Women are taught to never walk alone at night, to carry their keys between their fingers, and to dress modestly but not too modestly. I consider these basic “Woman 101” tips. And somehow, these tips are supposed to keep me and other women from becoming another 1 in 3.
When current conditions are voiced, we as a society tend to turn a blind eye. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the court despite being accused by multiple women of sexual assault. Many women and girls limit their behaviors for fear of rape— for fear of being told that “boys will be boys,” “you were asking for it in that dress,” or “maybe next time you shouldn’t drink so much.” Concomitantly, adolescents have learned that consent does not matter—that it is irrelevant.
While discussions are finite, popular media has begun to tackle the topic of rape. The season fifteen Grey’s Anatomy episode, “Silent All These Years,” written by Elisabeth R Finch, aims to initiate the dismantling of rape culture while highlighting the importance of consent and the lasting impacts of rape. The title, in and of itself, highlights just how oppressive and dismissive society becomes when women speak up about instances of sexual assault and rape.
The episode begins when Khalilah Joi, guest-starring as a woman named Abby, arrives at Grey Sloan Memorial. With a cut to her face and bruises, coupled with skittish behavior, Dr. Jo Wilson recognizes the signs of rape. As the episode progresses, viewers learn that Abby was raped after leaving a bar. Aware of the victim-blaming narrative frequently used against women, Abby is hesitant to report the incident to the police or let her husband know. In attempting to break the stigma, Dr. Jo Wilson breaks protocol and shares her story of rape and sexual violence. She humanizes herself, therefore allowing Abby to see her as more than a woman in a white coat. When Abby agrees to a rape kit, something she knows will probably end up sitting in the back of a police station, Dr. Jo Wilson and Dr. Teddy Altman shift the power back to Abby. Before moving to the next portion of the rape kit, Abby must give them consent. She makes all the choices for herself. Something so seemingly simple is immensely powerful. Just hours before, Abby had lost all body autonomy.
That said, the most moving part of the episode comes prior to Abby’s surgery. Hesitant to go under anesthesia out of fear of being vulnerable again and fearful of seeing her attacker in the faces of the male staff and doctors, Abby resists the surgery. From that, the “hall of awesomeness” was assembled. The hospital’s female employees lined the entire length of the hallway right up to the operating room (which only had female doctors because girl power!!). The vast majority did not know Abby but showed up because they would want others to do the same if they were in that position.
The show made an additional point to shift the fault from the woman. We live in a society that thrives off victim-blaming. Contrary, in “Silent All These Years,” Ben Warren, played by Jason Winston George, took the time to explain consent to his stepson Tuck Bailey, played by BJ Tanner: “If she stops having fun, just plain stop,” said Ben. “Time out. Game Over.”
Media portrayals of sexual assault correlate with increased victim blaming and the way the public discerns victims. Contrasting the standard image of women as sexual objects, Grey’s Anatomy humanizes the victim, emphasizing the importance of consent while moving away from victim blaming.
I was talking to someone the other day who said he thought this episode was cringy. He viewed the “hall of awesomeness” as unrealistic and unnecessary, leaving him emotionally detached. And while I listened to his opinion and told him he had the right to hold that belief, I elaborated on my perspective. The unity and “women supporting women” narrative present throughout the episode not only reinforced the idea that you are never alone but highlighted just how essential lessons on consent and education about rape are.
There is a common misconception that feminism is anti-male when the movement’s principle is contingent on equal rights for women. Women want to be heard, to be supported, and to be given a choice. This episode highlights this message. The creators gave a voice to the voiceless. They addressed the intersectionality between race and gender; Abby was played by a Black woman, serving as a nod to the increased vulnerability of Black women. They highlighted the healing power of female solidarity while recognizing that trauma is real and does not go away overnight. They emphasize that survivors are not alone and that they are not at fault.
To anyone that finds Grey’s Anatomy over-dramatic, cringy, or over-rated, I encourage you to give it another chance. While it might not change your opinions on the show, it empowers survivors in a world that usually silences them. If not for yourself, do it for the one in three.
As a freshman at Davidson, coming to college opened up a world of experiences for me. I was excited to explore new opportunities and discover more about myself. While Davidson does more than the public schools I’ve previously attended to support different groups of people, there are still many ways the school can support marginalized and underrepresented voices to create a healthier environment on campus.
