Sexual Assault and Cultural Norms
last updated February 1, 2006

Cultural norms such as male honor, masculinity, and men's sexual entitlement, all foster societal acceptance of sexual assault in many ways. "[W]here the ideology of male superiority is strong—emphasizing dominance, physical strength and male honour—rape is more common." In many societies, for example, "women, as well as men, regard marriage as entailing the obligation on women to be sexually available virtually without limit." Even outside of marriage, women may have "extremely few legitimate options to refuse sexual advances." From World Health Organization, First World Report on Violence and Health 162 (2002).

When looking at  sexual assault as a learned behavior, the underlying theory is that  "social conditions, such as cultural norms, rules, and prevailing attitudes about sex, mold and structure the behavior of the rapists within the context of the broader social system, fostering rape-prone environments and, in effect, teaching men to rape." From Owen D. Jones, Sex, Culture, and the Biology of Rape: Toward Explanation and Prevention, 87 Cal. L.R. 827, 840 (1999). One study, for example, found that sexual violence was linked to larger patterns of violence within a society, an ideology that encourages male aggressiveness (particularly when males are encouraged to be sexually aggressive), and male dominance (such as low levels of female political and economic empowerment and high levels of sexual separation). From Sanday, The Socio-Cultural Context of Rape: A Cross-Cultural Study (1981).

Similarly, community honor in many countries is frequently seen closely connected to the behavior of the women of the community—a community's honor is preserved when its women are "pure." As a result, communities may police the behavior of their female members, and punish those who act in ways deemed inappropriate by the community. From 1997 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Alternative Approaches and Ways and Means Within the United Nations System for Improving the Effective Enjoyment of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (E/CN.4/1997/47), 12 February 1997.

The combination of cultural values that emphasize male dominance with economic transition may be particularly problematic, "as men turn their aggression against women they can no longer control patriarchally or support economically." From World Health Organization, First World Report on Violence and Health161 (2002).

Cultural norms that devalue women can combine with norms that value male dominance and aggressiveness to create a subculture that sanctions sexual violence. A recent study of sexual assault in the U.S. Air Force Academy, for example, found that almost twelve percent of the female graduates in 2003 had been victims of rape or attempted rape while they attended the Academy. Female students who came forward to talk about their experiences described the problem of sexual assault as "widespread and the product of a culture hostile toward women." From Women's e-News, Survey: Sexual Assault Common at Air Force Academy (30 August 2003).

In addition, sexual assault is associated with cultures experiencing high levels of violence and conflict: "Countries with a culture of violence, or where violent conflict is taking place, experience an increase in almost all forms of violence, including sexual violence." From World Health Organization, First World Report on Violence and Health 162 (2002). Other researchers have similarly found a high correlation between social disorganization, or the presence of conditions that undermine traditional societal institutions such as church or family networks, and rates of sexual assault. From Baron and Straus, Four Theories of Rape in American Society (1989).

Finally, psychological development models, models that are linked to learned behavior theories, maintain that men who rape often come from "harsh developmental backgrounds involving impersonal and short-term social relationships, and backgrounds in which manipulation, coercion, and violence are valid ways of conducting social relationships." From N.M. Malamuth & M.F. Heilmann, Evolutionary Psychology and Sexual Aggression, in Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, 515-42 (C. Crawford & D.L. Krebs eds., 1998), excerpts available from the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.