How To Dismantle Rape Culture In College Athletics

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). DeWitt Scott is a community college administrator, instructor at Sister Jean Hughes Adult High School in Chicago, and writer for Inside Higher Ed’s “GradHacker” blog. He also teaches personal development and civic education classes at the Cook County Jail in Chicago. You can follow DeWitt on Twitter at @dscotthighered.

Several months ago, a recording of a certain presidential candidate was released, in which he bragged about how he kisses women without their permission and can “grab them by the” genitals whenever he wants. The revelation of his admitted acts of sexual assault were followed by an equally sorry video “apology” in which he attempted to dismiss his comments as “locker room banter.” Somehow, this inadequate dismissal —  that it was just small talk between two men behind closed doors — was supposed to make his comments acceptable. (Alas, he won the election despite his negative reputation as a presidential candidate.) This philosophical failure is the essence of rape culture.

As a former Division I college basketball player, I have been in more locker rooms than the average person inside or outside the academy. I can say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I have never heard anyone speak about assaulting and violating women the way Donald Trump did on that recording. What I can say is that to refer to such comments as “locker room banter” signals a sort of indirect nod to the prevalence of rape culture and toxic masculinity in athletic spaces. That includes college student-athletes.

When I was a college athlete in the mid-2000s, I witnessed destructive, objectionable expressions of male sexual dominance in ways that fashioned women’s bodies as powerless commodities to be conquered. Ten years later, I am now a student affairs administrator who works closely with male athletes. The same corrosive cultural norms regarding sex, consent, sexual violence, sexism and the policing of women’s bodies are just as prevalent today in male student-athlete circles as they were when I was a student-athlete.

Consequently, I have begun to think about my responsibility as a former athlete and current higher education administrator in dismantling rape culture among college athletes. My work thus far has brought me to a few conclusions that may be helpful for others who either work in or are connected to college athletics.

First and foremost, I believe that it would be valuable for colleges and universities to arrange moments wherein courageous (women) sexual assault survivors from outside the institution could come and share their stories with male student-athletes. American masculinity is rooted in notions of power, dominance, control, subjugation and, most of all, selfishness. As a result, when viewing the world through a hypermasculine lens, an approach that is often rewarded in competitive men’s sports, men typically do not take stock in the emotional, psychological and spiritual damage they are inflicting on others. Forcing men student-athletes to confront and wrestle with the toll sexual assault and violence has taken on others can be a first step in reframing the way male student-athletes approach sexual encounters with others.

Secondly, male student-athletes need sexual assault seminars in which experts teach them exactly what qualifies as sexual assault. I am not referring to or excusing the serial rapists and habitual sexual predators who intentionally commit acts of sexual violence against victims consciously and brazenly. Rather, I am speaking of men who violate women’s bodies sexually but think they do not.

As a former athlete, I can honestly state that a number of male athletes — and men period — wholeheartedly believe they are not rapists even though they commit acts of rape regularly. They believe that because they did not physically overpower another person, snatch off their clothes and force themselves on them, they are not rapists. Their ignorance of sexual assault has caused a lot of pain for other people. The complexity of sexual violence has never been explained to them, mainly because sexual assault in its many nuanced forms has been treated like the elephant in the room in college athletic departments. We must confront the subject head-on and educate male student-athletes on the various forms of sexual violence through classes, seminars, instruction and formalized discussions.

In addition, male student-athletes can, at times, be a stubborn population, unwelcoming of any messages directed to them about corrective behavior and attitudes. One thing that is for sure is that student-athletes reliably give attention and respect to former athletes, particularly those whom they truly respect. Many male student-athletes need people who look like them and who have walked in their shoes to drive the point home. Scholars and administrators delivering the message are great, but it can be difficult for the student-athletes to get past the exterior differences between the speaker and themselves.