Unfortunately, sexual assualt is prevalent in college, even at Davidson, but I have yet to witnessed this issue being addressed by administration. If someone, typically a woman, comes out about having been sexually assaulted, nothing seems to be done about this. This reluctance of disclosure about something uncomfortable or traumatic can be due to the normalization of ignorance about such subjects at institutions, which mirrors rape culture. It normalizes something that is in fact a huge deal, and people should be able to reach out and feel supported during a time like this. A step in the right direction would be implementing a program or even creating a social media account through the college that is open for anonymous messages for victims of sexual assault, or an anonymous chat room for victims to speak about their experiences and connect with others so they don’t feel alone. This could also expand to people who want to talk about other issues we have learned about in GSS, such as questioning sexuality, adjusting to a PWI, or discovering one’s social identity. Simply talking about troubles and worries anonymously with others students who are feeling the same way can be reassuring and validating of their experience. This can help them feel heard and understood. I also think it could be beneficial if at least one of the counselors specialized in aiding sexual assault victims so they can effectively help students who want to talk about their experiences. Pairing this with an administration that addresses issues of sexual assault would create a much more comfortable and supportive environment for victims.
Something else that should be addressed that comes even before what I’ve mentioned above, is how sexual assault can be prevented in the first place. Although all first-years must complete modules about drugs, alcohol, and sexual assault, I think it is important to keep this relevant to all students throughout the year, not just the summer before they arrive. Similar to alcohol-related posters often displayed in dorms or bathrooms describing how much is appropriate to drink and resources for help, one way to maintain awareness could be to hang posters like this concerning consent – how to show it, enforce it as best you can, and be safe if it goes too far. Davidson could offer more talks or information for resources that can help students be more informed and aware of how to be as respectful and safe as possible. In order to make these resources well known, the college must spread the word effectively and let all students know what is available to them, which hopefully can soon be more.
Generally, I think there are many ways that Davidson can implement, even small, but effective, means of support and aid for sexual assault victims, and minority groups on campus, and these are only a few.
I have learned about so many new things this semester and I am grateful that I have a greater awareness of many issues in society today. One thing that is really important that I was able to learn a lot about was rape culture. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time in the semester to discuss rape culture far in depth, but we were able to discuss it for a class period, and I was still able to take away a lot. I found our in-class discussion very valuable to add to what I had learned on my own from my book for the book review.
For the book review, I read the book Rape Culture on Campus by Meredith Minister. After reading this book for class, I became really invested in rape culture in general, but especially on college campuses since it is a very relevant topic to Davidson that pertains to everyone here. Through doing some digging around Davidson’s website and pulling from my previous knowledge, I, like many others on this campus, see a need for greater sexual assault resources. I would like to propose many steps that the college could take action on to implement more resources for not only sexual assault survivors, but also in preventing sexual assault on campus. Currently, I find that the prevention efforts are minimal on campus and I would like to lay out a plan for how to proceed in doing more sexual assault prevention on campus.
Currently, there is a petition going around campus online for the Davidson community to sign that would require Davidson College to hire a second Title IX coordinator, in addition to a few other measures. The link to this petition was shared via email with our entire GSS 101 class recently. I contacted the creator of the petition, and she said that currently the petition has about 750 signatures, just over half of the required number of students of 1,322. Getting this petition to its goal would be a huge step in the right direction, however it will take some time to get to that many signatures. I have looked into and thought of a few ways that staff and faculty on campus can do better to provide a safer place for students regarding sexual assault.
My first thought was in regards to the required courses on Moodle that freshmen now must complete before they arrive at Davidson. Since the Summer of 2019, freshmen have been required to complete two “Davidson Close-Up” courses that were created in association with students, faculty, and staff around campus. The two courses are Alcohol & Drugs and Sexual Health & Sexual Misconduct. I think that this is a great starting point for educating students as they begin their lives at college; however, being a current sophomore, I will tell you that I honestly do not remember most of what was in those courses. They were educational, but brief, which is beneficial to a certain extent. Unfortunately, the college does not reinforce these things once students arrive on campus. Serving as an Orientation Leader this year for the incoming freshmen, I can tell you that the discussion with the health center in general was very short, and sexual assault was rarely touched on again once everyone was all moved in. I think that not only should the Davidson Close-Up course be required each returning Summer for students, but that a large assembly should also be held for those who want to attend where people can learn more about resources, prevention efforts, and ask questions should they have any. This would create a more open and reassuring atmosphere.
