Feminism 101: What is Rape Culture

Behind the scenes of Last Tango in Paris and Rape Culture
By Avital Norman Nathman  Published on 12/09/2016 at 9:27 AM EDT

Unfortunately, stories about rape and sexual assault are not few and far between, but when one involves a famous movie with an even more infamous scene, it makes headlines. Recently the 1972 film Last Tango in Paris was in the news, because its director, Bernardo Bertolucci, addressed the allegations of rape during filming that the lead actress, the late Maria Schneider (pictured above), had made.

Schneider had long ago claimed that the infamous “butter scene” was done without her consent and that it “felt like rape.” A clip recently surfaced of Bertolucci discussing the scene, and he admits that while he feels bad about what happened, he doesn’t regret what he did because it produced an authentic reaction and made the iconic scene what it is. With all this attention, Bertolucci has come out saying his words were taken out of context.

However, the fact remains that an actress (who was 19 at the time and playing opposite a 48-year-old Marlon Brando) had repeatedly brought up these accusations, but it’s not until a video resurfaces where the director says something similar that people sit up and listen. And how did it come to that in the first place? What made it okay for Bertolucci and Brando to say “You know what would be a great idea? A surprise anal rape scene that uses butter as a lubricant!”? The answer is both simple and complicated all at once: rape culture.

The US is steeped in rape culture and yet many people refuse to acknowledge its existence or potential for very real harm – some may not even recognize the term, let alone the way it’s reflected in the culture. But if you look around, you’ll see that our society rewards bawdy displays of male virility and hyper-sexuality, dismisses or reduces necessary conversations about consent, and encourages a toxic masculinity that leads boys and men to believe they are owed something by women and they can take it at will. But you don’t need to take one person’s word for this phenomenon – our favorite feminists share some of their thoughts on rape culture, in light of Last Tango in Paris.

Wagatwe Wanjuki:Rape culture is about the practices and beliefs that lead us — as a society — to normalize sexualized violence. Part of those practices and beliefs is ‘we’ believe that rape is bad as an abstract thing, but sexual violence is ‘not a big deal’ when we are faced with the nitty gritty of it with specifics. Myths about rape prevail, including that women (and survivors in general) are always lying when they come forward because we supposedly have something to gain. Sadly, this is why cases like that of Maria Schneider go largely ignored and disbelieved until someone else (usually a man) backs up what she says.”

Jennifer Pozner:When I critique ‘rape culture’ (as I do in this a multimedia, media literacy program called ‘Screen Shot: How Media Instigate Gun Violence and Rape Culture‘), I’m critiquing an institutional problem permeating every aspect of corporate media: how sexual assault is trivialized, glamorized, or justified by journalistic reporting and analysis, TV, movies, music, and advertising. News outlets blame victims for attacks against them focusing on irrelevant details such as clothing or past sexual history (which even criminal courts are not allowed to do anymore under rape shield laws); perpetuate the myth that women “cry rape” (despite data proving rape is one of the most underreported of all crimes); disproportionately under-report sex crimes against women of color and transgender women; and overly empathize with and rationalize behavior of sexual predators. At the same time, advertising regularly normalizes sexual and other violence against women as sexy, provocative fun. Street harassment has been treated as a fun national pastime in music videos dating back sixty years. And film and television confuse the public about what consent is and isn’t by perpetuating the notion that ‘no means yes,’ with decades of scenes in which a man or boy initiates a sexual encounter against the will of a girl or woman who says no or physically fights back — only to magically change her mind and passionately kiss (or f*ck) him as if she hadn’t actively resisted 30 to 90 seconds prior. Finally, male-identified victims are virtually invisible in both news and pop culture, except when they’re used as exploitative punchlines in discussions of prison rape.”

Casey O’Brien:Rape culture is endemic to our society, in the way that we refer to sex as being ‘given’ or as some sort of conquest. It is embedded  in the way that we blame survivors of sexual assault for what happened to them — ‘you shouldn’t have walked home,’ ‘you shouldn’t have been drunk,’ ‘you should have left him.’ It is embedded in the refusal to punish perpetrators of sexual assault — like the director of this film — for their actions. It is embedded in the disbelief that accompanies many survivors telling their story — like Schneider. The rates of sexual assault against all people, particularly marginalized ones, is not a coincidence. It is a direct result of how we are socialized to view sex and sexuality.”

Jessica Luther:Rape culture is the idea that our culture does not take seriously the problem or ubiquity of sexual harassment and violence, and so, in turn, leaves plenty of space for it to occur without punishment. We see this in a variety of spaces: low trial and conviction rates for people accused of this crime, victim blaming of anyone who comes forward to report, defense of jokes or comedy that make rape a punchline, that men (especially, white men) are often unaffected in the long term by reports of harassment or violence, the belief that any report is as likely to be false as true despite the endless statistics that show how infrequent false reports actually are, etc. Last Tango in Paris is an example of how people can watch it on screen and feel uncomfortable and praise the film, and how people can hear Schneider say that she felt like she had been raped in that scene during filming but still somehow justify to themselves and others that there was nothing wrong with it, that it was just art, that she is wrong in her interpretation — all of that can happen until a man finally admits his wrongdoing and then we take the claim more seriously. In all of these ways, rape culture allowed these men to feel like they could exploit this woman and get away with it. They were right.”

Mayim Bialik:Women have been historically presented as fragile, prone to indecision, and hysterical. When a woman says she was assaulted or abused or raped, there is an inherent inclination by men – and sometimes women – to think, “Well, maybe she’s lying,” or “Maybe she just regretted it after.” While there are women who distort facts, the inherent assumption that that is a possibility is part of a deeply ingrained notion that women are either mistrustful, prone to seduction and manipulation, or deserving of being assaulted if they acted a certain way or dressed a certain way. This is rape culture.

All around the world, women are being raped during war as an act of conquest and as an act of ‘revenge’ in some of the most horrendous cases of abuse against women. We think we are different in the U.S.; but a culture that favors a man’s report of a rape over a woman’s, or a culture that produces men who have sex with unconscious women, or a culture that uses images of women being tortured to sell alcohol, clothing, and film: that’s a rape culture.”


Do YOU have a question for our cabal of fierce feminists? Email it to Avital Norman Nathman at

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