To stop the rape culture, stop the hook-up culture

Wed May 28, 2014 - 2:18 pm EST

May 28, 2014 (LifeSiteNews.com) - The cover of TIME magazine released on May 15, depicting a university pennant with the lone word “Rape” on it, marks a new height in public awareness (and debate) of what has come to be known as the “rape culture” – a prevalence of male domination, incursion, and violation against the sexual dignity and bodily sovereignty of females through physical actions, verbal harassment, mass entertainment content, structural norms in the workplace, and social behavior. First coined in the 1970s, “rape culture” has only entered the popular progressive vocabulary in recent years, starting in feminist blogs. Now concern about it is finding a place in mainstream policy discussions, notably in efforts to reform the U.S. military’s treatment of sexual assault allegations and the U.S. Department of Education’s investigation of fifty-five universities’ handling of the same. Rape and rape culture are heinous and repugnant beyond literary description, and should be eliminated entirely. Yet most of those who vociferously oppose rape culture, typically progressives, would be loath to challenge one of its most important enablers – the hook-up culture.


Rape is a profoundly destructive violation of the human person that has unfortunately existed for as long as humanity itself. A rape culture, however, wherein that violation or undertones of it are largely accepted in some outlets, and even glorified in others (think the “Blurred Lines” performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards), is a relatively recent return to primitive views on the place and personhood of women. Possibly even worse than seeing women as sources of property, progeny, or household assistance (all of which are wrong and insulting of the human person), rape culture harkens back to a most primordial brutishness and sees women merely as objects of pleasure. Its modern prominence is no surprise, however, when one considers the rise of the hook-up culture.

Before the 1970s, rape in the U.S. was considered a marginal and delinquent behavior that was seldom discussed in polite company. Thus, regardless of any prevalence of rape, there was not a rape culture per se. Then various women’s advocates began to raise awareness and public consciousness of the dark realities of rape (coining “rape culture” in the process, though it had been more of a shrouded current and not the brazen phenomenon and public “culture” that it is today). Efforts rightly aimed at persuading the general public to recognize and stop rape were surely a force for good. Unfortunately, their genesis was more or less contemporaneous with the sexual revolution, its instruments, and its progeny. In time, that revolution “matured” into the hook-up culture that we live in today and that regrettably provides the rape culture with a space in which to thrive.

The hook-up culture teaches men that neither women nor sex have any value greater than the temporary physical pleasure that they can be used for. While nearly ubiquitous, its base camp is college campuses (and it is no coincidence that much of the attention against the rape culture has been focused on universities). Though some studies assert that the hook-up culture is a myth because it is not partaken of by a majority of college students, the perception in the public consciousness that “everyone else is doing it and it’s ok” makes it a real culture – and a real danger. That culture suggests to men that they can expect women to be willing and available sexual partners for casual encounters. When individual women do not acquiesce to advances, some offending men act upon these expectations with a sense of entitlement and then pressure, or even physically coerce, women into sexual activity.

Yet while many will rally against a rape culture, few in either policy advocacy or university administration would dare challenge the hook-up culture. This is because many of the tools of the hook-up culture are seen as symbols of women’s liberation and equality. Freely-distributed and brightly-colored contraception products tossed about on campuses are not only supplies but cultural propaganda that encourage pre-marital and casual sexual activity. They desensitize both men and women to the natural consequence, and hence the gravity, of sex. Co-ed dormitories increase the encounters and locations in which compromising situations can arise. College orientation programs preach the modern orthodoxy that sexual choices should be self-guided by the principle of “if it feels good do it.” All of this provides an environment in which the hook-up culture and, ultimately, the rape culture thrive.

Individual women are unequivocally not to blame for the actions of individual men, and men who commit offenses in any form against a woman’s person or dignity should be held responsible. The ruling collective culture, however, makes it difficult for either men or women to make mutually respectful and well-thought-out choices with regard to one another. The hook-up culture, even if existing only in perception, gives many men an expectation of sexual acquiescence from women. Co-ed access to dormitories and excessive drinking, often by underage students and unchecked by university officials, set the stage for frequent and compromising encounters where offending men apply pressure and sometimes violence to enforce their wrongful expectations. Such was the scene for one young woman at Harvard whose brave story went viral earlier this year. Other alumnae of Harvard have candidly told this author that women on campus, even if not physically threatened, often feel pressure to not disappoint or reject individual expectant men. Yet these same women, progressive in their views, would not recognize the role that the hook-up culture plays in pushing women to be the reluctant or unconsenting counterparts to the putative men that its mainstays produce.

The social problem, however, goes deeper than a few university policies. It is reinforced by the entertainment industry through myriad songs like “Blurred Lines” which subtly yet consistently drum a heinous “You know you want it” mentality into young minds. And the entrenchment of rape culture goes beyond that as well. While men are ultimately responsible for their actions and should have a well-formed conscience, Heather Mac Donald argues that the eradication of traditional rules of gentlemanly behavior and chivalry by progressives has undone that which keeps some men’s most primitive and brutish behaviors in check. In addition, the problem of the rape culture may be multigenerational in depth and duration due to the pandemic of fatherlessness (to which the high prevalence of divorce and contraception contribute by desensitizing many men to the gravity of marriage and sex). With more and more children not being raised by their natural fathers especially, or any father-figure at all, more young men have no role model to show them how to be a pubescent and post-adolescent man who handles his hormones, and young women have no point of reference for how they should expect men to treat them.

To be sure, the elimination of the institutionalized hook-up culture on university campuses would not eliminate rape itself. At the very least, such a dramatic pullback would have to migrate with the students into adulthood and also reach non-college-going populations. And even then, a change in cultural acceptance would have to be met with an actual change in behavior. Nevertheless, ending the hook-up culture would make great strides toward stopping the rape culture as such. And that would be a good starting point toward greater recognition of the respect, security, and dignity due all.

Robert Vega works at the U.S. House of Representatives and serves as the coordinator of Young Adult ministry at a parish in Washington, DC. He graduated Harvard Law School in 2011. The views expressed are his own.

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