In looking through the resource pages for Davidson College, I found that Campus Police actually offers Rape and Defense (R.A.D.) classes where students can learn tecniques for self-defense. I did not know this and I have never heard of this. This seems like a great program, but I had never heard of it until now and you have to contact Campus Police to learn more about taking the program. I am assuming that since I was unaware of this program, many others are as well. This led me to wonder why Campus Police does not just offer these classes for people to sign up for every couple of months? The skills learned in a class like this would be beneficial not just only on this campus, but outside of the Davidson bubble as well. I think without a class like this being offered, this is an important preventative resource that is hidden away and unused.
One other thing that I found to be problematic with the college’s response to sexual assault is that I can tell many of the web pages have not been updated in a while. On at least three different Davidson web pages, I found Georgia Ringle’s name listed as someone to contact with questions or for help. For those who do not know, Georgia Ringle worked as the main health educator on campus through the Center for Student Health and Well-Being for years. She retired this past year and now there is a temporary person filling her shoes this year, but last I heard they are still looking for someone to hire long-term. Since she is no longer employed at the college, she is another resource lost for students. These web pages can be considered out of date since they have not been updated in about six months and campus is now lacking even more outlets for students in regards to sexual assault.
To compile my thoughts, campus needs to do better to educate students yearly to keep up to date with prevention and resources for sexual assault, the health center needs to hire more staff, including a health educator, which means updating many online resources for information, and to promote more ways the college can help in protecting students. I think that all of these ideas I am proposing are practical and simple fixes; however, this will require the support of the college and require Davidson to recognize the ongoing issue at hand. By Davidson doing nothing to support students in this way, they are contributing to the continuation of rape culture on college campuses. Change and intervention will help break the cycle of rape culture around Davidson College’s small campus.
Javed, Ikra. “Davidson Close-Up: Sexual Health & Sexual Misconduct.” Davidson College Digital Learning, 10 Jan. 2020, https://digitallearning.davidson.edu/digitalprojects/davidson-close-up-sexual-health-sexual-misconduct/.
Rape culture is pervasive everywhere and places like Davidson College are by no means exempt from this. Davidson College is not only known for its high academics, but as an environment that highly values trust and honor among its community members. With this in mind, many individuals assume that aspects of rape culture are not prevalent on campus, however, these practices and behaviors not only manifest themselves within the campus’s culture, but occurrences of them and their impacts are often silenced. In turn, keeping people’s stories and experiences quiet or “under the radar” only reinforces rape culture and feeds into upholding it. On Davidson’s campus, there have been a few attempts to bring these stories to light and expose how rape culture is much more prevalent than individuals initially assume. However, many of these efforts were not effective long-term or did not make a large enough impact to change the overall perception of Davidson College’s culture.
There are many strategies used to fight against the normalization of rape culture everywhere that I believe would be just as successful if implemented on a smaller scale such as the Davidson College campus. For example, one of Aristotle’s epideictic forms of rhetoric, megethos, was and still is utilized as a central part of #MeToo’s movement in the arrangement of a feminist list, exposing a profuse amount of stories shared by survivors. This method, emphasized by Stephanie R. Larson in her book What It Feels Like, is meant to “‘not only to engage viewers, but also to overwhelm them’ … with feelings that encourage a level of belief in victims’ testimonies and a commonplace reality of rape culture” (Larson 138). Just from the sheer number of accounts, this tactic is very useful in the way that it represents how large-scale rape culture is and how many people, particularly women, it negatively effects. To implement this strategy on campus, I propose doing a paper campaign throughout campus displaying anonymous stories related to rape culture from survivors within the Davidson community. Realizing that these papers can be a trigger for some individuals, there would be an additional paper on top of these stores with a content warning. So, while these papers are sharing the stories of survivors and making the magnitude of rape culture’s impacts known, they are also enacting active consent. To fund this project, I want to apply for the Stories Yet To Be Told grant, which specifically focuses on sharing people’s stories and transforming sites into places of engagement.
By initiating this paper campaign and using the rhetorical tactic of megethos, light can be shed on how rape culture is prevalent everywhere, even on Davidson College’s campus. The high number of papers with different stories on them will hopefully make the magnitude of stories alarmingly clear and expose the extent rape culture impacts those around us. In addition to this, it will also provide an opportunity for survivors to share their stories, even if it is anonymous, giving their stories the power to bring awareness to the community and inspire change.
Larson, Stephanie L. What It Feels Like: Visceral Rhetoric and the Politics of Rape Culture. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2021.
