A topic trending in the news over the last few months is rape. There was the girl in Steubenville, Ohio, who was assaulted while unconscious at a party. After she awoke, she learned that pictures of her naked body were circling among classmates. An almost identical thing happened in California, but with a sadder ending. When the victim discovered what her “friends” had done, she committed suicide. A couple weeks ago, rapper Rick Ross lost his Reebok endorsement contract for publishing a song celebrating date rape. “Put Molly all up in her champagne,” the lyrics go. “I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.”
A teenage writer published in the The Seattle Times last month decried the misogyny she sees in today’s youth culture. The word “slut,” she reported, is “used casually in teenage conversations both as a cutting insult and a term of endearment.” She noted that Facebook groups called “its not rape if you shout SURPRISE!!!” and “its not rape, it’s a snuggle struggle,” have received almost 1,000 likes. “There is a surprising number of female participants in those rape-as-a-joke Facebook groups,” she wrote, “It’s the mindset of our generation, male and female both.”
At a time when women have more educational and career opportunities than ever before, when the prevailing wisdom is that we are equal to men in our autonomy and value, what are we to make of this news trend? Is this just a fluke string of outlier incidents?
I don’t think so, one reason being that I recently visited a shopping mall. The enormous advertisement hanging over teendom’s coolest clothing store, Abercrombie & Fitch, was a shirtless young man with his pants unzipped. I could not see his genitals only because words strategically covered them. This is called pornography, but no one seemed to mind its prominent display in a public place.
Youth today have grown up with these sorts of displays all around. Sexual images, jokes and stories permeate our entertainment, commerce and even politics. Promiscuity is embraced as normal. And so our youth are taught that sex is at once all-important and inconsequential. Sex is funny, cool and pleasurable, not sacred and not dangerous so long as there’s a condom. Sex is no longer a tool for forming families, the story goes. It can be a way to express love if you should happen to love someone, but if not, it’s still enjoyable. Everyone needs it and deserves it, and it’s no big deal. Sex is a joke, a status symbol, a party favor.
Considering this cultural environment, it’s easy to imagine why young men emboldened by alcohol might believe rape is just a prank.