I love spending time with my aunt. She takes me to work, we gossip, I tell her about all the guys I could just die for…. We spend a lot of time together. One particular evening, however, I will never forget. We were sitting at the table. Picture this scene: Two grown men, two grown women, and me all sitting down drinking coffee and talking. It seemed like any normal adult conversation. Well, somehow, the conversation turned to talking about college and safety. Ladies, you’ve all heard it. “Don’t go out late, carry pepper spray, travel in groups, yada yada.” My aunt’s mother said, shaking her head, “In cases of assault…it’s so sad. But so-and-so is a police officer, and he said that in almost every assault case he has, the woman was either out late alone where she shouldn’t have been, or she was wearing something provocative or skimpy.” Moments passed and then my uncle said to me, “You look like you’re holding your tongue.” For the sake of argument, I said I disagreed. We argued for a few minutes, and then I gave in and said I understood their point. In that moment, I perpetuated rape culture.
There it is; I said it: Rape. By now, I see a few faces have gone pale and, frankly, a few months ago, I, too, would have been sinking down in my chair at the sound of the word. See, we live in a society that almost subconsciously condones rape as an act of lust and blames the survivor for whatever factor he or she possesses that “triggered” the attack. For some reason, though, we cannot call the thing what it is. Ugly, isn’t it? We shy away from the ugly thing, instead of trying to change it, and in doing so, we perpetuate rape culture to make ourselves feel better.
I’ll be honest; when I chose to speak on this topic, it was hard. Hard to decide how to go about it without offending one gender of people, hard to speak and not make generalizations, hard to speak and not make anyone uncomfortable. I began writing, and six versions later, here I am. So today, as you might have guessed, we will be examining all aspects of the elephant in the room. I’ve always been a fan of lists, so we’ll pick apart the tricky subject in the easiest way possible—with an outlined list of the problems and solutions for how to change from a society that doesn’t understand trauma to one that can sympathize and acknowledge survivors’ struggles and strengths.
The first few problems could be considered subsets of an issue: We perpetuate rape culture because we do not understand we are doing it.
Problem Number One: We do not acknowledge rape for what it is. As a matter of fact, we won’t even call it what it is. Society has deemed rape as worthy of fitting under the umbrella term “sexual assault.” While many people may believe that “sexual assault” sounds more politically correct, the term has actually been developed to encompass all different forms and variations of sexual assault. In using this phrase instead of the word rape, we have done two things:
First, we have made ourselves more comfortable and lessened the shock value of the situation. In an interview, Alexis Jaworowski, a rape survivor herself, and the author of the blog https://rapesurvivorsstandtogether.wordpress.com, said:
Saying “rape” is a very harsh word—even though that is the topic of discussion. It is strange that we don’t feel comfortable saying rape. Even when I tell my story to people I say I was sexually abused.
I just tried to say, “I was raped” out loud and it was really difficult for me to do.
Second, we have made rape part of a group of atrocities and failed to acknowledge that it is its own problem and unique from all other types of assault—just like each survivor and their situation is unique from the rest. That brings us to problem number two.
Problem Number Two: We assume that rape only happens to one group of people—young women. This is not the case at all. In fact, a study done by RAINN (rape, abuse, and incest national network) reported that 2.78 million men in the United States alone have been the victims of sexual assault and rape. Assault and violence is nondiscriminatory—anyone can fall victim at any time. When we recognize that rape and other forms of sexual assault are not crimes committed against only young women, we begin to realize that some of our other assumptions are also false.
Problem Number Three: We name rape as an act of lust or passion, and, in turn, we end up blaming the victim and condoning the rapist’s actions. We do this simply by asking the questions: “What was she wearing?” “Was she drinking?” “Why was she alone so late?” and “But weren’t they dating?” Rape is not a crime that occurs because a woman is irresistible or dressed and behaving a certain way. If that were the case, young girls and the elderly would not have the highest rate of sexual assaults and rapes of the entire population. But that is not the case. Rape is an act of power and control. It is about force. We can see this in everyday culture, too. Take a thirteen-year-old boy for example. He’s playing Call of Duty with his friend and wins the game. Laughing, he says, “Dude, I totally raped you!” In this situation is he saying his friend was attractive to him during the game? Of course not; that wouldn’t make any sense. He’s saying he destroyed him. Annihilated him. Humiliated him. That is what rape is.