As a school that was founded by white genteel slave owners and remained segregated until the 60s and all-male until the 70s, Davidson has a long history of elitism. Unfortunately, the college has done a poor job of repealing exclusive traditions and making the school as welcoming and safe as possible to people of all walks of life. One particularly glaring area of inequality is the social structure of Greek life on campus.
There are many things wrong with the status of Greek life at Davidson. Racial disparities are perhaps the most visible problem. My friend Michaela Gibbons is working on a project called Stories Yet To Be Told, conducting research on the history of Patterson Court Council (PCC) – the governing body of Greek life at Davidson. We have had many conversations about PCC this semester, and a lot of them have centered around PCC’s dominating whiteness. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality and Lorde’s “There are No Hierarchies of Oppression” (1983) emphasize that racial equality (and other equalities) are necessary to realize gender equality. All of the nine predominantly white PCC organizations have individual houses on campus, while the six PCC organizations for students of color must share space at the BSC (Black Student Coalition) house. This is clearly a problem for feminism, although solutions are somewhat difficult to propose. In this case, the simplest method to reduce white special power on campus may be to disband PCC or consolidate the predominantly white organizations.
Aside from racial inequality, another issue with Greek life at Davidson is its relationship to the gender binary. As a collection of organizations with membership based on male or female gender identification, PCC reinforces ideas that there are only two genders, which is clearly false when one understands Lorber’s perspective that gender is constructed. Since humans have made up the concept of gender, there is no reason to believe in all-or-nothing gender rules. And yet, PCC membership is exclusive to men and women. (Turner House, one of the eating houses, does allow anyone who is not a straight cis male to join, but this introduces the problematic circumstance of requiring people to out themselves). Furthermore, the predominance of “bristerhoods” (fraternity-eating house mixers) perpetuates heteronormativity. Requiring all PCC organizations to be open to all genders would be the easiest solution to make Davidson more feminist, although that would require converting some fraternal organizations to eating houses.
A final, and particularly glaring problem with PCC at Davidson is rape culture. We briefly talked in class about how society conditions males to violate and disrespect female bodies, and there is a prevailing willingness to let this slide. Society reinforces hegemonic sexual scripts, an orgasm gap, and poor understandings of consent, all of which lead to unequal sexual citizenship. This means that women have less power than men to make the choice to have sex. This is obviously problematic for feminism. At Davidson, PCC hopelessly perpetuates rape culture. For liability reasons, the school has strict rules about alcohol for parties at PCC houses. Because PCC organizations are too lazy or busy to plan detailed weekly parties and want to avoid strict scrutiny from the school, weekly parties are predominantly hosted at Armfield, the only residential space on campus where open consumption is permitted. Currently, Armfield apartments which host parties are exclusively rented by predominately white men with strong fraternity ties. This leads to constant sexual misconduct and a lack of safety at parties. Once again, it is not simple to find a solution to male ownership of party space at Davidson. However, some viable options would be disbanding PCC, creating more school-sponsored social events, and preventing Armfield apartments from having five male residents.
PCC is rife with inequalities, much of them a byproduct of Davidson’s elitist traditions. Thus, disbanding PCC and ending Greek life at Davidson is probably the most feminist solution. This would introduce a social vacuum for some time, but it couldn’t be any worse that the forced quarantine of the 2020-21 academic year.
Within college campuses, rape culture is a prominent issue that is often addressed on a surface level, leading to little or no change in the occurrence of sexual assualt and sexual violence. Meredith Minister breaks down how rape culture is continually perpetuated on college campuses and offers solutions to reducing the prominence of sexual assualt on campus in her book, Rape Culture on Campus. Minister emphasizes that not only is rape culture an issue that requires a change in ideolgies and how we approach sexual assault prevention, but also that rape culture is partially a result of binaries that often exclude gender, sexual, racial, and ethnic minorities.
Minster begins her book by introducing how she defines rape culture, specifically saying that rape culture is “a socially accepted pattern that legitimates violence to police socially nonconforming activities, including expressions of sexuality and gender” (1). She equates the issue of rape culture existing in the first place to the way we view society and the people within that society. Colonial ways of thinking about gender and sexuality exacerbate the occurence of rape culture in society. She expands on her definition of rape culture by breaking the causes and continuation of rape culture down into pieces. Minister’s writing provides an up close look at how rape culture has defined college campuses and how colleges can do better to break the cycle of continuing the voilent pattern. Mininter draws on her educational expertise to include how purity culture, religion, and autonomy, in addition to policing and trigger warnings, do not assist in interrupting the rape culture pattern on college campuses.
