sex is viewed as a commodity and supposedly has no significance?

Ground Zero 

We often think of college campuses and universities as the ground zero for sexual assault. Many would argue that rape culture, as we define it, is most observable on a college campus where date rape and assault are a main topic of discussion.

Assault is a broad definition, but it can encompass date rape (or incapacitated rape), unwanted or nonconsensual sexual contact, and coercion. Women who survive assault during their college years are more likely to face revictimization, depression, anxiety and other mental illness issues, and sexually transmitted infections or diseases.

Crucial aspects of sex are blurred when we’re told meaningless sex is the pathway to self-realization.

Couple this with a dominant rhetoric which says that young people are at their most liberated when they’re most sexually free, and you have a complex discussion which sends mixed messages to our most vulnerable generation.

Writer Megan McCabe expertly illustrates this disconnection: “In this environment [a college campus] there is an inversion of previously dominant dating scripts: today physical encounters, ranging from kissing to intercourse, typically occur outside the context of or precede dating and relationships. These ‘hookups’ are usually initiated at social events where large quantities of alcohol are consumed, outside the context of romantic relationships with no expectation of commitment from the other party.”

Within this context, it’s perfectly understandable that crucial aspects of sex (like consent) are blurred, coerced or outright ignored, when we’re urged that meaningless, insignificant sex is the pathway to total self-realization.

The Signs of a “Rape Culture”

Many would say that rape culture in practice is what inevitably follows an instance of assault, especially within the vein of a college campus where powerful university bureaucracy, Title IX, parents, and young adults come into play.

Rape culture argues that perpetrators are never held accountable, especially if they’re white and wealthy, that all perpetrators know exactly what they’re doing when they assault a vulnerable party, that victims are shamed more than they’re supported or believed, and that society does absolutely nothing to prevent or deter perpetrators.

While it’s an unfortunate failure of our institutional systems, and universities for that matter, that many victims of assault never receive justice, it’s disingenuous to assert that society takes no notice of victims or the very real dangers they face – it’s just that they’re often contradicted, or complicated, by the overwhelming narrative that young men and women need to sexualize themselves and each other, alongside using alcohol and drugs, in order to achieve casual sex. It’s also insincere to assert that hookup culture has no responsiblity for rape culture, when logic proves otherwise.

We’re taught to use each other’s bodies and to assume sex doesn’t carry any unintended consequences. 

The Journal of the Witherspoon Institute explains, “a sexual ethic that centers on the pursuit of pleasure and personal gratification and reduces the significance of a sexual act to that of a Scrabble game – mere recreation – teaches that persons are means to an end. We are taught to use each other’s bodies for our mutual satisfaction and to assume that sexual activity does not carry any unintended consequences. But once we get used to heedlessly using one another’s bodies, it is dangerously easy to see using another’s body for our own gratification as unproblematic, even if the other person isn’t doing the same to us. A hook-up culture based on mutual use and lack of consequence can’t help but lead in the direction of unilateral use of another’s body.”

Is Hooking Up Really the Antidote?

Hookup culture is not the antidote to rape culture, but in fact, the roots from which poisonous fruit can be seamlessly cultivated.

Self-described feminist and author Donna Freitas has spent considerable time researching hookup culture on college campuses, and found overwhelmingly that for those buying that narrative, sex is perfunctory, an act without any previous care or thought. Additionally, 41% of the reported students who were hooking up described themselves as feeling “regretful, empty, miserable, disgusted, ashamed, and duped.” These students had little to no understanding of dating or even romance, and were thereby primed and ready to become part of an act which condemns consent and ignores inherent human dignity and decency.

For those hooking up, sex is largely perfunctory.

It makes no sense view sexual freedom or casual sex as the pinnacle of true fulfillment and liberation, when the offshoot of that theory is predominantly that both men and women are a means to an end for one sole purpose.

We Need Clarity

As part of my college campus sexual assault awareness group back in the day, I remember distinctly buying into both narratives: rape culture is responsible for every assault, and myself and everyone else around me will have a better time having casual sex than engaging in meaningful relationships.

And then I remember being responsible for organizing and leading assault trainings for on-campus Greek organizations, and what I found surprised me. While the women and their sororities weren’t especially eager to ask questions about accepting drinks from people they didn’t know or knowing the signs of potential danger, the men in fraternities were full of questions, overwhelmingly so. They openly asked about consent, about drinking and drugs, and about many hypothetical situations I later realized maybe weren’t so hypothetical.

How we educate young adults on their relationships matters.

They were eager to educate themselves about knowing right and wrong, but when confronted with two opposing belief systems, they understandably weren’t sure what to do or where to turn, and were probably even more confused when confronted with the real thing.

There are genuinely terrible people out there who are only too willing to take advantage of others, knowing full well the severity of their actions and how it will affect the other person. But as illustrated by those trainings, I also know that there’s a lot of ambiguity in the messages we’re sending – and that’s on us to change.

Closing Thoughts

How we educate young adults, and even kids, on their relationships matters. But with these two ideologies equated side by side, we’re setting them up to fail. 

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