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.
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.