Three Ways Rape Culture Contributes to STD Transmission

Feminists spend a lot of time talking about "rape culture", the collection of attitudes about sexuality and gender that contribute to a culture of sexual violence. However the mindset associated with rape culture, including gender essentialist attitudes and the belief that sex is something that people stop from happening rather than choosing to engage in, doesn't just contribute to rape and other coercive sexual experiences.  It also contributes to the sexually transmitted disease epidemic in a number of different ways.

Here are three components of the rape culture mindset that contribute to the "hidden epidemic" of STDs.

Women are often seen and talked about only in relation to men

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When men speak out about violence against women, or the marginalization of women, they often tell their audience that they should care about such problems because the affected women  are "our mothers, our sisters, and our daughters."  Such language suggests that women aren't important as people in their own right, only in their relationship to men.

This notion affects dialogues about sex and risk in several profound ways. One such way is that many heterosexual men see safe sex as a way of primarily protecting themselves from negative outcomes - such as accidentally becoming a father. They are less concerned about their partner's health.

They are also less concerned about STDs. In part, this may because the risk of transmission from a woman to a man is seen as lower than vice versa. But it also may be because of how they see the women they choose to have sex with.

"Bad girls" have sex with everyone; "nice girls" only have sex with you.

A woman in a short skirt
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Cultural norms continue to suggest that men are highly sexual beings and women primarily agree to have sex to make their partners happy. Furthermore, any woman who does admit to liking sex risks becoming the victim of "slut shaming". These two factors, taken together, contribute to the culture of rape by making it difficult for women to say yes to sex and teaching men that if they want sex, they have to keep pushing until they hear a "no".

Such attitudes also contribute to the culture of unprotected sex by making it difficult for women to advocate for safe sex in their relationships. After all, if they're not allowed to say they want to have sex, how are they supposed to say they want to have it using barriers? Furthermore, these beliefs cause men to assume they're going to be turned down for sex if they have the audacity to ask. Therefore, the best way for them to get what they want is just to  start trying -- no talk allowed.

Men are taught to believe they have no self control around sexuality

Man Undressing Woman
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Many men still believe that a woman is "asking for it" if she dresses in a provocative manner. After all, how are they supposed to control themselves if they become aroused at the sight of her skin?

One of the most insidious components of rape culture is the notion that men have no responsibility for their sexual actions. Far too often, they've been taught that if start thinking about sex they're going to have to do something about it. 

Such concepts are even more pervasive in highly traditional cultures, such as ultra-orthodox Judaism, which segregate men and women in order to keep men's minds focused and pure. Despite the fact that women aren't supposed to want or enjoy sex, their sexuality is apparently so powerful that men are helpless to resist it, even when the women are doing nothing more than getting on a bus.

The idea that men have no control over their sexual urges and drives means that there's no time to think about whether they want to have sex, talk about testing, or even go out and buy a condom. Thinking about potential consequences, or how to prevent them, kills the mood. Since they have no control over their desires, they have to grab that mood, in case it doesn't come back.

Not All Men

Not all men engage in rape or sexual coercion, but neither do all men regularly seek out active consent. Americans live in a culture that is riddled with problematic beliefs about sex. Until both men and women are not just allowed but encouraged to talk about sex and desire honestly and openly, that's not going to change.

In an ideal world, sexual activity would be something that people engage in with enthusiastic consent, open eyes, and open minds. People would stop thinking that just putting a man alone in a room with someone he's attracted to means that something sexual is going to happen. Women would be allowed to embrace their sexuality without judgement, and without fear. Sexual coercion and violence would be a thing of the past.

We're not there yet.

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