Let’s start by examining three visual texts.
This “Position of the Week” cartoon ran in the Purdue Exponent a couple of years ago and stirred controversy on campus.
This ad by Belvedere Vodka was later pulled after public outcry:
A drink menu from a bar advertises their special “Date Grape” alcoholic beverage.
All of these images are examples of rape culture. But if such ads and cartoons seem troubling, so do some of the campaigns that attempt to target sexual assault:
One of the ads from the Control Tonight campaign. From a feminist perspective, what’s problematic about the rhetoric of this ad?
In their article, “Fraternities and Collegiate Rape Culture” (from the journal Gender and Society, April 1996), Boswell and Spade define rape culture as:
“…a set of values and beliefs that provide an environment conducive to rape. The term applies to a generic culture surrounding and promoting rape” (133).
From examining the images above, date rape is often a commonplace and acceptable joke in American popular culture. Consider how casually we use the word as a slang term to mean “dominated,” as in “Man, he really raped you in that last game.”
So what does this normalization of the violation of another human being say about our actual attitudes about sexual assault?
Let’s put this idea on dialogue with Adrienne Rich’s article “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” from last week. Review the “powers of men” that she discusses: how many of them have to do with sexual domination or control of women’s sexual expression and sexual freedom. Consider how many of them focus on women’s bodies.
Indeed, our political debates are still very much concerned with controlling female bodies.
WAS IT “LEGITIMATE” RAPE OR FORCIBLE RAPE?
Last year, former senator Todd Aikin (R-MO) made the following comments about “legitimate rape” that outraged women and feminists nationwide. (Not insignificantly, Senator Aikin sat on the Science Committee in the House of Representatives at the time he made these comments…the science committee.)
Shortly following the senator’s debacle, then-Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan insinuated that rape was simply another form of conception in an interview in which he was asked to comment on Aikin’s comments. So here’s the important context to their public comments: both Ryan and Aikin have been proponents of trying to change the language that legally defines rape in an effort to make it illegal for women to have access to abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. Read more about their efforts to narrow the definition of rape to proven ‘forcible rape.’
What’s the current legal definition of rape? As of 2012, according to the Department of Justice, the definition is:
“The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”
The definition is used by the FBI.
WTF HAPPENED IN STEUBENVILLE, OH?
In March of 2013, two young men from the small town of Steubenville, OH were officially convicted of raping a 16-year-old classmate and were sentenced to one year in a juvenile detention center. An article from Yahoo news featured a photograph of one of the players hugging his mother after the verdict (cue the pathos, but not for the victim):
“The judge sentenced them both to at least one year in juvenile jail and said both can be held until they’re 21. Mays, who’s 17, was sentenced to an additional year in jail on a charge of illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material, to be served after his rape sentence is completed.”
Read more about what happened in The New York Times.
According to a post on the Feminist Majority Foundation website, the presiding Judge Lipps described the evidence as “profane and ugly” and a cautionary tale of teenagers with alcohol and “how you record things on social media that are so prevalent today,” effectively reducing the violation and dehumanization of a young woman’s body (the video shows the young men urinating on her as well as dragging her around and penetrating her unconscious body) becomes little more than a cautionary tale for teens not to drink while underage and be smarter about how they use social media.
In the meantime, the young woman who charged her two attackers has received enough anonymous death threats to warrant posting two police officers at her house for her protection. Both the incident and the verdict resulted in nationwide activism on behalf of the victim, though the media tended to side with the rapists in the case. Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry was a prominent exceptionin her television address to the young woman from Steubenville, “Dear Steubenville Survivor, I Believe You” (the survivor’s name has been kept private).
Does anything in Laci Greene’s video connect with your reading of Jessica Valenti and our culture’s obsession with purity?
RAPE AND SPORTS CULTURE
What’s notable about this case is that Steubenville is a town that prides itself on its high school football team, and both of the men convicted in this case were “star” football players on the team. Perhaps the most damaging message we get from this is that sports and male bonding among athletes are more important than the bodily integrity of a young woman, their peer. The victim was publicly accused of trying to ruin the reputation of the team and thereby destroy the morale of the town – out of jealousy, perhaps? It’s not made clear what her motivations might be for doing so. But the implication is – and this is another “rape myth” that supports victim-blaming – that this was revenge for a “regretted sexual experience.”
RAPE PREVENTION: TARGETING MEN
This campaign, “Men Can Stop Rape,” giving men a primary role in combating rape culture, actually appears on posters at our own PUSH on campus.
Here’s another in the series:
Such messages are a far cry from the usual method of teaching young women to avoid being raped, a rhetoric that magically makes the perpetrator of such crimes – that is, the rapist - invisible. This campaign actively recruits men as important participants on the frontlines of changing other men’s mistreatment of women.