Revealing the Cultural Patterns of Rape Culture

It’s been a few weeks since the #metoo hashtag prompted discussion about the widespread and systemic nature of sexual violence. As I’ve shared stories and listened to others’, I’ve been struck by frequent questioning: “Does ______ really count as sexual harassment or assault?” And that question has led me to consider the many moments of sexual intimidation that aren’t harassment or assault per se, but constitute violence and are part of rape culture nonetheless.

Here are a few examples from my life as a professor interacting with undergraduate men:

  • A student waits until everyone has left the classroom to confront me about his grade, raising his voice and moving closer until he’s towering over me.
  • A pattern emerges in which at least seven students (all men) walk into my faculty office and shut the door (only for me to re-open it), making me aware of the tension that arises in my body from their assumed control of space and uninvited move toward intimacy.
  • A student enters an otherwise empty elevator and stands in front of me, blocking both the exit and the keypad for selecting floors. My body stiffens up so that I wait until he’s left the elevator before moving forward to the keypad and pressing the button for my office floor.
  • A student brings his friend (another man) to his writing conference late in the evening when the department is empty. This friend sits outside my office, essentially guarding the hallway.

Whether intentional or not, intimidation operates in moments like these because they play into larger understandings of agency, ownership, intimacy, and control of physical space. They obstruct efforts to maintain distance, to meet in public, to plan exit routes, and so on.

While none of these experiences constitute sexual harassment or assault, they show how presumed ownership of space communicates domination. They show how rape culture, which is based in domination, operates in classrooms, offices, elevators, hallways, and other spaces. They also show how no one is immune: even the professor who holds institutional power can be intimidated and over-powered.

rape-culture-pyramid
Rape culture is rooted sexism, heterosexism, and other interlocking systems of oppression, which we see reflected in attitudes, inequities, and everyday realities. Source: http://www.11thprincipleconsent.org/consent-propaganda/rape-culture-pyramid/.

I share these moments with the hope that we might better understand rape culture as a cultural phenomenon that is constructed and performed in everyday interactions. Moments like these aren’t ones I report to our Title IX coordinator, but they are ones that stack up the longer I’m in higher education. They are moments that come to mind when I think about how gender-based intimidation and invalidation—like other microaggressions—play out in many seemingly small yet consequential ways.

I share these moments, too, because they’ve become memories that sit alongside those of harassment, assault, and other sexual violence. When I think of my own stories and those shared by others, I see how moments like these are part of larger narratives of rape culture, or a culture that perpetuates deep injustice through sexism and heterosexism, including the objectification and exploitation of women’s and marginalized peoples’ bodies. Truly, such everyday moments make up the larger culture and have cumulative impact. They erode trust, provoke fear, and increase inequitable demands for emotional labor, among other matters.

I also share these moments because they reveal patterns—like the pattern I noticed of men shutting the office door. Just as there’s potential in looking for themes and outliers for everyday divination, there’s potential in identifying patterns of sexual intimidation and other violence. Identifying patterns allows us to better witness, name, and intervene into injustice. And the patterns supporting rape culture desperately need intervention.


This post is written by
Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Me Too: Standing Against Sexual Violence” or “Microaggressions Matter.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Me Too: Standing Against Sexual Violence

I didn’t learn to drive in drivers ed. In fact, I never drove the car that whole semester because the teacher was a creep.

When girls would drive, he’d start off complimenting perfume or jewelry or clothing. Then he’d lean into the driver to observe them better (the perfume or jewelry or clothing). From there, he’d put his hand on the girl’s leg, sometimes leaving it there and sometimes moving it higher along the thigh. All of this with two additional students in the backseat. All of this with students feeling powerless to do anything.

That semester he asked me multiple times when I’d like to drive, and I always made one excuse or another. In the meantime, I sat in the back of the car and watched. I never told another teacher because everyone at school already knew, and nothing would be done anyway.

My parents knew, and they knew I wasn’t learning to drive. That became the immediate concern, as it seemed to relate to my physical safety. To me, physical safety meant never getting in the driver’s seat next to that instructor. I’d take my chances on the road itself.

This is one of many, many stories that come to mind as I add “me too” in solidarity on friends’ FB posts. This is one of many, many stories of sexual harassment, intimidation, and violence that are so normative, they are simply everyday. This is one of many, many stories that bring to mind the costs and consequences of this violence—with the loss of drivers education a small piece of the stories I hold, stories I bear witness to.

At what point do we say ENOUGH?

I see posts online saying that the past 24 hours of “me too” responses have been triggering as hell. I see posts online saying that one person facing this violence is too many. I see posts online questioning the political efficacy of this outpouring of raising hands and storytelling.

As I sit with the emotions, memories, and physical pain that arise, I also feel deep gratitude for the storytelling, as it feels like a moment of building trust when trust is so corroded. It feels like a moment of affirming that “yes, this really did happen” and of countering the epistemic injustice that underlies women (and people facing prejudice) not being believed. It feels like an important moment for saying aloud—again, STRONGLY—that no one should face this violence and that we must stand TALL in the commitment to justice.


This post is written by
Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Microaggressions Matter” or “Trusting the Alarm Behind Supposedly ‘Alarmist Rhetoric.’” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!