This post may trigger some readers as it discusses a sensitive topic.
These days, I notice myself getting more caught up in news stories. I think it might even be at the point where I annoy people- well, at least my partner who brought my, ahem, possibly obsessive, behavior to my attention. As usual, I blame it on grad school- I just can’t stop thinking about things! The story that happened most recently is a hot button topic or even a trigger for some people, but I want to talk around it, so bear with me. As mentioned before, I live in Eugene. Recently it has come out that there was an “alleged” sexual assault involving a young woman and three young men from the University of Oregon basketball team. The story has been a bit sensationalized in the news and most of us probably know more details than we should about the story, but suffice it to say, it is very complicated, with a number of conflicting bits of information and the police decided there was not enough evidence to charge the males with any crime. I do still read the local paper (yay for me! I live in a town that still has an independent daily paper!) and followed the story as it spun out. I have two college age daughters, I am female, I was involved in rape prevention programs when I was in college (and yes, we did just bluntly call it that in the early 90’s)- I am a human being who wants everyone to be treated with dignity and respect and for the world to be a safe place! Let’s just say- I care.
In my (maybe obsessive) thinking about this story, I had a couple of thoughts that I trace directly to my newer academic perspective. A photo from the paper, with a young woman holding up a sign stating “I live in a rape culture” really struck me and I started to think about what that really means. As I become more enmeshed in a socio-cultural perspective, I look at the world differently than I used to, and I wish there were spaces I had to really talk about things like “rape culture” in frank ways. There is so much going on here- the ways our culture talks about sex and sexuality and the ways it portrays it. The way bodies are displayed in advertising and how songs and television and movies show relationships seems to blur boundaries. What does personal responsibility look like for all parties (and how do we start that conversation without it sounding like victim blaming or slut shaming)? The way our culture glorifies sports figures and seems to have a separate code of behavior for them is tied in to this particular scenario too. And then there is the whole issue of rape and consensual sex. One of my insights from this latest story is that I believe we need a better, expanded vocabulary around these concepts. While most of us intellectually know that rape is not “just” a stranger forcing someone through violence or threat of violence to engage in sexual activity, I think that emotionally, that is how most of us think of it. When you add in underage drinking, previous sexual relations between the individuals, and a sense that “this is what college parties are like”, the waters are muddied. This does not excuse wrong behavior, but I think it lets people feel that they have not committed a wrongful act. The young men say they thought it was consensual- and the sad thing is, I believe them, they probably did think so. They do not see themselves as rapists. The messages they get from the culture they are surrounded by are confusing enough when you aren’t 19 and drunk. The story is just sad from start to finish, and 4 people’s lives (plus their families and friends too!) are forever changed by one night of lack of clear communication and awful choices.
So, the question becomes, how do we change this culture to one that is not a “rape culture”. How do we have visions of equality and safety for all that are brought in to reality? How do we change the ways we talk about sex and sexuality, in the moment and out of it? How do we change our beliefs that if someone isn’t saying “yes” it means “no”? If the dominant image we hold of a rapist is someone holding a knife to their victim, the individuals at a party who are pressuring someone won’t take on that label and recognize the consequences of their actions.
I am ready to help bring that world into being!