Why ‘Rape Culture’ is an Article of Faith and Why Lyrics Do Not Perpetuate It

A recent twitter polemic by Best Coast singer Bethany Cosentino – against the ‘disgusting’ lyrics in one of Chris Brown’s songs – reads like perverse music snobbery masquerading as social justice. Chris Brown has seen his single “Back To Sleep” remain exactly as popular as you’d expect commercialised, sex-centric pop music to stay, reaching its 17th week in the USA’s Billboard Hot 100. It features lyrics that according to Cosentino ‘perpetuate rape culture’ and are ‘disgusting’ and ‘trash.’

The latest foray into the virtues of public outrage, which spanned 10 tweets, will fail once more to erect any real boundaries in the necessarily boundary pushing realm of music. Admittedly, Chris Brown’s lyrics should be held up as a symptom of the embarrassingly repetitive, ever stale world of popular music and perhaps even as the badly worded,  creepy coalescence of sloppily chosen nouns and verbs that they are. But as a perpetuation of rape culture? I don’t think so. Let’s remind ourselves what has people so outraged, this monosyllabic slurry that is Chris Brown’s artistic offering: “Just let me rock, fuck you back to sleep / don’t say a word no. Girl, don’t you talk.” Fuck you back to sleep, really? A feat as abjectly implausible as it is not worth bragging about.

Cosentino’s call to ‘SHOW ME WHERE HE ONCE ASKS THE WOMAN IF ITS OK TO WAKE HER UP WITH SEX? NO, HE’S TELLING HER HE’S GOING TO DO IT’ embodies a strange mix of mind-reading and affirmative consent jurisprudence. If you’re being charitable, these lyrics fall far short of depicting non-consensual sex, such is their sloppy ambiguity. But this is sort of the point; their only real value is as an archetype of the declining standards of an increasingly sex-centric industry. But sex sells, even bad sex that puts you to sleep, and Chris cannot be blamed for continuing to cash in on an industry that combines the idolatry of wayward celebs with sex-mad, palatably meaningless music.

Whilst Cosentino appears to be riled by the rape-perpetuating lyrics, I suspect that – hidden beneath the lexicon of social justice – a perverse music snobbery lies at the core of the calls to censor music, like the ubiquitous Blurred Lines, for its rape-affirming hideousness. It is precisely because this commercialised filth is so lacking in artistic value that it is so easy to denounce; try doing so with the Rolling Stones or George Michael, artistic films with depictions of domineering sexual coercion, such as Irreversible (2002) or Hounddog (2007)…heck, even 50 shades of Grey! And in an era where the remnants of our sordid colonial history are as ubiquitous as rape culture – and ‘decolonisation’ activism is de rigour – why not destroy the triggering rape depictions of the patriarchal past; no more Titus Andronicus, The Rape of Lucretia or Susanna and the Elders. When the cultural value of creative work comes with more than feigned pretensions, it is much harder to argue that it ‘perpetuates rape culture.’ When you can indisputably call something art, the value of virtue signalling with a twitter polemic against it is greatly diminished.

Yes, of course Chris Brown’s lyrics don’t just fall under the remit of free, artistic expression, they play something of a part in the media and in the moral and social zeitgeist of the time. It is a shame for the rape-culture narrative, then, that the millennials which consume Chris’s music en masse are the least violent, most egalitarian, left-leaning and socially conscious generation in history. Cosentino’s tweets themselves read as a depressing – but thankfully fallacious – indictment of the young people that Chris Brown no doubt finds his career still standing because of. So what exactly does Cosentino mean when she calls this a ‘song that perpetuates rape culture’? Does this lamentably commonplace phrase argue that the vulgarity of the lyrics are in of themselves so culturally poisonous that the bigwigs in the music biz’ must never do us the injustice of allowing them to reach our ears? Or is Cosentino suggesting that a media saturated with rape-affirming tropes will actually influence people to think rape is okay? Whilst we must repudiate the free expression stifling, self-victimising cries of the former, we must also point out the erroneous claims of the latter. A tweet with a picture of a much longer diatribe confirms Cosentino’s beliefs: “People learn from music, they learn from popular culture + at this point in time, a lot of negative is being taught via those things.” [Sic]

