Across the world, institutions of higher education are being forced to examine whether their policies and procedures reinforce a rape culture. As noted by Marshall University, “rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.” Faculty members can push back against rape culture on their campus by lobbying the institution to ensure transparency in reporting statistics about rape on campus, developing orientation material on consent and advocating for student survivors of sexual violence. They can also push back in their classrooms by teaching about rape culture.
My students balk at the suggestion that rape is normalized, but I have found that asking them to recount the plot of the movie Superbad -- young men hunt to secure alcohol so they can get young women drunk enough to have sex with them -- is effective in demonstrating how normal rape is, especially among young people. I explain that part of rape culture is our reliance on victim blaming and how we teach people not to get raped rather than teaching people not to rape. These problematic efforts suggest that victims need to take steps to protect themselves from assault and says nothing to or about potential perpetrators.
Rape Culture Activity
I have developed a classroom activity that I have found useful for teaching the concept of rape culture.
I begin by presenting my students with the following scenario, which I borrow from my days working as an undergraduate peer educator for a group now called Healthycats at Texas State University.
Mary and Bob know each other from class, and they decide to go out together one evening. They go to a bar, and each consumes several drinks. Mary goes to the bathroom, and when she comes out she has her shirt untucked and her bra is off. She suggests they go back to her room and order dinner in. They eat dinner and lie next to each other on the floor. Bob caresses her face and kisses her. Mary enjoys it and kisses him back. Bob then carries Mary to the bed and kisses her again. Mary realizes what is happening and says, “No, I don’t want to do this.” Bob removes all of her clothes. Mary mumbles, “No,” very softly and then realizes that she will probably have to give in.
Then I instruct the students to work in small groups to rank this scenario using a Likert scale that ranges from 1 (meaning “not rape”) to 5 (meaning “rape”).
When we reconvene as a class, I ask each group to report their ranking of the scenario with Mary and Bob, and I record them on the whiteboard. The rankings usually range from 2 to 5, with most numbers falling between 3.5 and 4.5. (Oh yeah, students always seem to want a 0.5.)
Next, I ask the groups that ranked the scenario with a score of 3.5 or below to explain why they gave the score that they did, to offer what about the scenario led to that score. As these groups share their decision making with the rest of the class, I take notes on the board. After we have exhausted their comments, I then ask those groups who offered a score of 4 or 4.5 what they would like to add to the list. And then, finally, I invite the groups that gave a 5 to share their reasons for this ranking.
The students who label the scenario as rape usually note that Mary said no (more than once) and explain that giving in does not sound like something she wants to be doing. Those groups prioritize what Mary has said when they gave a score of 5 (meaning rape).
Without fail, the responses given by those groups who offered a score below 5 include references to what Mary has done, what her behavior signifies regardless of what she actually says. Mary took off her bra; Mary invited Bob up to her room; Mary did not physically fight back. Sometimes a student will even suggest that Mary was “asking for it” or question what Mary expected when she acted in such ways.
With those rationales articulated, I then take time to unpack the students’ explanations by asking a few key questions. First I ask, “How many times does someone have to say no before it is rape?” The response is always once, but then I point out that Mary said no twice, yet most of the class fails to label this scenario as rape. The students usually push back, insisting that Mary’s nos were not very forceful or were part of larger mixed messages being sent.
Second, I ask, “Are there different levels of sexual engagement -- kissing, fondling, oral sex, vaginal sex -- etc.? Does giving consent to one activity, like oral sex, mean consent has been given for all sexual activities?” And always, “Does there have to be physical force for it to be rape?”
Highlighting Rape Culture
I have been running this scenario in my classes for 15 years, across two continents, and the experience has not changed much. Students’ rankings of the scenario between Mary and Bob are largely the same today as they were in the past, as are the justifications. What is different now, however, is my ability to bring the exercise back to the topic of rape culture.
Toward the end of the class activity, after we have spent a great deal of time parsing out whether Mary consented or was forced, I point out that a definite pattern can be found in their explanations for the rankings they gave. I suggest that they review what is on the board and identify the pattern that emerges. Sometimes they see it. Just as often they do not, and I have to point out to them that none of their feedback had anything to do with Bob. What Bob did or did not do. What Bob’s responsibility is in this situation.
As a class, we reflect on how this pattern is an example in and of itself of rape culture. While considering the scenario, and how to rate it, students paid the role and responsibility of Bob no mind and focused solely on Mary and what she did to bring this upon herself. Once this pattern is brought to the surface, we then discuss the responsibility that Bob has in the situation, but it often feels perfunctory on the part of the students.
For the most part, students do not want to hold Bob responsible for anything in the scenario. He was not the one who initiated the launch sequence, as they seem to view it. Mary initiated the events in question -- inviting him out, taking off her bra, inviting him to her place, kissing him back -- although they disagree about what exactly started the sequence. Once she started it, it apparently could not be stopped. Sometimes students even express pity for Bob, that he did not realize that Mary was not interested (if that is the case). “Poor guy,” they seem to lament, “she should have given him better cues than saying no twice.”
Every semester, I am reminded that more work needs to be done, but the value of rape culture as a schema, a way to organize various pieces of information and the relationship among them, cannot be overstated. Being able to bring back students’ responses to the elements of rape culture allows for connections to be made between a “real-life” scenario and the political and ideological intersections within rape culture.
While it is disheartening that the responses have not shifted much since the 1990s, I am glad that more of my students are familiar with the concept of rape culture. And I find real value in the exercise itself as it provides an opportunity for students to recognize their own values and beliefs in action -- which I imagine they find quite different from their values and beliefs in theory.