The light sentencing and early release of convicted rapist Brock Turner brought the issue of rape culture back into the mainstream media recently. Turner’s story became magnified in the media when his victim read a letter in the courtroom and drew attention to Judge Aaron Persky’s expressed concern that a sentence longer than six months would have a “severe impact” on Turner’s life (with little apparent regard for the impact a light sentence would have on the victim). The letter was read aloud on CNN and on the House of Representatives floor in its entirety.
Suddenly, the world was listening to—and agreeing with—a rape survivor. This is highly unusual; typically, survivors find themselves silenced by the crime perpetrated against them, the court system, their schools and by society—even family and friends.
As educators, we have the opportunity to highlight this moment and disrupt some of the cultural practices that silence the voices of survivors and victims. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives. We all need to do more until everyone in our classrooms and households understands that rape is a cultural problem that all of us must stand against.
Here are some ways we can disrupt rape culture from an early age.
Don’t make children give hugs when they don't want to.
As the parent of a kindergartner, I have fought this fight many times. I can tell my daughter all day long that her body is hers. But if I then force her to give a hug she doesn’t want to give, all of my words fall by the wayside. When someone tries to guilt her into giving a hug or bribing her to get one, I simply ask them to stop doing that. Does it hurt feelings? Probably. Does it teach my daughter that I think her body is more important than an adult’s hurt feelings? You bet. Frankly, I am fine with that.
Don’t tell girls that when boys tease them, it means they “like” them (or vice versa).
How many times did a boy tease me, push me, shove me or—when I was older—snap my bra in the hallway, only for an adult to tell me that it was just the boy’s way of showing me he “liked” me? When we tell children violent or violating behavior is a sign that somebody likes them, we are teaching them that violence and love go together. Consider the powerful message we send to children when we tell the person being violated that they just need to accept it. And, because this message is most often delivered when the teasing happens across gender lines, it also reinforces the harmful assumption that everyone is heterosexual and that only cisgender girls can be violated in this way.
Resist dress codes that police girls’ bodies.
I understand that dress codes are a complicated issue. Honestly, I like the idea of affordable uniforms that can be obtained by all students because it erases the issue to a degree. But many educators live with dress codes. Where I taught, those dress codes policed women’s bodies and labeled their bodies a “distraction.” We need to flip the script and teach children that clothing does not provoke sexual assault. When we police girls’ bodies and tell them their clothes are a problem, we are subtly upholding the cultural notion that what a girl wears determines the way she is treated. How many times do we hear, “What was she wearing?” after a rape charge? The answer is: It doesn’t matter.
Call out songs, TV shows or movies that send the message, “No doesn’t really mean no.”
When I realized my favorite movie, Say Anything, was basically encouraging stalking, I was devastated. I loved that movie. I loved that the boy just kept pursuing the girl he loved until she realized she really did love him too. And then I was stalked for a few weeks in college. Suddenly, that movie didn’t seem so cute and innocent: It seemed like I had learned that boys know how I feel better than I know how I feel.
When Audi aired a commercial during the 2013 Super Bowl that celebrated a boy forcing a kiss on a girl at prom, I almost lost my mind. We need to start talking about how these destructive narratives reinforce the idea that girls—or anyone in a position of diminished power—don’t really know what they want.
Which leads to a strategy for older students…
Talk about consent.
It seems that “No means no” is no longer effective. It was a good start because it got my generation to think about how to say no. But now when “no” isn’t uttered, we seem to have a harder time labeling rape as rape. Teaching people to say “yes” to what they do want instead of saying “no” to what they don’t want gives teenagers power to control sexual situations. By the same token, teaching people to wait for “yes” drives home the need for affirmative consent before proceeding with sexual activity. As the script for how to talk about consent evolves away from “no” and toward “yes,” we empower our kids to have control over their bodies.
When we work to disrupt the subtle, damaging lessons taught to children about their bodies, we work to disrupt a culture that lets a judge give a light sentence to a convicted rapist so his life isn’t ruined. We can all do this work together in our households and classrooms. The next generation deserves to feel safe and secure in their bodies.
Clemens is the associate professor of non-Western literatures and director of Women's and Gender Studies at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.