Normalizing sexual violence through media fuels rape culture

November 22, 2021 — by Hannah Lee
Photo by Annie Liu

TW: The following content includes subjects on sexual violence, rape, and assault.

For decades, media and pop culture have consistently portrayed men and women through strict stereotypes: men dominant and powerful and women as passive and powerless objects of male sexual desires. 

In pop culture, women rarely see their intelligence or other less-sexualized attributes praised.

Then there are the so-called rape myths that play a huge factor in influencing our culture: supporting the notion that women are somehow “asking for it” based on how they dress and enforcing the idea that a man who is sexually active is a source of envy. Traits such as sexual aggressiveness among men and the compliance of women have been highlighted so much — think of the James Bond franchise, for instance — that it has led society to believe that these behaviors are not just acceptable but laudable. It is time to stop glorifying assault for  entertainment reasons.

 

It’s time to stand against rape culture in film

Rape culture surrounds us in many mediums. From movies to shows to song lyrics to mainstream pornography, women are too often harmfully reduced to mere sexual entities.

Popular shows on Netflix, Hulu and more all take part in glorifying and romanticizing sexual assault and violence. One of Netflix’s 2020 releases, “365 Days” has become one of the most viewed films on the platform in the U.S. despite its controversy on glamorizing kidnapping and rape.

The Polish-erotica film, which trended as No. 1 on Netflix’s top 10 for weeks, follows an abusive relationship where a powerful man drugs and kidnaps a woman, justifying his cruelty with gifts. The film itself feeds into the popular subgenre of mafia boss/billionaire romance novels, which are known to romanticize abusive relationships by labeling the man as a “bad boy.” 

This romanticization of abusive relationships is incredibly harmful to how women view relationships as it normalizes the idea that traits like hyper aggression, recklessness and even kidnapping are sexy rather than red flags.

Similarly, the TV series “Game of Thrones” features multiple rape scenes. Characters such as Khal Drogo rape and abuse their wives regularly. Nonetheless, these characters are largely viewed as  bad boys that the audience admires and swoons over, rather than what they actually are: rapists.

Even shows with the intention of being supportive of rape victims such as the “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” accidentally reaffirm damaging ideas present in the worsening rape culture today.

Certain episodes in the show follow the storylines of failed cases against the perpetrators and judges blaming victims for their assaults. Certain critics argue that these depictions, despite being realistic to the criminal justice system, could  discourage real-life victims from coming forward. 

This situation is catch-22 because at the same time, portraying failed cases and how they unfairly treat victims in criminal justice is important in demystifiying the myths of rape culture. Portraying the system that supports the victim no matter what can also invalidate the victims who have gone to court and had their perpetrators walk free, but nonetheless shouldn’t be the basis of a show.

Even hit songs you may be harmlessly singing along to may exemplify rape culture. For instance, Robin Thicke’s hit single “Blurred Lines” speaks on “blurring the lines” of consent with lyrics such as “I know you want it … When you get them jeans on … Swag on ‘em when you dress casual, I mean, it’s almost unbearable… No more pretending … It always works for me.” 

The lyrics encapsulate the crux of rape culture, ultimately assuming that every woman inherently desires sexual advances and blaming female clothing for sexual assault.

Media telling victims that sexual violence is normal or sexy makes it much harder for victims to believe they will be taken seriously if they come forward, or even cause them to gaslight themselves out of the situation.

Even pornography, one of the most consumed forms of media and often viewed from an early age, usually inaccurately representing what sex can be with the abundancy of themes including violent sex acts and rape fantasies. Constant viewing of this harmful material perpetuates the romanticization of rape, an increased tolerance for rapists, a rise in sexual violence, thus lowering the value of women in society. 

 

What it means

A recent report by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention from 2020 explored how portrayals of sexual abuse can lead to lasting, serious consequences for real-life female victims. The study found that common media depictions of sexual assault and rape tend to increase victim blaming, and often influence the way criminal systems and the public perceive female victims. It may also lead viewers to view rape as an act of sex rather than an act of violence.

This type of media sends the message that sexual violence is normal or enjoyable for victims causes both abusers to believe that mimicking this behavior is OK.

 

Impact of rape culture media

The best way to put a stop to the popularization of rape culture in media is by stopping harmful depictions in mainstream media as a whole. Boycotting films for sexist and degrading depictions of women or censoring certain themes of pornography could help halt the spread of glamorizing rape culture. 

Media literacy, which is a person’s ability to identify different types of media and understand the messages they’re sending, could also help alleviate part of the issue and spread awareness of normalized sexual violence or abuse.

With the ability to recognize the direct impact that media romanticiation of sexual assault has on real-life rape culture, more people will be more aware as to what is considered normal or respectful, which will hopefully result in more people believing and not undermining victims. 

Nonetheless, the chronic media objectification of women should trouble any member of society who values gender equality. The persistentrise of rape culture and romanticized sexual abuse in the media proves that society has a long way to go before it truly views men and women equally. 

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