From “Ladies First” to “Asking for It”: Benevolent Sexism in the Maintenance of Rape Culture
The problem of sexual violence against women has been analyzed with an eye to the causal significance of misogyny, but legal analysis has neglected the role played by other facets of sexism, including ostensibly “benevolent” sexism (or chivalry), in the perpetuation of rape culture, which normalizes this violence. Additionally, discussions of sexual violence often overlook the epidemic of acquaintance rape, although it accounts for the majority of sexual assaults committed. This Comment draws on social psychology and gender theory to posit that benevolent-sexist ideologies construct women as creatures devoid of agency, leading men to routinely presume women’s consent to sexual activity whether or not such consent in fact exists. The legal treatment of women’s rape and sexual harassment claims shows the catastrophic effects of this process as women are relegated cognitively, socially, and legally to a role of passive receptivity—forced to prove an absence of consent as men are taught to assume its presence. This Comment reviews legal proposals to address rape and sexual harassment, some of which have been implemented, and concludes that direct legal reforms alone are insufficient. It asserts that gender norms, and the rigid binary division of gender, must be broken down if the rates at which rape is committed and acquitted are to decrease. It finally identifies possible steps that target the root of sexism and rape culture—binary gender differentiation—and concludes that the liberation of queer, trans, and intersex communities is essential to the feminist project of eradicating sexual violence.