I’ve been thinking about gender and culture a lot lately. Part of that is my daughter transforming practically overnight from an infant to a walking talking little person with her own ideas and opinions, part of that is the immanent arrival of her little brother, and part of it is the ongoing string of revelations around rape and sexual harassment. How can I raise my children to make sure that they are neither victims or abusers? Feminist writers have written at length about rape culture, and if you’re not already familiar with the term I would strongly recommend reading up. As I’ve thought about it over the years though I’ve become more and more convinced that the issue goes much deeper – right to the heart of culture’s like ours that normalize and glorify empire. I call it “conquest culture”.
Let’s start with a simple question: why do we habitually frame social interactions as contests with a winner and a loser? From relationships to virtually all sports and games ,to the economy; virtually all social interactions in our society are framed in terms of winners and losers. This is why we glorify vikings and romans in our history while ignoring peaceful cultures that have objectively contributed far more of value to humanity. It’s why Alexander is “the Great” – and why I don’t have to specify which Alexander I mean. It’s why Napolean is still widely admired and so many roads and schools are named after victorious generals.
The fascination with conquest and violence isn’t just in our history, it’s in our fiction too. As Conan the Barbarian (or rather the script writer) famously put it when asked “what is best in life”:
To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.
26 years after that movie’s release, you can still buy t-shirts with the quote, which probably means it holds some cultural resonance. As intentionally over the top as it is, it’s still a version of masculinity that is widely accepted and glorified in our culture.
The need to “toughen up” boys so they can become men is the reason why male children, from the time they are infants, receive less affection and less positive physical contact from parents. In extreme cases this includes physical abuse from parental figures – often but not exclusively father figures. Conquest culture is the way we traumatize our sons in order to transform them into conquerors, warriors, and winners because the alternative is being losers.
This takes many different forms, the sports dad who berates his son for missing a play is so common it’s a trope. On any given game night there are thousands of households in america with little boys desperately trying not to cry after daddy screamed at them when their team lost. It’s not exclusive to the treatment of boys either – I’ve read more accounts than I could count about moms who push their daughters to the point of abuse in child modeling, pageants, dance, sports, or other highly competitive endeavors. It can also be parents who push their kids academically – kids who get verbally or physically abused if they don’t bring home straight A’s. For many people, winning is everything and no cost is too high to ensure victory.
This is not entirely irrational behavior – there are obvious benefits in a highly stratified culture and economy to pushing one’s children to succeed. In an economy predicated on scarcity there are winners and losers as a matter of definition; and everyone wants their children to be the winners. The line between love and abuse gets a lot blurrier than it should be for a lot of people.
So how does this tie into rape culture? Consider the phrase “sexual conquest”. Today, 1 in every 200 men are direct linear descendants of Gengis Khan, That didn’t happen because he had loving consensual relationships with thousands of women – it happened because he and his descendants butchered and raped their way across a huge portion of the most densely populated parts of our planet. Conquest culture is rape culture. Even outside of literal war zones, the idea that conquest and victory mean sexual access is absolutely foundational to western culture. How many movies have you seen where a male protagonist overcomes their great struggle, vanquishes their rival, and then doesn’t get the girl?
This is worth stating again: winners get the girl. We all know this. Implicitly, that means that losers don’t; and that if you don’t it must be because you’re a loser. In other words, we’ve made it a core part of our cultural narrative that successful men are owed sex. That’s how you know their successful after all! Following that logic, if a woman rejects a sexual advance it’s because she thinks you’re not successful enough, so her lack of interest becomes an insult. Conquest culture demands that insults be met with violence lest they inspire further insults and loss of status. Male sexual entitlement and a lot of male violence towards women starts here.
This is Brock Turner raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, the judge letting him off easy because he didn’t want to interfere with a rising athletic star’s career, and Brock’s dad saying 6 months in jail was “a steep price for 20 minutes of action“. This is any number of other powerful men, from athletes to movie producers, being outed by the #MeToo movement as serial sexual offenders and all the people who turned a blind eye and enabled that abuse for years. It’s also the tolerance of “hazing” that includes sexual abuse in sports teams, frats, and military units. It’s dozens of old Hollywood movies where the male protagonist grabs and kisses the protesting woman until she likes it and kisses him back. In all of these cases rape and assault were excused and normalized because the offender was framed as the protagonist – the triumphant victor who takes what he wants.
In many cases degradation of women in popular culture isn’t even about the women – it’s a lazy plot device used used to humiliate the men who are unable to protect them. This is the common thread tying together ‘your mama’ jokes with prima nochta in Mel Gibson’s wildly fictionalized Braveheart and the “lamentations of the women” in the Conan the Barbarian quote above. In all of those – and a thousand other examples – abusing women becomes nothing more than another weapon used by men in a never-ending conquest for dominance over each other. The damsel in distress trope is the flip side of this, and in both cases women are denied agency and reduced to prizes to be won by victorious men.
Conquest culture doesn’t stop with rape and abuse of women of course. It’s also an economy and social structure that creates winners and losers – billionaires and homeless people at the extremes but also the dozens of layers of stratification between those two; and normalizes that inequality. It’s the fact that we learn the history of kings, generals, and robber barons and make those monsters into heroes while the history of the working class goes untold. It’s a fundamental belief system woven into the foundations of our culture that normalizes conquest and says ‘to the victor go the spoils’.
It’s practically cliched to assert that rape and abuse are fundamentally about assertions of dominance, but as a culture we seem remarkably unwilling to take the next step and recognize that our glorification of conquest and domination is the root problem. Until we take that step, we are spinning our wheels. Ending rape culture requires ending conquest culture, and if our ultimate goal is human liberation we have to do both.