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We, a group of women at Cambridge University, have written the following article to add our voices in solidarity to those who speak out about a culture that minimises and ignores the experiences of survivors of sexual violence. We’re writing in response to a recent article published in the Tab discussing ‘rape culture and swaps’.

In her recent Tab article, Lauren Chaplin constructs a definition of the term rape culture based on the “dictionary definition of culture [as] ‘the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society’.”

“Add the prefix ‘rape’,” she argues, “and it would seem that the particular group of people being addressed are rapists. Their collective ‘social behaviour’ is that they rape people. That is their common link. If you have never raped someone, then you are not a rapist, and therefore you are not part of a rape culture.”

If you agree with this definition of ‘rape culture’ then the claims in the rest of the article seem a little more justified. Arguing that those who set sexist themes for college swaps are members of “a culture of rapists” would certainly seem offensive.

However, this is not what the term ‘rape culture’ means in general usage. In the same way that ‘pop culture’ is not purely the culture of pop singers, ‘rape culture’ is not the culture of people guilty of rape. When ‘rape culture’ is related to the use of phrases such as ‘it was a bit rapey’, or even the commonly used ‘Facebook rape’, the implication is clearly not that those who use such expressions sympathise with or even propagate rape.

The writer quite rightly highlights the seriousness of rape, and is concerned that flippant usages might dilute the word’s strength. We absolutely agree. But it is sadly the case that the seriousness of rape is not widely recognised in our society.

A rape culture is one in which, upon the rare occasion that rapists are even convicted (only six per cent of cases taken to court in the UK result in conviction), sentences are frequently shorter and less severe than crimes of a much less harrowing nature. So when it is argued that the use of the term ‘rape culture’ dilutes and disrespects the magnitude of what it actually means to be raped or sexually assaulted, this is patently incorrect.

People who recognise that we live in a rape culture understand fully the extent to which the experiences of survivors are dismissed or invalidated, and use the term, with its correct meaning, to express this – not to indiscriminately lump together people who devise an inappropriate party theme with rapists.

Rape culture results from the normalisation of rape, which obscures the frequency of rape and desensitises us to its realities. One of the functions of the term ‘rape culture’ is to demonstrate that rape happens all the time – it is not something perpetrated only by perverts hiding in alleyways. You are most likely to be raped by an acquaintance or someone you trust, not a stranger.

Given that this is the case, it seems naïve to dismiss swaps as a likely occasion for sexual harassment. The term ‘rape culture’ is meant to have political connotations that demonstrate the dulling monotony of rape. Rape culture is still horribly and silently common, as constant tweets to Everyday Sexism attest.

Chaplin tries to separate “misogynistic culture” from “rape culture”: in reality, the practices that make up rape culture are a subset of misogyny. More specifically, they are misogynistic actions denying women’s rights to choose what happens to their bodies, which refuse to take the voices and claims of women seriously.

Rape culture is getting a girl blacking-out drunk in order to get with her. Rape culture is scenes like the one in The Wolf of Wall Street where women say no and no and no until they’re forced to say yes. Rape culture is the belief that men aren’t raped. Rape culture is UK police dismissing up to a third of reported rapes. Rape culture is asking what the survivor was wearing.

‘Rape culture’ reflects a social position in which the testimonies of rape survivors or those who have experienced sexual assault are immediately submitted to doubt and distrust, or invalidated by criticisms that they are ‘oversensitive’ or ‘overreacting’.

‘Rape culture’ is a term that is used to reflect a culture that has become so desensitised to the magnitude of rape, so unsympathetic and silencing of the experiences of its survivors, that it applies the word ‘rape’ to the most banal of events – like posting on a friend’s Facebook account.

Swap culture is part of a broader culture of victim-blaming behaviour rife within Cambridge, and another element of wider rape culture. That does not mean that everyone who goes on a swap is a rapist, or that they condone rape. But large parts of swap culture facilitate these crimes, condone the objectification of women, and result in blurry attitudes towards consent.

The testimonies are there to prove it. We really need to start listening. We cannot label those who are brave enough to speak out as ‘oversensitive’. We have too much to lose, because silence, unfortunately, is part of rape culture too.

Signatories: Maggie Bridge, Christine Corlet, Poppy Damon, Clovis Denny, Caitlin Doherty, Tessa Frost, Sarah Garland, Zoe Higgins, Amelia Horgan, Daisy Hughes, Nina de Paula Hanika, Emma Jones, Susy Langsdale, Pearl Mahaga, Priscilla Mensah, Sadhbh O’Sullivan, Meera Patel, Martha Perotto-Wills, Talia Clare Robinson, Sandy Rushton, Lauren Steele, Ruby Levine Shrimpton, Sara Stillwell, Calista Winstanley, Kirsty Wynne.  

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