April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and part of the campaign’s focus is to change the culture. Rape Culture is defined as a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault. Some examples that are associated with rape culture are victim blaming, sexual objectification, denial of widespread rape, refusing to acknowledge the harm caused by sexual violence or a combination of all those behaviors.
The term Rape Culture can be confusing and as a result is attacked as something that is made up. Just last month at GVSU in Michigan a member of the student senate posted on his social media that “rape culture isn’t real”. Students, faculty and members of the public were upset and called for the student to be removed from the GVSU student senate.
A fellow student organization, Eyes Wide Open, had been preparing a presentation of what the University was doing to combat sexual assault for it’s members. They decided to open it up to the public to help educate and create a dialogue. “Reaching out, learning more, even just Googling it and learning what you can do is helpful,” said EWO President Philips. “Rape culture is closely intertwined to rape and sexual assault, but also to gender roles and to the perpetuation of hypermasculinity and the oppression of women.” The fraternity to which the student was a member of also reached out and asked for a presentation. “There was a good willingness there,” said Philips. “I think it was a surprising shift for some people of what we expect from Greek culture, but they really are good people.”
How do we change the culture?
We start with ourselves and how we react when we hear stories of sexual assault. Believe the victims! We need to train our minds to believe first and foremost. Victim blaming statements and questions have become so engrained in our society that often we don’t know we are doing it. If the first thing that comes after a story of sexual assault is “I believe you” there is no room for “What were you wearing? Why were out at that time of night? How much had you been drinking? Did you fight back?” The more we say “I believe you” as we read, hear, and interact with sexual assault victims the more natural it will become. When friends and others hear your unequivocal belief of a rape victim it opens the door for their belief. The focus then shifts to the offender and their behavior.
Rape prevention education works and it should start early. We teach our children about bad touch vs good touch in order to protect them from predators. That lesson is replaced with “birds and the bees” with our teens. As parents we focus on condoms and birth control and less about consensual sex. Make sure your child knows that if anyone makes them uncomfortable they can say “NO” and the person should stop immediately. Let them know that consent is fluid and they can say yes to some activities and no to others. Consent is also a legal matter that both parties must be willing at all times.
Don’t forget to talk about alcohol and drugs and the danger they possess in social settings. Teens will be in situations where alcohol is present and we need to share with them strategies of how to be safe. Never take a drink from someone else, make your own. Don’t leave your drink out where something can be put in it. Recently a parent shared online how the created a way for their child to reach out and get help when it was needed. The child would text an X to the parent to signal the situation they were in was one they wanted out of. And then the parent would text back –something has come up you need to come home or I am coming to pick you up we have a family emergency. Creating an “out” for the child to leave.
Help them become engaged and proactive bystanders. On our blog “Prevention Is Possible” we discuss what it means to be proactive and how to step in when something isn’t right. Continue to keep an open dialogue with your children and create a space that they know if something happens you are who to go to. In the current Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why, the story does a great job at depicting the secretive nature of teens. It is a raw and honest portrayal of bullying, rape culture, and suicide. Instead of your teens watching this alone sit with them and engage them. The wrap up and discussion by the cast and film makers should be used to check in and find some resolution with feelings brought up.
As we speak up and speak out against Sexual Assault it encourages others to find their voice. When victims hear more voices that say “I believe you” and “It’s not your fault” they will feel supported and able to share their stories. The more their stories are heard the shift away from a society of victim blaming will begin. When our society no longer allows for victims to be silenced and shamed and we believe that NO means NO there will be no room for rapists among us.