Colleges and universities should bring in former athletes who can connect with student athletes culturally, speak their language and frame their words in personal experiences with which those student-athletes can relate. That will potentially increase the likelihood of the message being received and behavioral change actually occurring. Asking a current or former athlete to deliver the message can supplement the conversation with sexual assault survivors mentioned above.

As a sort of inverse to bringing in survivors to speak, it can also be beneficial to invite perpetrators of sexual violence — who have served time in prison and felt the emotional, psychological, spiritual and financial effects of committing sexual assault — to speak with male student-athletes. Those offenders can discuss the shame they experienced with families and friends, the negative stigma that comes with being a convicted rapist, and what it’s like to undergo the investigative process, a trial, sentencing and being listed on the national sex offender registry. Putting a face to the offender’s side of the experience can have a lasting effect on the student-athletes. It can make an even deeper impression if the transgressor is a former athlete himself.

Last, athletics and student affairs personnel ought to be clear that no prevention work on sexual assault, abuse or violence can be sufficiently effective without addressing and dismantling the similarly oppressive systems of white supremacy, homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, ableism, classism, heterosexism, patriarchy and xenophobia. Power, repression and superiority are foundational to each and every one of these ills. They render their targets inhuman and unworthy of respect and dignity. As long as any of these other systems are present and normalized, sexual violence and abuse will always be just around the corner. The prevalence of one system of domination provides fertile soil for all other systems to sprout.

In my current work with male athletes, I have conversations about what consent is and what their responsibilities are regarding sexual relationships. To my knowledge, my words are usually heeded, and even sought in some cases, primarily because my student-athletes know that I am a former athlete and have walked in their shoes. I help them to understand that, even if they are not committing acts of rape or sexual violence, silently standing by when they are aware that someone is engaging in sexual predation is also wrong. We discuss how putting women down verbally, catcalling on the street and making homophobic and sexist jokes are all entry steps to sexism, sexual violence and the perpetuation of rape culture. It is my aim to paint a broad picture of their moral and ethical responsibilities regarding sexual and social encounters with significant others.

These suggestions are just a start and are not intended to be perfect or exhaustive. Eradicating rape culture among college athletes is complex work that does not come with easy answers. Nevertheless, those of us who work on college campuses owe it to our students, and to sexual violence victims and survivors all over the world, to develop these solutions, put them into action and create changes in the culture. Our society needs us to step up and produce the next generation of leaders. If we fail, our 19-year-old young men will end up 70-year-olds attempting to run a country while victimizing women along the way.

Let’s make the decision that it ends now, and it ends with us.

Academic Departments Normalize Sexual Violence By Ignoring It

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Donovan A. Steinberg (a pseudonym) is now an assistant professor of social science.

My Professor, the Sexual Predator

Most of us have heard stories of professors who have sexually harassed or assaulted their colleagues or students. The stories covered in the news often involve senior heterosexual men professors who have finally been reprimanded, suspended or fired after years of perpetrating sexual violence — and after several victims have come forward about the violence they have experienced. It seems that the problem has to accumulate a great deal before perpetrators are punished and the rest of the world learns of it.

But these men professors are few and far between. There are countless faculty members who have not harassed or raped enough colleagues and/or students to be punished by the university or to warrant media attention. That is not to suggest that their behavior is not as bad or that their actions have been less damaging to their victims. Sexual harassment is sexual harassment, and rape is rape. The problem is that most of these perpetrators get away with their crimes, even in the rare instances when victims report it or speak publicly about it. Even in the face of clear evidence of sexual violence, it seems that academe tends to defend predators, often because of their status and intellectual reputation, especially relative to their (usually lower-status) victims.

I have enough sense that unpunished sexual violence perpetrated by faculty members is so rampant that I would venture to guess that we all know that guy — that one professor who is known to be at least a little inappropriate with his students and/or junior colleagues. He is that person women grad students and junior faculty are warned to avoid: “He’s really smart, but …” We all know it, but somehow he remains on the faculty. Other people may even defend him: “Oh, that’s just [rapist’s name] being [rapist’s name].” “Boys will be boys.” “Locker room talk.” Sexual violence is so normalized in our society, why should academe be any better about punishing perpetrators and protecting victims?