A rape culture – wherein rape is normalised – must certainly also be one wherein the rate of sexual assault rises as the culture of rape apologia and trivialisation advances. So isn’t it inconvenient to the narrative that sexual assault continues to decline? Research from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that, between 1997 and 2013, the rate of sexual assault against women dropped by around 50 percent.  Whilst there is no consensus on the current rate of sexual assault, though too high I’m sure it is, the marked decline cannot be squared with a purported rape culture climate. If the war on lad culture is anything to go by, then the sirens that bleat ‘rape culture is everywhere’ have come to warn us not that disgusting instances of rape are on the rise, but that there are ever more pockets of lads making misogynistic jokes to worry about. This alarmism does absolutely nothing to help victims of rape or college freshman embarking on campuses for the first time. When we fail to be honest, about rape statistics or the palpable success of equality movements, we create a culture of fear wherein the rare but genuinely traumatic is reduced to the regrettably commonplace.

Whilst campus activists continue to pedal the serially repudiated ‘1 in 5’ rape statistic, the only thing being perpetuated is a needless and damaging culture of rape hysteria. This culture is the infantilising, self-pitying one that tells victims their pain has social purchase and a kind of bureaucratic currency; that if they’re suitably traumatised or triggered at the prospect, the laws regarding sexual assault and The Great Gatsby will be taken off the curriculum. At their pitiful low, these victimhood-ideologues ask for trigger warnings for books and at their laughable peak they attempt to reprimand an SU member after a debate for raising her hand in an all too startling gesture of disagreement. How on earth has the message not trickled down that  university campuses do not have rape instances on par with war torn Congo, and that being on a college campus actually puts you at a lower risk of rape (6.1 per 1000) than peers of the same age who are not enrolled (7.6 per 1000).

Cosentino’s claims about the nefarious powers of the media have long been echoed by critics of pornography and gaming-culture; the falsehood persists that exposing young minds to depictions of violence against women will inevitably increase instances of assault in the real world. Fortunately, these pathetic cries have been disproven and renounced as the agency-denying, fear mongering rubbish they are. Recent research on pornography users turned the ideals of sex-negative feminism on it’s head with its claims that porn viewers are more likely to see women as equals than non viewers. Meanwhile, out of the ashes of the gamergate phenomenon comes the consistent affirmation that there is absolutely no evidence that video game culture makes gamers any more violent or misogynistic.

As Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, campus crazies could not usher in the nannying state they so richly crave if their campuses were not run by liberal minded adjuncts and tenured, progressive professors who implement the faculty-fortified trigger warnings and safe space policies with abandon.  If society really was a hotbed of rapists, rape apologists and pious right-wing sexists, then the pathetic ‘rape culture is everywhere’ bellows would go unacknowledged and gain no purchase. There is no ‘rape epidemic.’ There is no widespread, society-driven normalisation of rape and few criminals are more rightfully vilified than rapists. There are the feckless echoes of lad culture, ‘sexist’ alcohol fuelled freshers initiation ceremonies and pitiful rape jokes, but let’s not conflate this with an endemic societal attitude that perpetuates, accepts or glorifies rape.

We are in one of the most alarmist social-justice-driven eras, where the utterly unsexy affirmative consent laws do not merely wrap their miserable fists around the intoxicant of sexual contact, but make it possible to retroactively convict participants in consensual encounters if regret later creeps in. A rape culture? All you have to do is recount your partner’s failure to ask for a ‘yes’ at every movement of a limb and the campus ideologues and faculty bureaucrats are on your side. As Sean Collins has previously noted in light of growing evidence that campuses are safer than ever “the ‘rape epidemic’ has become an article of faith.” 



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