Rape Culture, Bystanders, Allies: Sexual Assault FAQs

What is Rape Culture?

Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture can be seen in the normalizing of aggressive sexuality in movies and media, in the way women are portrayed in advertising, and in the gendered and sexualized messages that are prevalent in consumer products geared towards children. See below for some examples.


  • Trivializing sexual assault (“Boys will be boys!”)
  • Sexually explicit jokes
  • Tolerance of sexual harassment
  • Inflating false rape report statistics
  • Gratuitous gendered violence in movies and television
  • Defining “manhood” as dominant and sexually aggressive
  • Defining “womanhood” as submissive and sexually passive
  • Assuming only promiscuous women get raped
  • Assuming that men don’t get raped or that only “weak” men get raped
  • Refusing to take rape accusations seriously
  • Teaching women to avoid getting raped instead of teaching men not to rape


What is Victim Blaming?

Victim blaming occurs when the victim of a crime or any wrongful act is held entirely or partially responsible for the harm that befell them. In the case of sexual assault survivors are often questioned due to this phenomenon. Common statements that display victim blaming include the following:

  • What was she wearing?
  • Was he/she drinking?
  • He/She was asking for it.
  • Did he/she fight back?
  • Hadn’t they hooked up before?

Victim-blaming attitudes marginalize the victim/survivor and make it harder to come forward and report the abuse. If the survivor knows that you or society blames the survivor for the abuse, s/he will not feel safe or comfortable coming forward and talking to you. Additionally due to the prevalence of victim blaming attitudes in our culture victims often ask themselves these same questions or blame themselves for the abuse (i.e. I didn’t fight back, I shouldn’t have been wearing that, etc.).




What is the Just World Hypothesis?

The just-world hypothesis or just-world fallacy is the cognitive bias (or assumption) that a person’s actions are inherently inclined to bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person, to the end of all noble actions being eventually rewarded and all evil actions eventually punished. In other words “good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.” The Just World Hypothesis allows people to feel safe in their world and reduces their anxiety, due to the illusion that if they are a good person, something they can control, and then bad things will not happen to them. This hypothesis is false, however when an individual is raped people often blame the victim as doing something “wrong” or “bad” to caused the assault (victim blaming). In doing so one is able to avoid the anxiety of knowing that they may also be vulnerable to injustice.



What is an Ally?

An ally is an individual who joins with another for a common purpose. Allies are often people who support a community or people group while not being a member of that group. These are people who demonstrate by their presence and actions the importance of dignity and human rights for all people. To be a sexual assault ally it is important to understand the cultural issues, language, history and dynamics around sexual assault and violence.



What is a bystander?
A bystander is a person who is present when an event takes place but isn’t directly involved. Bystanders might be present when sexual assault or abuse occurs—or they could witness the circumstances that lead up to these crimes. You may have heard the term “bystander intervention” to describe a situation where someone who isn’t directly involved steps in to change the outcome. Stepping in may give the person you’re concerned about a chance to get to a safe place or leave the situation.



What is the difference between “victim” and “survivor?”

The word victim contributes a feeling that someone who has experienced assault is irreparably damaged, which can become, an image that replaces their true identity. Survivor imparts a sense of movement, of moving on beyond the event, and of reclamation, taking back your life. It’s a strong word and can help those who have been assaulted begin to regain the power that was taken from them. It is important to note that some affected by sexual violence feel pressured to “hurry up and heal” when others used the language “survivor.” As with any issue regarding labels and appropriate language it is important to defer to the individual directly affected to see what language they are most comfortable with.



How do people react following rape?

This varies from individual to individual. Many may display signs of Rape Trauma Syndrome, which include feelings of numbness and shock initially. Others may develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Anxiety Disorders or other conditions. Any reaction that an individual has to their assault should be validated and normalized. It is often helpful for those who have been assault to recognize common symptoms which may be misleading or confusing them, such as inability to clearly recall the events surrounding the assault, or emotional numbness and detachment. Also, for loved ones it is important to know that some of the symptoms typically seen in an individual after rape include minimization (pretending ‘everything is fine’) and suppression (refuses to discuss the rape). These are not indications of whether or not the assault actually occurred.



What is the best thing I can say if a friend tells me they were assaulted?

“I believe you” is the single best thing you can say to someone disclosing abuse or sexual violence.