Rape culture’s long-standing history: Leda, Zeus, and Greek mythology

by: Georgia Pettygrove

The term “rape culture” is used often in when discussing sexual assalut and in media and literature, but what does it actually mean? 

Simply put, the term “rape culture” describes a societal acceptance of sexual assualt. The United Nations Women’s website’s article on standing up to rape culture describes it as “the social environment that allows sexual violence to be normalized and justified, fueled by the persistent gender inequalities and attitudes about gender and sexuality.” Such a culture breeds an abundance of excuses for rape and shifts the blame to the victim; the ideas that a victim of assault must physically resist his or her attacker for it to be considered rape, and that victims are “asking for it” because of their clothing or behavior are only two of the countless examples of victim blaming surrounding the topic of sexual violence.  

Rape is an recurring element in stories of Greek mythology, and it often results in the conception of a new hero or essential character. Rape is glorified and almost justified in these instances because those acts of violence result in something that’s considered “positive.” When Zeus assaults Leda in “Leda and the Swan,” she ends up getting pregnant and later gives birth to Helen of Troy (the woman whom the Trojan War was fought over). The presence of sexual assault in Greek mythology suggests that all gods and heroes are made helpless by their attraction to women, which, in turn, excuses and justifies rape. Further, all of the men committing those assaults are very powerful individuals and their actions go unchallenged and unaddressed because of their stature. 

Given that these Greek narratives took places thousands of years ago, it’s evident that rape culture has been around for a large part of human existence. The long-standing presence of violence in literature shows how deeply-rooted sexism and misogyny are in human culture. How can we abolish rape culture? How can we, as a collective society, shift the way we think about sexual assault so we don’t blame victims, and we hold those who are truly at fault, responsible? How can we shift away from teaching people how to avoid being victims of sexual assault, and steer toward advocating against rape in general? 

One thought on “Rape culture’s long-standing history: Leda, Zeus, and Greek mythology

  1. Hi Georgia!!
    I adore this post of yours; I really like how you articulated how rape is glorified in ancient mythological stories. I also like how you brought up the idea of “asking for it.” Good job!!


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