Natural Hair Mag

Rape Culture as a Public Health Issue


*Trigger Warning: This post contains imagery and words that could be offensive to some audiences. *


A famous rapey ad for Dolce & Gabbana

All too often, rape is seen only as a “woman’s issue” rather than a cultural epidemic. In particular, we rarely frame rape as a health issue, where women’s lives are jeopardized because of a sexist, racist system that dehumanizes women. When it comes to a virus or a flu, news outlets are sure to be hijacked by these stories; however, rape is rarely regarded as serious and life-threatening as these issues.

At my university a year ago, they decided to start a campaign called, “It Starts With a Swallow” to get college students to drink more water. However, “swallow” has multiple connotations. Swallow, especially in mainstream pornography, refers to the act of a woman literally swallowing a man’s semen after he ejaculates. Ironically, my campus had three sexual assaults reported a few months prior to this campaign, yet a representative for the health department at the school essentially stated that sexy messages sell. This whole campaign was actually coming from the HEALTH department at the university!

So, rather than worrying about the well-being of women [and men] who are routinely raped and harassed, we should instead use these “sexy” messages to sell ideas and products? As I always state, SEX in the media doesn’t sell, but a distorted type of sex that favors heterosexual men sells because that’s all we’ve ever tried.

Rape isn’t just about individual crazy men who are hyper-sexual. These men are ultra conformists to a culture that routinely dehumanizes women.  Sociologist, Allan G. Johnson (2009) states:

“From this kind of individualistic perspective, we might ask why a particular man raped, harassed, or beat a woman. We wouldn’t ask, however, what kind of society would promote persistent patterns of such behavior in everyday life, from wife-beating jokes to the routine inclusion of sexual coercion and violence in mainstream movies. We are quick to explain rape and battery as the acts of sick or angry men…we need to see and deal with the social roots that generate and nurture the social problems…in the behavior of individuals.”

While men predominantly DO rape, they are taking cultural cues from a society that frames women as objects to be used and abused and we have to talk about that. We need to re-frame rape as just a “woman’s” problem, to one that is a CULTURAL problem because it impacts the health of everyone.

Rape has become a staple part of our culture to such an extent that it’s even featured as a narrative in some of our films, which are always labelled as “classical” films…ugh. Think about Sixteen Candles, where Jake Ryan’s girlfriend gets so drunk that she passes out, and instead of taking care of her, Ryan gives his girlfriend away to another guy.

sixteen candles

Think about movies like American Pie which tend to always center on heterosexual white boys who are “coming of age.” [HINT: “coming of age” is a synonym for penis].

american pie

Oh yeah, because women are reduced to social currency for men, the more the better!

Superbad is a more contemporary film that has a similar plot to American pie. Really ugly white guys try to throw a party to sleep with “hott” women READ MORE

. For the record, I try to never watch films with Jonah Hill because women are usually used for their boobs. These types of films literally offer NOTHING for women, but we are conditioned to watch these films as well because movie producers assume that we’re white heterosexual boys who are also coming of age as well.

Ironically, in these films, women are cast as mythological sexual human beings who men are afraid of. Because mainstream films don’t actually center on women’s sexuality, men regard women as these “mystical” things where they all  have sex in locker rooms and just smell good every two minutes.  While boobs are usually seen all throughout these films, men’s penises tend to avoid the lens of the camera. Hmm…odd.


The ONE thing these films get right is that fact that most perpetrators of rape are white men. According to RAINN [Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network]:

“52% of rapists in the U.S. are white men. 17.7 million American women have been victims of attempted or completed rape… “

Also, American Indian/Alaskan women have higher rates of attempted rape, as well as mixed race women.

All of these films regularly show white women as the main targets for these white men, even though brown women have higher rates of assault.  Our culture tends to ignore brown bodies that are victimized because of racism, so in order to have a full understanding of rape culture, we need to have an intersectional approach where we look at mulitple factors for rape. 

Transgender activist and actor Laverne Cox is very outspoken about violence against transwomen of color. She states, “In 2012, 53 percent of homicides in the LGBTQ community were trans women, and 73 percent [of all homicides] are people of color.”

I would urge you to check out the documentary about CeCe McDonald [a transwoman of color who was attacked and faced prison time] created by Laverne Cox called FREE CeCe: A Documentary as well as Aishah Shahidah Simmons’ documentary called, No! The Rape Documentary 


Brown women-as-victims is more accurately reflected in another meathead, white guy movie called, “This is the End.” Again, the same white guys who are featured in every other movie  that’s framed as “funny” [probably by other white men] are in this film. In one scene, Michael Cera slaps Rihanna’s butt and she slaps him in the face. Though Rihanna fights back, this scene is supposed to be “funny” even though harassment is a reality for brown women.


Cera leaning over to slap Rihanna’s butt.

I’m sure you can think of hundreds of other films where women are harassed, beaten, raped, or made to act naive…like they don’t know men are trying to use them for their boobs. All of these narratives discursively disenfranchise women. Rape and sexual assault is terrifying, not funny. Having to walk to your car at night with your keys strategically placed in your hands so you can harm a potential perpetrator is not funny. Changing your day’s schedule around so you don’t have to walk alone at night because you might get raped is not funny.

While men need to be held accountable, we simultaneously need to hold other institutions accountable for perpetuating the idea that women are dumb, useless bodies who exist for heterosexual men’s penises.

Suggested Videos