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Cover Up: A 14-Year-Old’s Look at Rape Culture

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

This summer I went to Health and Medicine camp at Northwestern University (fondly known as nerd camp). There, we were given a prompt: Pick a public health issue that, given 10,000 dollars, you could create a program to change. The answer–for me at least–was easy: I wanted to end rape culture.

When my group reconvened later that afternoon, I stood in front of my thirteen classmates, sitting behind tiny school desks in a college classroom. I took a breath. Although I hate public speaking, I never give up the opportunity to talk about something I love.

“I think our topic should be consent and rape culture.” This was different from the other ideas: jaywalking, drunk driving, mental illness. Some shifted in their desks. I’m sure it made a few of them uncomfortable.

Finally, someone asked, “What’s rape culture?”

With two years of Tumblr research behind me, I explained, “Rape culture is a term that defines a culture where sexual violence is the accepted and expected norm, and where victims are blamed instead of the perpetrators.”

Some students nodded but most frowned in confusion.

After some debate, the group gave me the task of leading the project through education. The person my group had entrusted to give our presentation in front of the rest of the camp was a boy. Great, I thought. Yet another man trying to speak for women.

“So what, exactly, does rape culture mean?” James asked.

I was surprised he asked, since he had volunteered to speak about it.

She's A Person_Makena McElroy_Sweatpants & Coffee_600px

“Rape culture is the double standard between men and women,” I said. “A girl who has sex is considered a slut, whereas a boy is considered a stud.” I looked around at my friends. “Rape culture is one in which only thirty-eight percent of television characters are girls (the number goes down if you look at family films), and they are mostly love interests. Where products like Axe and Old Spice, cologne and body wash for men, are marketed by using women as props or pieces of meat. How female sexual empowerment, like Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda video, is considered slutty, but the original Big Butts by Sir Mix-A-Lot was just boys being boys. How even women’s magazines, like Cosmopolitan and Vogue, boast, “How to entice your man with these 6 moves,” or, “Beach Body in 3 weeks!” How the most important thing for a woman to be is pretty. How rape jokes are ‘normal.’”

What I didn’t say was that rape culture is also one in which I count the number of cat calls I receive because they make me feel disgusting and special at the same time. Because I’ve spent my whole life being over-sexualized, told to cover up since I was six years old. Because the boys might get distracted or “someone might get the wrong idea.” Because my bra strap might be seen as an invitation.

As I recounted my stories and experiences, disgust twisted inside me at how many there were. I turned around and saw the whole group staring at me. I looked into the face of my best friend there and saw a glisten of tears. She nodded slightly; she, too, knew these things.

“You are the most passionate person I have ever met,” she told me in the dining hall later that day. “I can tell you believe everything you say, and it’s really, really powerful.”

In the classroom, I turned back to James.

“Do you think I was clear?” I looked down at what he’d written on his paper. He rubbed his pen against his lip and nodded. I knew, though, that all the notes and explanation in the world could not explain what fourteen years of being told to be ashamed for having a female body feels like. How much your skin crawls when a man old enough to be your father yells out his car window at you. How you suddenly feel every inch of exposed skin, how you beat yourself up for daring to wear a tank top. And then how disgusted you are for thinking it was anyone’s fault but his.

When practicing, James talked to the audience—appealing to the boys about why they should care, even though rape culture’s effects were mainly felt by women, one in four of whom will be raped in their lifetime.

“What if she was your mother, your sister, your girlfriend?” he asked the imaginary crowd.

“Don’t say that,” I suggested. “She is a person. That’s all you need to say. This is happening to another person.”

This was the main problem, I felt. Maybe if we could see everyone as people instead of as a gender, we might also see change.

“You’re sure you’ve got this?” We walked back to the dining hall after a long day of me reiterating everything I knew about rape culture, trying to infuse my passion into his notes.

“Yes.” He exhaled. I knew that he was tired of me asking, but I loved this project. I couldn’t let him present it lifelessly.

The next day, probably as a result of my constant pestering, he asked me if I would present the rape culture slide. I exhaled in relief. Of course I would.

As I practiced my speech, I asked the group if there was anything I could do to improve it. One girl offered, “Why not make it more interactive by asking the girls how many times they have been catcalled or dress coded? Then ask the guys.” I thought it was a good idea.

Before I could get another word out, however, the small room erupted with my classmates’ protests. They didn’t want to separate genders because all genders are affected by rape.

Roger added, “But not all men do that. Not all men catcall.” I could tell he was hurt or offended.