I give all of this context to justify talking about that guy in my graduate program. I chose not to mention him by name because the details of the sexual violence that he has perpetrated may distract from my larger point: that he is but one of many faculty members who are essentially given a free pass to harass and assault those around them in the department. I will call him “Uncle Rapey” for the sake of this essay.

I actually chose my graduate program because of the faculty members who specialized in my area, including Uncle Rapey. When I visited the program as a prospective graduate student, I had meetings with faculty members to learn more about the program. At the close of each meeting, that professor would walk me to the next faculty member’s office. One professor escorted me to meet with Uncle Rapey after she and I met. She teased him about being good. He retorted that he and I collectively would have at least three legs on the ground at all times. She giggled. My memory perhaps incorrectly recalls her also saying, “Oh, [Rapey].” How cool, I thought, that these professors joked about sex so openly. How naïve I was.

A few months into my first year, I attended a conference, where I reconnected with my undergrad mentor. As we parted, her face turned cold and her tone became serious. She told me, “Stay away from [Uncle Rapey] — promise me you’ll stay away from [Uncle Rapey].” She did not explain further. But I knew that they had worked together in the past, so I assumed she had good reason to warn me about him.

At this point, however, it was too late. I was well into my first (and last) course with him. Every week, I had already been subjected to his sexual jokes — once teasing me and a fellow graduate student about engaging in fisting. At the course’s end, he approached me and another grad student to request that we pose nude for him for his amateur photography (pornography?) work. I declined. And that was certainly the last time I worked with him in any professional capacity, and thereafter tried my best to avoid him. It is difficult, though, when the department keeps faculty like Uncle Rapey involved in departmental affairs. I still remember the time he greeted his genitals as he visited another class I was enrolled in.

But, I got off easy — privileged, to be more accurate. Another student in the department revealed to me the time that Uncle Rapey pushed her against the wall and forced his hand into her vagina after complimenting her on her skirt. She eventually disappeared from the program, probably never finishing her Ph.D. And I know of other women grad students whom he has harassed or assaulted, and some of them never finished their graduate training. Recently, I have heard that a new crop of graduate students is outraged with the department as he remains on faculty, unpunished, given a free pass to assault and harass students. These are only the stories of which I have heard. I can only imagine countless other victims have suffered in silence.

I would argue that when one institution fails to seek justice, it opens the doors for injustice in other institutions. Since my department failed to punish Uncle Rapey, there was little to stop him from perpetuating violence in other academic contexts. He continues to be recognized as a leader in our field, even being honored as awards are named for him.

I have chosen to speak up here because there are many Uncle Rapeys in academe. We all know one or maybe more than one. Departments normalize sexual violence when they look the other way as faculty members abuse their power in harassing or assaulting junior faculty and/or students. In some ways, they actually facilitate sexual violence — as an expression of power — by maintaining hierarchies, wherein senior faculty wield power over junior faculty, grad students, undergraduate students and staff. These professional hierarchies are further compounded by society’s hierarchies — classism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism and ageism.

In the meantime, we have to keep calling out the Uncle Rapeys of academe. Departments and universities must actually put their sexual harassment policies into practice. Victims should be able to easily and confidentially report sexual harassment and assault. And punishments for sexual violence should be blind to the perpetrator’s professional status, as that status may be the very vehicle through which they are allowed to prey on others.

The Culture Of Exploitation In Graduate School Facilitates Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Tara Dorje (a pseudonym) is a Ph.D. candidate at an urban public university in the Midwest. She could not have completed any of this without her colleagues, to whom she is forever grateful; community is integral to individual success, because we are people through people.

