*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.
“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?
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.