We Can’t Admit America’s Rape Culture Is As Pervasive As India’s

A judge hands down a slap on the wrist for a grave crime. A young woman’s character is questioned after being brutally raped while unconscious. Media stories list the athletic accolades — “so good that he tried out for the U.S. Olympic team before he could vote” — of the rapist right beside to his crime. A father defends the crime as “20 minutes of action” and a mere “cycle of binge drinking and its unfortunate results.”

These facts — while chilling — are made more so in that they’re so familiar; it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about rapes perpetrated at colleges, in cars, on dates, or in marriage; it all sounds the same. There is an inability — no, a collective refusal — to see and hear the victims. This is rape culture.

But this description — one that aims to capture the systemic and endemic nature of sexual crimes largely against women — isn’t relevant to Western countries. In the U.S., rapes are characterized as “unfortunate” incidents fueled by alcohol and promiscuity and college life. No, this term is one that is often reserved by our media for rapes in developing countries — especially India.

“How India Is Fixing Its Rape Culture — and Why There’s Still a Long Way Left to Go,” screams a 2015 headline on Vice. “‘She should just be silent’: the real roots of India’s rape culture,” proclaims one on Vox in the same year. “Shame of the Rape Capital: A woman is kidnapped every TWO HOURS in Delhi and a rape is reported every FOUR,” blares the Daily Mail.

In contrast, apart from a spare few opinion pieces and stories on feminist sites, a quick Google search returns very little media coverage of America’s “rape culture.” We’re myopic in our own national discourse and self-examination; the victim-blaming the media constantly accuses India of is a phenomenon that is just as prevalent here. Even the uber liberal bastions of NPR, which ostensibly are among those championing gender equality and shedding light on sexual violence, have openly discredited survivors:

Nikki Gloudeman reported on this phenomenon using a recent This American Life episode — The Anatomy Of Doubt — which explored:

“ . . . why and how the people in Marie’s life were dubious about her claims. And rather than questioning the cultural forces that cultivated such doubt, it chalked this response up to nothing more than understandable human instinct. Take, for instance, this explanation by producer Robyn Semien for why Marie’s former foster parents didn’t believe her: ‘They doubted Marie because of something so normal and human. They trusted their intuition about someone they knew really well. It’s hard not to do that. They had a gut feeling that was wrong but felt utterly true.”

In fact, Western mainstream media is so careful to protect white perpetrators of brutal crimes, that the Washington Post’s headline — “All-American swimmer found guilty of sexually assaulting unconscious woman on Stanford campus” — could have been announcing a swimmer cheating on a college test, rather than a brutal crime. The headline sets the tone for the entire article, trying to elicit sympathy for this fledgling American hero, a young man snatched from the pedestal he was destined for. The piece goes on to list a host of his glowing accomplishments — earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team trials, his “amazing” growth as a swimmer, turning down a host of college scholarships to attend Stanford, and the clincher — how his “life and career were upended during a night of drinking.”

Instead of portraying the victim’s point of view, the article ends with the rapist’s interview with a local paper where he quoted the words of Muhammad Ali: “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses — behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”

If that’s not the epitome of a male-dominated, victim-blaming news story from one of our country’s preeminent media organizations, I don’t know what is.

While India’s legal process — or lack thereof — gets regularly dissected after each brutal rape that comes to light, no real inquiry has even been made into how the Stanford rape case was handled (or botched) by lawyers, where the victim reported:

“I was pummeled with narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life, love life, past life, family life, inane questions, accumulating trivial details to try and find an excuse for this guy who had me half naked before even bothering to ask for my name. After a physical assault, I was assaulted with questions designed to attack me, to say see, her facts don’t line up, she’s out of her mind, she’s practically an alcoholic, she probably wanted to hook up, he’s like an athlete right, they were both drunk, whatever, the hospital stuff she remembers is after the fact, why take it into account, Brock has a lot at stake so he’s having a really hard time right now.”

I’d be the last to say India is safer for women than the U.S. — and I have repeatedly called for India and its leaders to address safety for women (especially where sexual assault stands as a major barrier between Indian women and their economic emancipation) — but for the U.S. media to repeatedly highlight India’s “rape culture” while purposefully ignoring the facts around America’s reeks of white elitism and hypocrisy.