Sexual Harassment In A Culture Of Exploitation

I am writing this essay from a deeply vulnerable vantage point. As a graduate student who is currently working on my dissertation, I am caught in a web of power, hierarchies and the bizarre blurring of personal and professional networks.

This essay serves as a start to a conversation about sexual harassment in higher education, specifically to highlight the power dynamics at play. It is also a call to others to take dialogue about abuse seriously. To move forward in fostering equality, we have to listen to one another in ways that promote a broad recognition of how prevalent sexual harassment is in academe.

Last fall, I attended a panel featuring alums from my program. I spoke with one person after the event, and we discovered that we both struggled with being independent, single, white, privileged, cisgender women who dare to express ourselves. I shared with her, for example, that two of three men professors on my master’s committee sexually propositioned me — one during the program, one right after. It turned out, coincidentally, that while the alum had graduated nearly a decade before me, one of those professors (white, late 60s, tenured) had sexually propositioned her, too, during her early graduate school days. Each of us had him on our graduate committee and each accepted research assistantships with him, while intermittently receiving romantic offers.

Those offers sometimes came cloaked in conference presentations or publications, while other times were disguised as “friendly favors” — like renting a room in his very nice home, carpooling or meals together that far more resembled dates than mentoring. This professor was the most famed in the department and his field, married with grown children and apparently always seeking women graduate students as playmates.

My colleague and I both share a professional loss. When we declined his advances, we lost an important source of collaboration and recommendations for future jobs, grants, publications and other opportunities. After years of research and teamwork, he told her she should ask other faculty members for letters of reference. I was a little bit luckier; I blew up the bridge earlier in my training. I knew back then far too well that asking this professor for anything, let alone for professional favors, was out of the question.

What is the cost to graduate students who are subjected to sexual harassment? How much is lost in opportunity and social capital? How many letters of reference disappear each year? All of the relationships we foster in graduate school are so intertwined with elements of our future success. The power dynamics work in such ways that, as grad students, you will submit to your professors. You will be second, fifth or whatever author spot they assign to you (often regardless of the work distribution), you will go out to dinner with them as requested and you will perform emotional labor by listening to each whim or wonder — all the while frittering away your most valuable resource: time.

Perhaps this just foreshadows the disproportionate demands for service that women later receive as professors, as well — thereby facilitating the reproduction of gender inequality throughout higher education. None of this even touches on the time needed to cope with the emotional strain in lost hours of self-care and the additional emotional labor of processing everything. (“Did this really happen? Am I overreacting? What can I do to defend myself?”)

Stories abound about professors who were known sexual harassers getting fired from one university only to be hired elsewhere, always landing on their feet and likely with their hands down other students’ pants. Higher education institutions tend to recycle more abuse than prevent it, remaining complicit in rape culture even though alternatives to reproducing sexism are available. Look no farther than the continuing headlines or stories we have all heard in academe that blame the graduate students, trivializing or denying unwanted sexual advances or actions and refusing to acknowledge the harm caused by such circumstances.

Consequently, I have never taken action. I am afraid of retaliation, so much so that I write this piece under a pen name. Retaliation is a real thing. Simply because I’ve deflected advances, professors have ceased to see me as a professional or respect me as a human being. Interactions are both caustic and insulting, laced with reminders of only their desire (running eyes up and down my body, comments about being on a diet or otherwise referencing my appearance, and so on).

It all furthers the feeling that speaking up will bring far more trouble than it is worth to ever file a formal complaint in an often-hostile organization. I have real fear and concerns that my efforts will just be dismissed, that I will be pinned with a scarlet letter, that I will lose out in funding decisions — and that, ultimately, life will go on as if nothing happened. Instead, I choose to keep quiet.

In all of my years of graduate school, the most unifying and well-attended graduate student meeting last fall addressed some of the most volatile issues and continuing forms of harassment in our department. The main theme identified and agreed upon by fellow graduate students was an overarching atmosphere of abuse, lying and bullying. It was clearly recognized the core issue: that faculty-student relationships are always adversarial as a result of power differences.

