Today I presented on rape culture to an undergraduate college course. While I’ve taught about violence against women in my other courses before, I’ve never had a full 3 hours to focus specifically on rape culture. For those who are unfamiliar with this concept, when we talk about rape culture, we are talking about a culture that enables and supports sexual assault. This is the culture in which we live. Here are two quotes from Jackson Katz’s book, The Macho Paradox, that help explain the concept of rape culture:
…individual acts of gender violence emanate from an unequal and sexist cultural context, within which heterosexual men are conditioned to objectify and dominate women in the sexual sphere, and exert power and control over them in intimate relationships. (pg. 117)
…men who rape are not simply a handful of “sick” or deviant individuals. They are instead the products of a culture that glorifies and sexualizes male power and dominance, and at the same time glorifies and sexualizes female subservience and submission. (pg. 149).
This can be a pretty tough topic to discuss because it challenges what we’ve all come to view as normal and makes us critically think about the messages we receive every day through music, media, and other things that are supposed to be “just for fun, entertainment, information, etc.” Today was no exception. Some of the typical responses I got from these students, as I’ve experienced from my past students are:
1) If women just wouldn’t do x or y, they wouldn’t be raped.
2) Biology makes us this way.
3) Well, we just need to teach women to protect themselves.
These are, of course, common myths about sexual assault. 1) No one is ever responsible for being sexually assaulted. Would you blame a victim of any other crime for being victimized (“If only you hadn’t been carrying a wallet.”) 2) Rape is a behavioral choice, not the result of testosterone. I don’t even know what to say about this one – there is just no evidence to support it. A world in which rape was the result of biology would be a world in which men were constantly being dragged around by their penises. What does that say about men? I’m sorry but I have more respect for men than to paint them all as mindless sex fiends. 3) My response to this could be a 10 page essay. Let me just say that we’ve been doing this – we’ve been teaching women how to protect themselves for a very long time and, sorry folks, it’s not ending rape. This perspective puts the impetus on potential victims to somehow keep away from or resist rapists. What is that saying? “Men are going to rape. That’s just the way it is. Women, keep yourselves safe while men continue to rape.” There is so much more to all of this, but I’ll end with a general “ugh.”
Here’s what I didn’t (quite) expect:
1) Empowering women means you’re turning them into people who could be raped.
2) What’s the big deal? What’s so bad about all of this?
3) Women actually cause rape culture because they are raising the kids…and should be raising the kids…unfortunately the economy is requiring women to work these days.
4) You’re wrong. Actually it’s women and other “protected classes” who are IN POWER.
Yeah. My response to all of this: WTF?! And believe me, this is the tip of the iceberg of WTF attitudes and comments. 1) Uh huh. Cause when women didn’t have rights, they never got raped. 2) What do you mean!? Rape is bad. Can’t we at least agree on that? Why are you taking this class? 3) We all can internalize oppression. I do it. It’s so strong that it’s hard to avoid. These attitudes, prejudices, stereotypes, behaviors, etc. are so entrenched in our culture that of course we pass them on to our children. Hell, I gender my dogs. And don’t even get me started on the rest of that comment. 4) Uh…do I even have to respond to this?
These are just some examples of what I experienced today. I’m used to feeling discouraged after these presentations and I know not to expect that I’ll change any minds in a matter of a few hours. But this time it was different, more intense. I was a woman up there trying to convince people that rape is bad. That our culture contributes to its occurrence. And at the same time that we were illuminating and discussing attitudes and messages that blame victims and condone rape, the audience was throwing it right back at me. On me. Essentially, I was being told that I’d better go get back into that “Act Like a Lady” box or it would happen to me.
Halfway through the presentation, I thought to myself, “I wish I had asked a man to do this presentation.” Why is that? I’m completely capable. Yet I’d venture to guess that I’m not the only woman in this movement who would like a man to back her up on this stuff. I would like those men who were telling me that I was oppressing them to go back home and have another man in their lives talk this through with them. Beyond binary distinctions of “men vs. women,” we need all people talking about and working on dismantling rape culture, just as we need all people to work on dismantling all isms and manifestations of oppression. Yet it wasn’t until a few years ago that I encountered any heterosexual men doing this work.
Right now, (white, heterosexual) men hold unearned social power and privilege. Rather than channeling that power and privilege into rape culture, I invite them to come back me up. Back us up! Women have been doing this work forever. Today I realized that I was up there trying to fight against my own oppression. I was trying to convince people with more social power than me that, really, it’s not okay to keep perpetuating a culture that condones assaulting me and people like me. It wasn’t easy. It never has been. I’m going to keep doing this work. It sure would be nice to have my guy friends, family, and acquaintances back me up.