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What is rape culture?

When we talk about ‘rape culture’, we’re talking about a society where sexual violence and abuse is normalised, played down and laughed off. And where women and girls are seen as ‘less than’ men and boys.

At Rape Crisis England & Wales, we believe rape culture is part of the reason why sexual violence and abuse is so widespread against women and girls.

We also believe it's part of the reason why...

  • The criminal justice system almost never brings perpetrators of sexual violence and abuse to justice.
  • Society so often makes excuses for perpetrators – or finds a reason why victims and survivors ‘asked’ for what happened to them or somehow deserved it.
  • People so often don’t believe victims and survivors – whether that’s family and friends, the police, jurors or people reading about cases in the news.
  • There’s not enough funding to support victims and survivors – whether that’s through counselling, advocacy, emotional support or financial and other practical help.
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If you are affected by anything you read here, you can talk to us.

This belief – that rape culture is partly to blame for all of the above – helps to guide everything we do

Of course, we want more perpetrators of rape and other sexual violence and abuse to be brought to justice.

And we want victims and survivors to be believed. And we also want there to be more funding to support them.

BUT, we also believe that it’s not enough to simply treat the symptoms of rape culture. If we want to stop sexual violence and abuse from happening in the first place then we also need to tackle the root causes – including rape culture itself.

And to do that, we first of all need to understand what it is and why it exists.

Read about some of the myths surrounding sexual violence
This black and white image shows a woman looking down while holding the palm of one of her hands up to the camera. On her palm is written #METOO.

What do we mean when we talk about ‘rape culture’?

Rape culture is a culture where sexual violence and abuse is normalised and played down. Where it is accepted, excused, laughed off or not challenged enough by society as a whole. 

Rape culture is also a culture where some people are making money, or benefitting in some other way, from this normalisation of sexual violence and abuse. 

All of this can be a hard thing to get your head around to begin with. You might be thinking, ‘But of course most people don’t think sexual violence and abuse is okay’. And you might be right – in theory.

The problem is that in reality this just isn’t true. And the facts exist to prove it.

In England and Wales...

  • 1 in 4women

    have been raped or sexually assaulted as an adult

  • 1 in 6children

    have been sexually abused

  • 1 in 20men

    have been raped or sexually assaulted as an adult

Not to mention that...

  • 9 in 10 girls and young women in schools say sexist name-calling and being sent unwanted 'dick pics' and other images of a sexual nature happens to them or other girls their age.
  • 1 in 2 survivors of rape in adulthood have experienced it more than once.
  • Most survivors of rape don't report it to the police. Many say it's because they're too embarrassed, that they think it would be humiliating or that the police couldn't help.
  • Just 1 in 100 rapes recorded by the police result in a charge – let alone a conviction.

This last point means that rape is essentially decriminalised in England and Wales. In other words, that most perpetrators of rape get away with it and never face justice.

And, on top of all of this, there's a serious lack of funding in place to give victims and survivors the specialist support they need and deserve.

Find out more in our 'Holding It Together' report


This lack of funding meant that in September 2021 our member centres had a total of 12,000 victims and survivors on their waiting lists. This was despite the very real and terrible impacts we know sexual violence and abuse can have on victims and survivors. 

All of this is bad enough. But what makes it even worse is the message it sends: that our society thinks sexual violence and abuse is okay. Or at least not that bad. Because if it didn’t then how could we allow all of this to happen?

Why does rape culture exist?

As a proudly feminist organisation, we believe that rape culture exists because our society sees women and girls as less important than men and boys. In other words, as less deserving of respect and power (over both their own lives and within society).

Sometimes, we also talk about women and girls being 'objectified' or 'hyper-sexualised' from a young age. By this, we mean they are viewed as objects that exist to entertain, serve or pleasure men – instead of equal human beings.

But why is this? Well, we believe it's because we live in a society where men hold the most power – what is sometimes known as 'patriarchy'.

It’s not a coincidence that the majority of victims and survivors of sexual violence are women and girls. Or that most perpetrators are men.

Because, when society views women and girls as less deserving of respect and power than men and boys, it treats them that way too.

Why we can't ignore gender when we're talking about sexual violence

  • 9 in 10survivors of child sexual abuse

    say it was committed by men and boys only

  • 98%of adults prosecuted for sexual offences

    are men

  • 94%of the adults who experience rape every year

    are women

We see society treating women and girls as less deserving of respect and power than men and boys when...

  • Men catcall women and girls in the street and other public places.
  • Men make sexist or inappropriate sexual comments or ‘jokes’ – including in the workplace.
  • Men don't respect women's boundaries or take their words or body language seriously. For example, when a man continues to ask a woman out when she's already said 'no'.
  • Society tells women and girls what their clothes and bodies should look like. (And this is always a 'game' that women and girls can't win – either they're accused of being too sexual or accused of being too covered up or not feminine enough.) 
  • Men commit sexual offences against women and girls – often against those they know or even say they love.
  • Men commit any of the above and other men don’t challenge it – or even go along with it.
  • Or, when women and girls are scared to speak up or think there’s no point to it. Because they think they won’t be believed or that they’ll be shamed or punished.

If things like this didn’t happen very often, we might be able to just brush them off as one-off incidents.

But when they happen over and over and over again, and across society, they reveal a culture.

So, why and how do these things keep happening?

Normalisation of sexual violence and abuse

Because, in a nutshell, sexual violence and abuse against women and girls has been normalised in our society.

This normalisation might not always be obvious. As we've already mentioned, most people in society would never admit to thinking that rape or other forms of sexual violence and abuse were okay. But we can find evidence for it in lots of places.

For example:

  • In the popularity of violent pornography.
  • In the popularity of music, TV shows and films that glamorise sexual violence and abuse against women and girls. Or ones that show their boundaries not being respected. We see this a lot with the 'chase' storyline – where a woman says 'no' to a relationship, going on a date or some kind of sexual activity with a man, and he then harasses or stalks her until she gives in.​​

These things in turn help to normalise sexual violence and abuse even more, taking us round in a vicious circle.

Let's end rape culture?

If, like us, you find all of this really upsetting and scary then you might be pleased to hear that we haven’t lost hope.

We still believe in a society where sexual violence and abuse isn’t normalised. And maybe even one, some day, where it doesn’t exist at all.

We can all play a part in ending rape culture.

One way to do this is to intervene whenever you see sexual violence and abuse happening (as long as it’s safe to do so). Or to call out sexist or inappropriate sexual comments or ‘jokes’. This is especially important to do if you’re a man. Because, as we’ve seen, men often hold the power in these situations.

Find tips on intervening in sexual violence
A blurred group of women marching at a protest. Some women are holding up signs, but only one can be read: 'My little black dress doesn't mean yes'.

Getting help and support

Everyone responds differently to sexual violence and abuse – so whatever someone feels is a valid response. But, for lots of people, it can have a long-lasting impact on their feelings and wellbeing. 

If you have experienced any form of sexual violence or abuse – whether it was recently or a long time ago – Rape Crisis is here for you. We will listen to you and believe you.