While we did not exactly mount an inquisition that day, we did successfully request a meeting with our academic administrators. In response, students (not faculty members, mind you!) received an educational visit from the university’s designated office for handling sexual harassment. Those baby steps have far from provided the support victims of sexual violence need in order to feel encouraged to come forward. It is clear that we must organize and support one another. It is clear that we are in this together. I am cut, you bleed.

But I am left with more questions than answers. How do we develop a collective callout system that supports survivors and holds perpetrators accountable? How do we help graduate students, junior faculty members and other academics to speak up about incidents of sexual harassment that are “difficult to prove” and not as “simple” as cases of rape? What kind of role could restorative justice play here? How can we flip the script in a society that supports and rewards abuse, deception and bullying? My experience with repeated sexual harassment throughout my seven years of graduate training shows how difficult it is to talk about this exploitation, to come forward, to finally bring an end altogether to the tolerance of sexual harassment in academe.

We need to acknowledge the risks in reporting sexual violence that result from power differentials in higher education — notably, the real potential of retaliation. Furthermore, the institutions and individuals within academe too often harm when attempting to help by misdirected, futile and otherwise ineffectual offices, policies and procedures that fail to address the roots of the abuse.

We need to actively create a culture in which speaking out about instances of sexual harassment is supported, encouraged, taken seriously and appropriately addressed. I therefore welcome and promote dialogue that calls out mistreatment and leads to taking action as an important first step — however big or small.

Reflections On Campus Rape Culture In Trumpland

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. It was written by Sarah Prior and Brooke de Heer, whose bios appear at the end of the essay.

Raising Strong Women in a Culture of Rape

As educators who teach and research in the area of campus sexual assault and rape culture, we are well versed in the statistics and research on the subject. We write and talk about it on a daily basis. However, we are more than just researchers who investigate the detrimental nature of rape culture and campus violence. We are also mothers. We are mothers raising daughters. This makes us acutely aware of the far reaches of rape culture and violence against women and girls.

We are raising daughters in an age when brushing off violence is common. Young girls are taught to accept violence and, in some cases, to expect or even hope for it, because it is all too often tied to a perception of love or femininity. Girls and women watch movies and listen to music wherein violence is sexualized and glamorized. (Think Gone With the Wind, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Fifty Shades of Grey.) It is nearly impossible to look at popular media culture today without seeing the pervasiveness of rape culture.

“Rape culture” is the term used to describe the normalization and prevalence of sexual assault, violence and victimization in American culture. Coined by U.S. feminists in the 1970s, rape culture describes the relationship between rape and our culture’s fascination with popular culture, sexual violence and the media. As Emilie Buchwald, Pamela Fletcher and Martha Roth point out in Transforming Rape Culture, “Rape culture is a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violence.”

We are mothers raising daughters in a world wherein the current president once boasted about sexually assaulting women by inappropriately and aggressively grabbing them. A world wherein rape culture is so deeply ingrained into our everyday life that this kind of talk is accepted and normalized as “locker room banter” or “guy talk.” A world wherein girls’ dress codes are dictated by boys who cannot seem to focus and thus boys’ education is deemed more important, since we send girls home for their dress code violations (think Utah cheerleaders, sexist dress codes/policies, Not an Object stickers and sassy yearbook quotes, among many, many others). We live in a world in which our daughters go to day care and preschool and we have to worry about their “sinful” shoulders. A world where a candidate for the Senate defies science and logic by saying that victims of “legitimate rape” rarely become pregnant. A world wherein three out of four rapes is perpetrated by an acquaintance, so, contrary to popular belief, it may actually be safer for women to walk alone.

