About the same time I started reading Kate Harding’s new book about rape culture, Billboard put out a questionnaire to music execs. One of those questions asks, “Who do you believe?” The options: Kesha or Dr. Luke. Last year, Kesha filed a lawsuit against Dr. Luke, her producer, alleging rape and a host of other abuses. With the legal proceedings still in motion, why would Billboard—or whoever at Billboard put the questionnaire together—think it’s okay for a bunch of random music executives to have an opinion on whether Kesha was sexually assaulted?
It’s a recent example of rape culture and how insidious it is. Harding writes in the introduction of Asking For It that when she decided to write the book rape culture was having “a moment,” with lots of press coverage and a growing awareness of a culture that systematically trivializes rape. Instead of dying down, that momentum has continued; it seems every week there’s a big new horrific story of well-known people accused of rape or sexual assault, or social media capturing the casual, everyday symptoms of a culture that generally treats women like sexual objects. As Harding wrote the book, the floodgate of Bill Cosby’s accusers had just opened. Since I started reading the book, Donald Trump’s lawyer said you can’t rape your spouse, and Chrissie Hynde told The Sunday Times, “If I’m walking around and I’m very modestly dressed and I’m keeping to myself and someone attacks me, then I’d say that’s his fault. But if I’m being very lairy and putting it about and being provocative, then you are enticing someone who’s already unhinged—don’t do that.”
Asking For It comes at a good time. The term “rape culture” has been around since the ’70s, but only relatively recently has it entered the vernacular, alongside “men’s rights activists,” Gamergate, and an explosion of feminist writers whose beat is writing about rape, abortion, harassment, and women’s rights. So while you’ve likely read some articles or conversed with friends about feminism and rape culture, the majority of feminists can’t dedicate their lives to researching rape culture—which is where Harding’s book comes in. Asking For It is a cohesive, thorough explanation of what rape culture is, how it affects the way we think about rape and rape survivors, and what can be done to challenge it. It also addresses underlying causes of rape culture, namely, a culture of toxic masculinity and victim blaming.
If you haven’t thought much about it before, Harding’s book will give you a whole new perspective on rape. Why is rape the only crime where the perpetrator is effectively erased and most or all of the focus is on the victim? And when a rapist is accused, why are they supported more than the person who got raped? With insight and knowledge both common sensical and researched, Harding demonstrates how rape is the only crime our culture sees this way. We don’t allow the “excuse” of being drunk as a get-out-of-jail-free card for people who drunkenly drive and kill people. And two people who are both drunk and one murders the other? Not okay. What if the person said they wanted to be murdered? Still not okay. We don’t tell the victims of theft that they shouldn’t have been walking around with a backpack, or the victims of arson that they shouldn’t have had such an easily burnable wooden house. And we don’t assume those people are lying when they go to police.
Harding lays out in clear, compelling prose how we’ve been trained to think about rape as different from other crimes, and what we can do to change that harmful mindset. Asking For It is perfect if you’ve heard the term “rape culture” and aren’t sure what to make of it. It’s also perfect for both the burgeoning and the expert feminist. It’s not going to change the minds of rape apologists—people who stridently believe that women are inferior and rape isn’t real aren’t going to go looking for things that challenge their world view, after all—but for the reasonable and respectful among us, Asking For It is necessary to get a grip on rape culture. One in five women will be raped in their lifetime, but fewer than five out of 100 rapists will get convicted. Think about that the next time you’re with your friends, at work, on the train: If there are five women around you, it’s statistically likely that one has been raped. It’s also likely their rapist is still out there.
Asking For It incorporates such studies fluently into the text; despite the long list of endnotes in the back, it never feels academically off-putting. Harding is a funny writer, making good use of sarcasm and irony to drive her points home. It makes for a surprisingly fun read—or at least, as fun as it can possibly be to read about rape and the amazing lengths cultural institutions go to not only ignore it, but actively blame the women and men who get raped. (One in 71 men will get raped in their lifetimes. Men are actually more likely to get raped than to be falsely accused of rape.) Everyone—men and women—live in a swirling mix of culture, with the criminal justice system, the media, Hollywood, music, peers, school, everything, influencing the way we think about everything, including rape. It’s a lot to wrap your head around. So it’s helpful to have an expert like Harding on the case.