American culture can talk out of both sides of its mouth. On the one hand we firmly believe in the wickedness of sexual assault. It is a horrific violation of another person’s will and body. Yet, at the same time, we often blame victims, fail to prosecute assailants, and laugh at rape jokes. We have a serious problem in our society. In Asking for It, Kate Harding exposes all of these problems and acknowledges that we have a “rape culture” issue in America. This eye-opening sociological exploration implicates us all in our sexual violence problem.
Despite her strong Feminist philosophy, Harding recognizes how difficult her subtitle will be for some readers to accept. “Rape culture” might feel like an “overblown” term to some. It’s “the kind of thing that makes people call feminists ‘humorless’ and ‘strident’” (1). But she makes a compelling case. Culturally we have, in many ways, condoned “physical and emotional terrorism against women” (2). We do this through a number of means: (1) disbelieving victims of sexual assault, (2) blaming them for their assault, (3) failing to prosecute assailants, (3) and cultivating imbalanced myths about men and women. Most notably, however, Harding points out that:
Rape culture manifests in myriad ways…but its most devilish trick is to make the average, non-criminal person identify with the person accused, instead of the person reporting a crime. Rape culture encourages us to scrutinize victims’ stories for any evidence that they brought violence upon themselves – and always to imagine ourselves in the terrifying role of Good Man, Falsely Accused, before we “rush to judgment.” (3-4)
As a culture we frequently side with the accused over and against the victim. And it’s not just men’s rights advocates, it’s all of us. It’s the average male, the average woman, police officers, judges, and the whole lot of us. We are all implicated.
Harding unpacks this reality across three divisions in her book. Part one deals with Rape Myths. She describes the myth and then clarifies the ways it is cultivated. Culturally we focus on the responsibility of women not to get raped, giving them lists of safety tips that do little to actually protect them. We also fail to teach and cultivate a proper response to witnessing sexual assault and predatory activity. The “not-so-innocent bystanders” of today are those who record rape on their phones, turn the other cheek when they see it happening, and refuse to speak out against it. We also overestimate the threat of false accusations. Here Harding does a tremendous job of exposing the fallacy of its ubiquity and our inability to discern truth.
In part two she turns to the issues “Law and Order.” It is surprisingly hard to convict cases of rape in the American legal system. Harding walks us through some of the reasons, noting the general disbelief of women, and, more significantly, the problem of misconduct within the courtroom. There’s a reason so few rapes get reported, most victims do not believe they will find justice, and those who do find they are often condemned by their communities for it.
Finally, part three considers the broader cultural issues. Popular culture is one of the biggest offenders in promoting rape culture. Whether through stand-up routines, music, television, or Internet forums, rape is the joke of the day. When we laugh at rape like this, or are entertained by it, we continue to cultivate a cultural problem. She ends the book with a word of hope, and there is some cause for it – not the least is which the market that this book has found. Ultimately, however, the weight of the monograph is on the problem we have and our wide-spread responsibility for it.
There’s much to appreciate about this book. It is an expose on a massive problem. Harding details the broad spectrum of this issue, not just focusing on rapists, but focusing on the culture that does nothing to deter them from their predatory behavior. She has an “in-your-face” tone to her writing which will be off-putting to many in within the church, not infrequently using course language. Her anger, however, is understandable. She writes as a woman who has lived in this context and faced the scrutiny, disregard, and injustice of a male-dominated society. She has experienced sexual assault and researched its implications. She details of a number of examples which are hard to read, but important evidence of her thesis. She takes a few shots at organized religion, some deserved and some not. Despite its minimal shortcomings, however, this is an important book. The church needs to listen to voices like Kate Harding’s. Asking for It reveals our cultural problem, and while it does not focus on the church particularly, the church has a part to play in this cultural problem. We have far too often ignored the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault within our own boarders. Asking for It is revealing and important. Perhaps this book itself won’t be for everyone, but the truth it exposes most certainly is important for us all.