Our work in our academic life makes us even more cognizant that we are raising daughters who are growing up in a world in which they are drastically more likely to experience sexual violence than if we were raising sons. Our daughters, who have a 20 to 25 percent chance of being sexually victimized in college, are more likely to experience sexual assault than to join a sorority (at least at our institutions) or major in engineering or computer science.

We think about how girls are taught to be the gatekeepers of their sexuality, while boys are surprisingly often only taught “no means no” when it comes to sex. This means that a lack of verbalized (and we would argue adamant and repeated) no is assumed to mean yes.

As we think about sending our daughters to college in the future, it is hard not to think about the staggering statistics about campus rape and assault. We think about how young women are most at risk in the first six weeks of school — what people in the field refer to as the “red zone” of being assaulted. We think about how girls and women are forced to worry about more than just a grade on an exam or which campus club to join. The safe-haven idealism associated with higher education has been replaced by hazard-zone realism.

The fact that there are roughly 300 universities and colleges around the country under federal investigation regarding their handling of reported sexual assaults is disgraceful. There has been a revived concern in campus sexual assault and sexual violence stemming from the 2014 White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault and groundbreaking films such as The Hunting Ground. Recent cases such as Baylor University’s mishandling of sexual assault cases highlight the gravity of the epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses. Institutions of higher education have failed victims, and, as a result, have failed the campus community at large.

Sexual violence on campus is a public health crisis, not a crisis that affects only victims or even only women. While we regularly discuss the statistic that one in every five women will experience sexual assault, between 6 and 10 percent of college men also report sexual victimization. Additionally, students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer are reporting sexual victimization at a rate that is two to three times higher than the general (heterosexual, cisgender) student population. This is a situation that affects everyone, because the alarmingly high rates of sexual assaults on college campuses force us to take a hard look at the culture and environment that is producing, condoning and reinforcing this behavior. This is the culture and environment that we, and thousands of others, are raising our children in.

This is unacceptable. As mothers we will raise our daughters not to accept this kind of behavior with an understanding that this is an ongoing fight that will continue to affect generations to come. That if a boy pushes them or pulls their hair, this is not the way he shows he likes her (and the same would go for how girls treat her). Instead, it is learned behavior for men that equates aggression and violence with power and is excused simply as “boys will be boys” (though we recognize that this is also racialized and classed).

Through our classes, work environment and family life, we have the privilege to interact on a daily basis with men and boys who do not fall prey to the typical anecdotes of masculinity. When we see our husbands making breakfast while simultaneously brushing our daughters’ hair in the morning to get them ready for school, or experience a male student who interrupts a lecture on sexual violence to ask why the focus is always on what the woman can do to prevent the act, we feel reinvigorated. We know mothers who are raising feminist sons who are taught more than “no means no” and, instead, learn to seek affirmative consent.

Rape culture is pervasive and an uphill battle to be fought on all fronts, but if we can equip our daughters and sons alike with the tools to push back against the status quo, we may just eventually win the war.

BIOS:

Sarah Prior is an independent scholar teaching at Michigan State University and Arizona State University. Her research focuses on gendered violence and gendered hate with a particular focus on rape culture, campus sexual violence and school dress codes. She is a cis, heterosexual, white mother of two young willful daughters.

Brooke de Heer is a lecturer in the criminology and criminal justice department at Northern Arizona University. Her research aims to identify environmental and social factors that reinforce and propagate campus sexual violence, as well as how this type of violence affects LGBTQ and Native American communities. She is a cis, heterosexual, white wife and mother of a rambunctious 3-year-old daughter and soon-to-be son.

Teaching Rape Culture

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column.  Dr. Cat Pausé (@FOMNZ) is a fat studies scholar at Massey University in New Zealand. She hosted Fat Studies: Reflective Intersections in New Zealand in 2012 and Fat Studies: Identity, Agency, Embodiment in 2016, and her fat-positive radio show, Friend of Marilyn, is traveling the world this year.

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.

Image credit: Tumblinfeminist

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.