Rape culture is so pervasive in almost every aspect of today’s society, sometimes seemingly impossible to combat, however, in her book What It Feels Like, Stephanie R. Larson examines rape culture from a rhetorical perspective and gives insight on the possible resolutions for its abolishment. As part of this solution, Larson introduces the concept of “visceral rhetorics,” which describes the felt communication that takes place within one’s self as well as the erasure of this perspective, and explains why this conceptual framework is often overlooked when it has the power to uproot rape culture altogether. She deeply analyses how we communicate about rape culture by examining a multitude of different case studies, revealing how much the embodied experience is undermined within this discourse, along with certain types of evidence like personal testimonials and voices such as non-white women.
In the first chapter, Larson examines pornography and the movements against it in the 1980’s, uncovering how these create a notion of sexual citizenship and risk connected to it, resulting in panic surrounding individuals accused of sexual violence while simultaneously ignoring actual victims. Rape prevention campaigns build off this notion in Chapter 2 to include the bystander, but ultimately highlight how the issues and solutions related to rape currently center around the male perspective. While Chapter 1 and 2 discuss the consequence of women’s bodies being deemed unfit for body politics because of the centralization of men in rape culture, Chapter 3 and 4 take a turn focusing on how women’s bodies are leveraged politically in the response of rape. These two chapters explore how the embodied experience of sexual violence victims is often seen as inferior to other kinds of evidence, particularly though technological tools like rape kits, even though this visceral framework is essential to shape the public’s perception of rape. Lastly in Chapter 5, Larson argues how powerful the feminist implementation of megethos, a central aspect of Aristotle’s epideictic forms of rhetoric, also meaning magnitude, within the #MeToo movement is in order to show the magnitude of rape culture in our society today. Not only did the sheer number of responses reveal the reality of rape culture, it also created collective believability surrounding it. The analysis of these case studies ultimately display Larson’s main point that “discourses about rape culture rely on strategies of containment to assert control over a presumed affective excess of femininity but also that those discourses can be challenged by mobilizing forms of embodiment that stress what it feels like to be raped” (4).
Stephanie R. Larson, the author of What It Feels Like, is an Assistant Professor at Carnegie Melon University in the department of English. Although this is Larson’s first book, she is already very involved in the rhetorical community through presenting at many conferences, her CV demonstrates her engaging in interviews, and continuously publishing new written work pertaining to rape culture, mostly in the form of scholarly articles. Larson predominantly focuses on the topic of rape in all of her work because she views it as a necessity at this point and shares “I do not want to live in a society where people experience violence and then have no way to talk about it or are met with skepticism when they try. I study rape culture because I know it to be a true and pervasive reality” (xiv). This book builds off of past scholar’s work by in feminist rhetoric by not only addressing how women’s voices are being silenced by rape culture, but how rape culture suppresses their bodies as well.
To come to this conclusion, Larson analyses anti-pornography debates from the 1980s, Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) advocacy materials, sexual assault forensic kits, public performances by survivors, and online social movements (5). By using the methodology of rhetorical analysis, as well as using information from historical archives, she examines this history of rape culture, how rape culture is still present today, the rhetorical strategies used to uphold it, as well as what rhetorical strategies could be useful to abolishing it (7). Each of these sources provide a different angle, strengthening Larson’s overall point of the importance of embodiment and its potential to uproot rape culture when shared and believed.
In Chapter 1, Larson begins by addressing the case study of the Meese Commission, a commission ordered by Ronald Regan investigating the impacts of pornography, focusing on the historical legacy of the construction of a victim’s subjectivity in contemporary public discourse. Connected to pornography, the distinction of a “proper citizen” through sensation experience was a large aspect intertwined in this inspection and shaped the meaning of what constituted as victimhood (35). This ultimately resulted in victims not fitting into this conceptualization of the “ideal citizen.” Through the main arguments of the letters written to the commission, blame shifted away from the men viewing pornography to the sexuality happening within it, serving as a basis in the decision of what bodies are valuable (41). This eventually led to the definition of rape during the 1980s to stray away from inherently sexually violent behavior to a consequence of male contamination, bringing the focus to the rehabilitation of straight white males and away from the actual experiences of victims (41). The declaration of women’s sexuality as the real threat in rape cases and failure to truly listen to the experiences of victims allowed the histories of misogyny, white supremacy, and violent masculinity to go unrecognized within the overall discussion of rape.
