Bill Cosby, Rape Culture and Individual Responsibility

On July 26th, 35 of Bill Cosby’s rape victims came forward to discuss their rapes and the culture that ignored their cries for help. A serial rapist going uncharged for years due to celebrity is indicative of a deeper cultural problem — one that treats rape as an innocent mistake rather than a violent crime.

Countless studies point to an underlying culture in our society of male sexual aggression and the victimization of women. Not all men rape, but all men have the capacity to rape, and all women suffer from constant fear of being raped. Fear is central in rape culture — fear of sexual violence, fear of not being taken seriously, fear of men, and fear of the institutions that are supposed to protect us. The FBI estimates that of the mere 40% of rapes that are reported, only 20% are ever prosecuted. Rape is a traumatic experience, in ways different from any other crime, and speaking up about it after the fact to disinterested, cold ears is terrifying.

Rape culture can be defined as, “A complex of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women … and a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women [and girls] and presents it as the norm.”

Most rape victims already know their rapists, whether they are a boyfriend, classmate, or celebrity. The constant fear that is characteristic of rape culture affects all women. Women can do little to protect themselves against the people they already trust. Even if they could, the onus should fall on the rapist, not the victim. The women Bill Cosby raped had little chance to defend themselves, and their cries for recourse fell on unmoved ears.

Bill Cosby himself did not view his actions as rape. According to his deposition, he saw little difference between drugging a woman for sex and buying her dinner with the same goal in mind. Cosby’s attitudes about rape reflect a societal misunderstanding of how consent works. While Cosby was fully responsible for the rapes he committed, his outlook reflects how much work we have left in fighting for women’s bodily autonomy.

Many critics of rape culture say that talking about rape culture shifts blame from the perpetrators to the society around them, therefore relieving rapists of their own responsibility. RAINN, the U.S.’s largest organization combatting sexual violence, criticized rape culture, saying that, “Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions of a small percentage of the community to commit a violent crime.”

This criticism represents a misunderstanding of what rape culture means and why we talk about it. Individuals, while wholly responsible for their own actions, do not act within a vacuum. Culture in many ways dictates the attitudes and actions of the members of that culture. Just as a culture of nationalism fosters violence toward immigrants, rape culture fosters sexual violence. A rapist like Bill Cosby was able to continue to commit crime after crime because society ignored and justified his actions. In order to effectively combat rape, we must embrace a more radical approach that addresses its societal underpinnings. By getting to the cultural root of sexual violence, we can put an end to the very environment that allows rape to thrive.

We don’t have to choose between combatting rape culture and holding individual rapists accountable. Under rape culture, individual rapists are not held accountable for their actions. Our society treats rapists as innocent boys who made a harmless mistake — that is rape culture. Our society sides with celebrities over rape victims despite insurmountable evidence to the contrary — that is rape culture. Cultures are spontaneous orders that arise out of individual action. In countering rape culture we must fight both harmful action and permissive attitudes towards those actions.

RAINN’s alternative recommendations for fighting sexual violence largely include risk-reduction messaging. RAINN shifts the responsibility for preventing rape to the potential victims — not the individuals committing rape. In knocking down discussion of rape culture, critics do the exact opposite of what they intend. They remove the rapist’s responsibility and retreat into the victim-blaming that sits at rape culture’s core.

For a free society to flourish, we must not only respect individual rights, but also uphold individual responsibility. We owe it to ourselves to create a world in which rapists are held accountable for their actions and a culture in which human rights violations like rape are viewed as the atrocities they are. If you deny rape culture exists or say that it doesn’t matter, you are part of the problem. We can either recognize and fight rape culture or foster it — no third option is available.

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