Increasingly, feminist activists are using the social media tools as their disposal to have broader conversations about gender-based violence and victim-blaming. On Tuesday, hundreds of people took to Twitter to emphasize the fact that rape culture — a society that assumes it’s women’s responsibility to protect themselves from an inevitable assault, and places the blame squarely on their shoulders if they do get raped — is alive and well.
Rape culture, a term once relegated to the feminist blogosphere, has recently entered into the national consciousness. After a string of high-profile rape cases garnered widespread media coverage, victims of sexual assault in the military began speaking out, and students at dozens of colleges demanded that their administrations stop sweeping sexual assault under the rug, Americans began connecting the dots. Now, it’s not uncommon to see “rape culture” in more mainstream outlets. BuzzFeed even has a comprehensive explainer on the topic.
But the term still inspires some controversy. Earlier this month, the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) — one the largest and most influential sexual assault prevention groups in the country — cautioned against relying too heavily on the rape culture framework. “In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming ‘rape culture’ for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses,” the group wrote in its policy recommendations to the White House’s new task force on campus rape, encouraging federal officials to focus not on cultural factors, but on the individuals who choose to commit sexual assault.
That provided convenient fodder for the individuals who refute the existence of rape culture altogether. “It’s Time to End ‘Rape Culture’ Hysteria,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Caroline Kitchens wrote in TIME earlier this week, arguing that this approach ends up vilifying the average guy. “College leaders, women’s groups, and the White House have a choice. They can side with the thought police of the feminist blogosphere who are declaring war on Robin Thicke, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, male statues, and Barbie. Or, they can listen to the sane counsel of RAINN,” Kitchens concluded.
On Tuesday, hundreds of people on Twitter reclaimed the conversation.
“I started the hashtag organically after reading the TIME Magazine article. Instead of pulling my hair out, I just started tweeting with the hashtag, hopeful that others would join in and help educate the masses, in response to both the TIME article but also RAINN claiming that rape culture is not to blame for gender-based violence,” Maxwell told ThinkProgress in an email exchange.
Her hopes were realized. Within the span of two hours, hundreds of other people on Twitter had joined in, using the hashtag to share their own experiences related to sexual assault, victim-blaming, and rape culture. #RapeCultureIsWhen became a trending topic.
“I am really happy to see survivors and allies joining in and adding in their own personal stories to help spread the information around to the most people,” Maxwell noted. “I hope that folks who don’t have a full understanding about rape culture — what it is, why it’s a problem, and how to solve it — can learn from the information on the hashtag.”
Other feminists have also critiqued RAINN’s statements, pointing out that acknowledging society’s pervasive rape culture doesn’t mean absolving individual rapists from their decision to commit a crime. Jezebel noted that although RAINN put forth some valuable proposals, the group simply doesn’t see tackling rape culture as a “viable, easily implementable solution to the campus rape epidemic.”
But in Maxwell’s view, taking steps to address rape culture isn’t necessarily insurmountable or unrealistic. “I’ve been lecturing at colleges all Spring to teach young people about rape culture. By the end, everyone is on the same page,” she told ThinkProgress. “Rape culture is impossible to not see, if you know what to look for… I think if we start with consent, then we can make a real impact. We can all be a part of the process by always asking for consent, by being active bystanders, and by believing survivors who come forward to report.”
College activists on the ground are already putting much of that into practice. Across the country, students are organizing creative campaigns to encourage a culture of consent, and to challenge the societal assumptions that there are any blurred lines when it comes to sexual activity. Activist groups are identifying the best policies to support survivors and implementing programs to encourage more bystander intervention. And the advocates who have been working on this issue were heartened when President Obama announced his new White House Task Force with a speech that placed the responsibility for ending the college sexual assault crisis on potential rapists, not on their potential victims.