Larson then brings attention to bystander discourses in Chapter 2 by analyzing the two contemporary rape prevention campaigns “It’s On Us” and “1 is 2 Many”. She heavily critiques “It’s On Us” regarding their history centered around protecting white womanhood and how this is still seen in their discussion of the bystander, along with the promotion of other problematic misconceptions like feeding into the racial stereotype of Black men as the majority of rapists (71). In a similar way, “1 is 2 Many” offers men as the answer to fixing the horrors of rape culture, without considering how “masculinity remains unquestioned while it is leveraged as the solution” (78). By presenting these two examples in regard to the role of the bystander, Larson acknowledges that in attempting to change the logics of rape culture by shifting the responsibility away from women, men are often viewed as the ideal mitigators of rape culture. In turn, this completely disregards the fact that men’s actions created this issue and continue to fuel it today.
Chapter 3 and 4 shift the focus of this book by looking at how bodies interact with the public and overall discourse of rape in personal, and usually responsive, ways. To begin this transfer in discussion, Larson analyses how rape kits, while beneficial in supplementing testimonials, overshadow the voices and embodied accounts of victims, deeming them less credible (87). Larson identifies three of the largest problems surrounding them, being: situating rape as a problem with violent criminals with no cultural aspect involved, placing far too much emphasis on scientific tools like rape kits which leads the public further away from believing victims, and the control of a rape experience by medical, legislative, and testimonial accounts, going against the value of visceral rhetorics (99, 103, 111). Rape kits ultimately turn the prevalence of rape into a scientific matter with scientific answers, ignoring underlying historical, cultural, and ideological factors, while simultaneously furthering the notion that the body and its boundaries are inferior in regard to rape cases (95).
However, Emma Sulkowicz and Chanel Miller, both victims of high-profile rape cases, push against this effacing by publicly centering their bodies in a form of protest, highlighted in Chapter 4 (113). In 2016, Miller read a letter she wrote aloud in court that many news outlets published shortly after in which she asks her audience not to just see her perspective, but “to feel her perspective, to feel what her body felt in the aftermath of rape” after describing her embodied experience (122). Sulkowicz released her performance, Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol, online in 2015, a staged violent raping that forces viewers to see and feel rape, evoking a visceral response from them and giving her audience a better understanding of the embodied responses to situations of rape (128). Not only do these performances help alter the public’s opinion by assessing rape outside of the male perspective, it also brings attention to non-white women and gender nonbinary people who usually get left out of the wider public discourses of rape (114). While Miller’s form of visceral counterpublicity internalizes the use of the body and Solowitz’s externalizes it, they both expose public audiences to this embodied violence and better shape their understanding of how the body should be centralized in the instance of rape.
Following these instances that sparking embodied reactions among the public came the #MeToo movement, ultimately shifting how the world views sexual violence and the discussion surrounding it. In April 2017, Alyssa Milano sent out a tweet encouraging those who have been sexually harassed or assaulted to unite themselves by using #MeToo hashtag (136). The sheer number of responses to this tweet led to the rhetorical form of megethos, or magnitude, that transformed the discussion of rape culture (138). This extensive list of experiences not only engaged viewers, but it overwhelmed them, bringing to light just how common these instances occur. This list employs feminist megethos as a strategy that helps undo problematic, yet normalized, attitudes towards rape, expose the reality of rape culture, and offers another tactic of visceral rhetoric to change the discourse surrounding rape and rape culture at large.
One of Larson’s greatest strengths throughout her book was her the variation in case studies she used to justify her points. Including sources like anti-pornography debates from the 1980s, Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) advocacy materials, sexual assault forensic kits, public performances by survivors, and online social movements allows for a more holistic understanding of the importance of embodied experiences and the power they have to abolish rape culture. In addition to this, something very commendable throughout Larson’s writing is the alternate wording of complicated concepts and arguments she offers. Continuously, she would make a statement then follow it with phrases like “in other words,” making her arguments very clear and easier to grapple by hearing them in different ways.
Centering discourse around the male perspective is one of the main issues of rape culture presented throughout the entire book, but one of Larson’s weaknesses is not addressing male victims. By no means should the focus on male victims be prevalent throughout the book since only 9% of rape victims are male, but discussing one example of how the experiences of male victims shape the visceral response of their audience would be useful. Analyzing the contrast between male and female victims would offer another layer into the gendered differences embedded in rape culture.