While these problems are not the only ones occurring and contributing to the problem, I feel that they are some of the biggest causes of this societal problem. So how do we change it?
Solution Number One: Change the language. Do not be afraid to label the act what it is—rape. If the word makes the counterpart in your conversation uncomfortable—good. It should. Rape should not be something that people are comfortable with because it is a crime. In addition, change the phrases and gender roles we place on young people. Boys will be boys and girls just wanna have fun, right? Wrong. While these phrases seem meaningless, their underlying truths give us a glimpse at this subconscious societal justification and perpetuation of rape culture.
In saying “Boys will be boys,” we have not only justified violence against women by making it seem as though men cannot control themselves, but we have also undermined male survivors’ struggles. It is a stereotypical gender role that “real men” are sex hungry, and they can control sexual situations with women. In fact, the male victims study done by S.E.A.M.E. reports that at least 15 percent of male molestations do not get reported—solely because the encounter was with a woman and the individual feels no one will take him seriously. With this phrase, “Boys will be boys,” we need to know two things: 1) Men can control themselves, so a need for sexual gratification is not a reason or excuse to rape, and 2) Men can only control themselves, not the other men and women around them who may want to harm them.
“Girls just wanna have fun” goes back to my previous statement that rape and abuse are never the victim’s fault. Girls wanna have fun—not be taken advantage of and used during times of vulnerability. Stop saying, “Don’t slut shame me,” but instead, “Don’t refer to me as a slut—ever.” Consent is sexy? No. Lingerie is sexy. Consent is a basic human right. “No” doesn’t mean “Convince me.” Stop saying “Men are dogs.” Stop making rape jokes. The list goes on. Simply clean up the language.
Solution Number Two: Recognize that rape happens to any subset of people and any person can become a victim. Men are not the only ones who commit acts of sexual assault—so stop blaming them. And stop victim blaming. A woman didn’t cause her own rape by drinking too much, or wearing skimpy clothing, or saying she’d have sex with someone and then changing her mind. A man is not magically incapable of being assaulted in any way because “He should enjoy it” or “He should’ve been able to stop it if he wanted to.” We need to stop explaining what we would have done in the situation or how the victim should have handled it. The truth is, no one knows what he or she would do until it happens to them.
Solution Number Three: Not only do we need to stop blaming victims, but we need to reach out and listen to them. Acknowledge their strengths and encourage them to fight through the memories. In Alexis Jaworowski’s interview, she said, “The psychological issues are the worst thing that comes with being assaulted. It forever changes who you are as a person. I still have really bad days because of what happened, even three and a half years later.” As a community, we need to come together to let survivors know that if they’ve chosen to trust us with this, we are here to listen and will not judge.
By recognizing the problems and taking steps to keep them from occurring, we can say, “No” to perpetuating rape culture, shift to a society that is no longer ignorant on the subject, and make a change.
About the Author
Amber Olson grew up in Saint Louis, Missouri and is currently attending St. Louis University (SLU) as a medical laboratory science major on a pre-med track. She originally wrote this wonderful article as an oratory because she witnessed Alexis Jaworowski speaking out on the topic of Rape Culture on social media. This served as the catalyst to recognizing the conversation taking place in her own life. When she found out that she had to deliver an oratory for a final grade in one of her courses at SLU, she decided that she was going to try to impact at least one person and take the risk of going public with this topic. Amber states, “Though I have never been raped, I was sexually abused in the past and found a lot of similarities in how the topics are handled in our society. I’m just really thankful how far we’ve come, but there’s still a long way to go.”
A note from The DATE SAFE Project: We are grateful for “Upstanders” like Amber and Alexis and want to extend our humble thanks to them for contributing to The DATE SAFE Project’s mission to create a culture of consent and respect. Amber and Alexis, you have impacted many individuals! – The DATE SAFE Project team