"Rape Culture" Lives Close to Home

When students express outrage over the “rape culture” in another country, the teacher brings the discussion closer to home for further exploration.

The other day, a student was angry about something she was studying in another class. “Did you know that there was just a girl who died from being raped by several men in India?” she asked incredulously, without saying hello. “And the men probably won’t even be convicted because that’s just how things are over there?”

I nodded, listened and shared her disbelief. As an ardent feminist, I was well aware of the situation in India.

My student’s comments about the case sparked a discussion in my classroom about rape culture in India. I quickly found an article online about the case and we looked at it as a class so that my students could have an informed discussion. It didn’t take long, however, for comments to be about how “this sort of thing” happens in places like India, but not here in the United States.

A rape culture exists when sexual assault is rationalized and normalized. At the center of the culture is sexual objectification and blaming the victim. Sexist language, jokes, media images and laws feed the culture.

I had to correct these assumptions from my students. Rape culture in the United States is just as dangerous as it is in other countries. We read about a Texas cheerleader who was kicked off the squad because she refused to chant the name of her rapist. We also read about two star football players in Steubenville, Ohio, who allegedly assaulted a girl too drunk to resist. The boys posted pictures of the rape on the Internet. I shared these situations with my students and, as we looked at various articles on the Internet, I could see my students’ understanding of the world around them shifting. They were starting to realize that we do, in fact, live in a society that often times ignores rape, tries to cover it up rape and blames the victims.

Some might argue that teaching students about rape culture has no place in a high school English class. I wholeheartedly disagree. Not only did this discussion work to reach standards about reading nonfiction texts, speaking and listening, and critical thinking, but it also opened up my students’ minds to issues in the world around them. Never before has the issue of rape culture been so important in our society. Not only are we hearing more and more news stories about victims of rape, but our politicians have also let the Violence Against Women Act lapse for the first time since 1994. This act provides funding for groups to fight against domestic abuse and sexual assault.

I see many more people getting angry about rape culture than I used to. People are fed up with seeing women violated in such a manner and I think part of that has to do with comprehensive education on the topic. Hopefully more discussions like the one I had with my students about rape culture will help make violence against women a thing of the past.

Samsa is a freelance writer and teaches high school English in the south suburbs of Chicago.