Larson does an excellent job giving readers a better understanding of the different aspects that contribute to and reinforce rape culture by providing analysis of many distinct case studies. I think her work is an extremely useful and an important addition to feminist rhetoric, especially with this issue being so pervasive in today’s society. The grim and sometimes even disturbing reality of the impacts of rape culture in the sources used by Larson made this work difficult to read at some points, but the main argument providing a solution to help uproot rape culture provided a silver lining throughout the entire book. Although I believe everyone would benefit from reading this book, especially those involved in law, I think it would assist women who have experienced sexual violence the most. Listening to Larson explain the importance of women sharing their stories, feelings, and most importantly embodied experiences after undergoing something so traumatic in a world that constantly invalidates women would be very comforting. Everyone deserves the affirmation that their words are powerful and their feelings are valid, and through What It Feels Like, Larson does just that.
Larson, Stephanie L. What It Feels Like: Visceral Rhetoric and the Politics of Rape Culture. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2021.
In recent years, Justin Bieber has become one of the world’s top celebrities with the expansion of his singing and modeling career. Beliebers (as Justin’s dedicated fans call themselves) keep up with all the latest news and gossip regarding Justin’s life, relationships, and, of course, the most current songs. When most fans think of this pop music icon, the words “handsome,” “sexy,” “stylish,” “friendly,” and “cool” may come to mind. However, “sexual predator” should possibly be added to this list of favorable words. When Justin Bieber released his hit single “What Do You Mean?” in 2015, it became the fastest single record to reach number one on iTunes (Lyons). Though a catchy beat, “What Do You Mean?” promotes rape culture through masculine dominance in the heterosexual relationship portrayed through the lyrics as well as contradictory actions and gestures throughout the music video.
Rape culture is a term coined in the 1970s by feminists in the United States as a tool to “show the ways in which society blamed victims of sexual assault and normalized male sexual violence” (What is Rape Culture?). In her book Transforming a Rape Culture, Emilie Buchwald defines rape culture as “a complex set of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women” (What is Rape Culture?). Though many view sexual assault and rape as predominately a masculine act that disproportionally affects women, as education has progressed, the belief has evolved to include the fact that it can happen to anyone regardless of gender identity. Along with the progression of sex education, the law has changed to encompass different aspects of sexual assault. Today, the law provides strict guidelines for the definition of rape, but rape culture has normalized this sexual violence in society through passively condoning rape. In terms of the law, lack of explicit verbal consent to any sexual act means that the sexual act is rape, which is a federal crime. However, pop culture often normalizes and victim-blames sexual violence through sexual objectification of women in music, movies, advertising, and TV shows.
Specifically exploring the lyrics of Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” reveals of the promotion of rape culture. From the beginning of the song and throughout the chorus, Justin Bieber asks “What do you mean?” then proceeds with, “When you nod your head yes, but you wanna say no. What do you mean?” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber). Here lies the main problem in the lyrics: lack of consent. Though Justin uses this lack of consent to create sexual tension, it emphasizes women’s sexual indecision, which is a key component of rape culture. Rape culture simplifies this process of consent, letting one partner dominate the decision. Portrayed as the “good guy” on the surface level, Justin Bieber works to figure out what the woman actually wants. Just as Justin exemplifies, rape culture depicts the everyday, average guy as the “good guy” so that there is no way he could possibly be thought of as a rapist (Bridges, Pascoe). This ideology can then lead to the perpetuation of “playing hard to get” in order to earn the affection of a potential mate. The “game” of “playing hard to get” steers further into dangerous waters as it not only establishes the belief that “no” can equal “yes” in the journey of pursuit, but commends those who ignore consent. As non-verbal language becomes prioritized over verbal language, misinterpretation of meaning becomes more common, further promoting rape culture (Redkar). This tactic and use of non-verbal cues contrary to verbal language becomes a key component of Justin Bieber’s music video subsequently discussed.