Will I always be offending people by telling my story?

After this discussion, I was commended by my friend Mark for being so passionate about the subject. But he also defended his friend. “You were getting a little crazy back there,” he said. “It’s good Roger was there to tone you down.”

I was furious, appalled, and a bit amazed that he dared to make that comment. I live in a culture where I am taught to carry pepper spray, to walk in groups, to cover up, so people don’t take advantage of me, where 97% of rapists walk free, where victim blaming and slut shaming are as common as the cold. And I am expected to keep my mouth shut and try not to offend everybody?

A 14 Year Old's Look At Rape Culture_Makena McElroy_Sweatpants & Coffee_600x400

I said nothing to him, of course, if only because I felt if I opened my mouth I would scream.

We presented the next day. Our project didn’t win. But I didn’t really mind. All I cared was that I got to teach my passion. Maybe I changed one mind. Maybe I changed none. But once you notice rape culture, you can’t forget it.


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About Makena McElroy (1 Articles)

Makena McElroy is a 14-year-old sophomore who is fond of all things nerd. If she is not at the theater, she can be found catching up on the latest episode of Doctor Who. She lives in California with her family and her computer.

5 Comments on Cover Up: A 14-Year-Old’s Look at Rape Culture

  1. Powerful and brilliantly conveyed. I’d be honored to have Makena guest post on if she’s game!

    Because this:

    When practicing, James talked to the audience—appealing to the boys about why they should care, even though rape culture’s effects were mainly felt by women, one in four of whom will be raped in their lifetime.

    “What if she was your mother, your sister, your girlfriend?” he asked the imaginary crowd.
    “Don’t say that,” I suggested. “She is a person. That’s all you need to say. This is happening to another person.”
    This was the main problem, I felt. Maybe if we could see everyone as people instead of as a gender, we might also see change.’

    Even I am guilty of saying what James said to men or in hypothetical examples. And Makena is right on. I have been schooled today and I am grateful.

  2. I commend you, Makena. Well said. I would be honored to interview you on my podcast at a time that is convenient for your school schedule. I am fairly confident my dear friend and colleague, Rachel (^^^) might even cross post us on 😉

    Your voice is powerful. Your voice matters. I would be honored to share it and amplify it.

  3. You are an amazing person. I commend you for your passion. I hope to hear more from you. I will be sharing your voice and your passion. Be well!

  4. Well done Makena – I am impressed and hopeful that we have young women such as you in our world. Women who are not only brave enough to say what needs to be said, but also articulate, intelligent, and passionate. Don’t lose that…Well done!

    And to Roger I say “Not all men, but yes, all women” #yesallwomen

  5. My wife lost her virginity in a date rape. She was a freshman in college, went with a guy to a party, got blitzed (no drugs, only alcohol), and her date offered to walk her back to her dorm when the party broke up. She made the simple, honest, and innocent mistake of letting him…she felt safer in not being alone when she was drunk at 3AM on a Saturday morning.

    He walked her to her dorm room, she all but passed out on the bed, and he took the opportunity to take advantage of her right then and there.

    I almost said this: “As a male, I’m ashamed for and disgusted by my entire gender for what that bastard did.” But that’s wrong. As a human being, I’m ashamed and disgusted for my entire species for what that bastard did. That’s closer, but it doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head.

    Her dorm mate had something similar happen earlier in the semester. “Sue,” my wife’s dorm mate, reported the incident, and was blamed and shamed for letting a stranger into her dorm room, and also for drinking underage. Therefore, my wife didn’t report what happened to her at all. She didn’t want to go through the shaming, nor to get blamed like Sue had. I was the first person she ever told about it. She won’t tell me the rapist’s name, because she knows what I would do to him if I had the knowledge I’d need to find him. It wouldn’t help matters.

    I would do anything I could to destroy the very idea of rape culture in society. Victim blaming, “slut shaming,” and inequality in general infuriate me, and my wife’s experience makes me so angry I could shoot the rapist point blank and feel absolutely no guilt or remorse. Not helpful, I know, but the fury is natural. I love my wife so very much, I respect her, I never let her feel taken for granted, I never pressure her for sex…and none of that is very difficult. Not only do I hate rape culture, I barely understand it. Treating everyone as equals, with common courtesy and a modicum of respect, is, in my world, the only way to live.

2 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Young Voices: a 14-Year-Old's Look at Rape Culture -
  2. Why I Chose the Title “Feminist” by 14yo guest Makena McElroy

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