When will our society wake up and realize that letting a white “All-American swimmer” get away with ruining a woman’s life sets a dangerous precedent for the safety of American women everywhere? Our media loves to highlight cases of poor Indian women brutalized by a “patriarchal culture” while time and again turning a blind eye to the insidious and puritanical culture here. As the media continues to characterize India’s corrupt legal and political system, there’s little consideration for the grave injustices of our superior legal system — one that has handed down a six-month sentence for fear of ruining the rapist’s life.

No, here in America, our justice system protects the innocent, unlike those third world nations abroad. Or does it? Look at how Turner’s victim described her interrogation:

“How old are you? How much do you weigh? What did you eat that day? Well what did you have for dinner? Who made dinner? Did you drink with dinner? No, not even water? When did you drink? How much did you drink? What container did you drink out of? Who gave you the drink? How much do you usually drink? Who dropped you off at this party? At what time? But where exactly? What were you wearing? Why were you going to this party? What’d you do when you got there? Are you sure you did that? But what time did you do that? What does this text mean? Who were you texting? When did you urinate? Where did you urinate? With whom did you urinate outside? Was your phone on silent when your sister called? Do you remember silencing it? Really because on page 53 I’d like to point out that you said it was set to ring. Did you drink in college? You said you were a party animal? How many times did you black out? Did you party at frats? Are you serious with your boyfriend? Are you sexually active with him? When did you start dating? Would you ever cheat? Do you have a history of cheating? What do you mean when you said you wanted to reward him? Do you remember what time you woke up? Were you wearing your cardigan? What color was your cardigan? Do you remember any more from that night? No? Okay, well, we’ll let Brock fill it in.”

In India, shame and family dishonor are often proffered as reasons to underreport rape crimes, but here in the U.S., the character assassination is no less deadly.

Yes, the numbers around rape in India are gruesome: Since 2010, crimes against women have risen by 7.1%. Close to 1 in 3 rape victims is under 18, and a woman is raped in India every 20 minutes. Indeed, rape is severely underreported in India — but even if every rape was reported, there’s still not much likelihood that the percentage of rapes by population would match the numbers we see here in the U.S.

Because, you see, India is only third for the number of reported rapes per year. Which country holds the horrific dishonor of the top spot? The United States of America. Back in 2011, just over 24,000 rapes were reported in India, which has a population of over 1.2 billion. In comparison, 83,245 rapes were reported in the U.S., which has a quarter of India’s population at 300 million. A woman in America is raped every 6.2 minutes.

And the crimes against young women are especially harrowing. One in four American college women report experiencing sexual assault before graduation, but only between 5% and 28% of sexual crimes are reported to campus officials. Others stay silent because, as women have put it, they are “embarrassed, ashamed, or [feel] that it would be too emotionally difficult,” or because they “did not think anything would be done about it.”

After observing how criminals like Stanford’s Brock Turner and Steubenville High School footballers Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were glorified by the media, I’m not surprised rape victims feel completely overlooked, undermined, and unprotected by our law and our media.

Despite repeated attempts by the American media to disregard it, India and the U.S. have more in common than Americans would like to believe. Both are large democracies that pride themselves on a free media. But they share another, much more sinister societal problem — the systematic oppression of thousands, if not millions, of their women. In both places, powerful people are complicit in playing down an endemic rape culture. And by not acknowledging the problem, both countries have continued to let this culture fester.

For America, it’s all too easy to look thousands of miles to a developing country and declare, look at how those poor women live, it’s unbearable. Outrage, of course, sells papers and clicks. It also continues the structures of Western condescension that dates back to colonialism and slavery. But more dangerously, it allows us to sit smugly unaffected on our Western thrones, allowing us to escape holding elite institutions like Stanford and Columbia, among others, accountable for repeatedly letting perpetrators of violent crimes walk away scot-free. By doing so, we refuse to critically examine a culture which promotes rape by excusing dangerous criminals, who happen to be athletes, with a “boys will be boys” attitude.

But as my mother always says, “when you’re pointing a finger at someone, there are four pointing right back at you.” It behooves the American media, legal system, and society to take a cold, hard look at the massive rape culture that is plaguing our own backyard, before churning out endless narratives about how badly women are treated overseas.

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