Later in the song, Bieber states, “you’re so indecisive of what I’m saying,” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber). Not only does this statement not make sense grammatically, but it also adds a harsh stigma to female indecision. Often, this sense of indecision and hesitancy occurs in an uncomfortable or precarious situation as a personal warning sign to proceed with caution. In this situation, the woman experiences indecision due to Bieber’s dominant sexual actions as well as consistent pressure for her to make up her mind. Just like the woman in the music video, women are allowed to be indecisive about sexual activities and this indecisiveness should be a red light for their partner to let them have their space to figure out what they personally want to do. This does become dangerous, as Bieber exemplifies, when the partner takes it upon him or herself to determine what the other is thinking. Bieber’s lyrics make it seem that unwanted sexual actions or misinterpretations are the fault of the women because she was not clear what she wanted, adding “Better make up your mind” and “You’re so confusing” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber). He pressures her into making a decision as “we’re running out of time” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber). Though she clearly is sending him mixed signals about her true feelings, he forces her into a decision, once again telling her “Better make up your mind” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber). Due to her indecision, Bieber makes the decision for her and assumes that since they’ve had sex before, she wants to have it again: “Wanna argue all day, make love all night” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber). However, sex is not black and white, like Bieber depicts; people are allowed to engage in some sexual activities without going all the way to sex every time and to discontinue activities at any point. Further, in this lyric, Bieber sexualizes female aggression by linking arguing to sex, romanticizing a toxic relationship dynamic. This suggests that rather than being seen as mutually exclusive, conflict and intimacy are both key components of an ideal relationship. By normalizing violence and conflict within this idealized relationship dynamic, Bieber’s music video endorses another aspect of rape culture.
Justin Bieber’s music video for “What Do You Mean?” continues to promote rape culture by hiding the lyrical meaning through contradictory actions and gestures. The video’s broader narrative framework expands the meaning of rape culture, starting from the beginning of the music video. The scene of the video opens with a dark, stormy night as Justin Bieber and John Leguizamo stand outside a motel. Justin hands John money, making him promise “the girl won’t get hurt,” but John, handing Justin a lighter, replies, “you play with fire, you might just get burnt.” Later in the video, it is discovered that Justin is paying for the fake kidnapping of the woman he meets in the motel room and him. The screen then flashes to the motel room with a woman waiting as a clock begins ticking, immediately creating the tension and pressure surrounding the impending situation. The woman then answers the door to Justin, instantly sexually drawn to him. As the video progresses with on and off sexual intimacy between Justin and the woman, the tension builds. Soon after, they are both taken by men in masks, tied up, and driven to a warehouse in the trunk of a car. At the warehouse, Justin is able to use the lighter, given to him by his kidnapper, to burn the ropes and escape. Here, they run to a door on one of the top floors, which leads to outside. As the pressure builds, the music suddenly stops; Justin holds out his hand and turns to her saying, “Trust me. Do you trust me? Take my hand.” Breathing heavily, she takes his hand and they jump out of the building, landing on huge air-pillows in the middle of a party. As the “kidnappers” take off their masks smiling, the woman discovers it was all a trick, grabbing Justin and kissing him as they begin to dance (JustinBieberVEVO).
From the beginning of the video, the woman is immediately sexually drawn to Justin Bieber, contrary to what the lyrics imply. The video content works to conceal the content of the lyrical connotations, a common theme in encouraging rape culture (Bridges, Pascoe). The woman does not appear to be bothered by Bieber’s demands and questions, going along with all he wants her to do and again acting contradictory to the lyrics. In the lyrics of the song, the woman seems unsure of her feelings as she “nods” her “head yes,” but she wants to “say no” (Levy, Boyd, Bieber). However, the video makes it clear that she is sexual attracted to Justin and wants to be intimate with him as she immediately grabs him as he enters the motel room. Her actions make it appear as a normality for women to abide by the demands of a man, not questioning their own feelings or desires; masculinity is, therefore, equated with power in a heteronormative relationship.
The story line of the music video is a key element used to take away from the lyrical connotations and indecision. The broadened narrative throughout the music video does not at all tell the story of the lyrics from the song. The lyrics create this tension surrounding the pressure on the woman to be intimate with Justin and his frustration with her indecisiveness. However, Justin Bieber’s scheme throughout the video is just a test of her trust: a ploy to get her to make a decision about their relationship and to earn her trust so that she will have sex with him. This terrorizing view of romance, contrary to the rape culture influences, is not the way to go about love. Rape culture portrays violence as pleasurable and desirable in a relationship. This creates the view as the masculine figure in a relationship as the protector. Once again, equating masculinity with power.
Though a common cultural icon, Justin Bieber is a key contributor to the promotion of rape culture in society today. The lyrics to as well as the music video for his recent hit “What Do You Mean?” encourages masculine dominance and violence against women in heterosexual relationships through lyrical connotations, actors’ actions, and setting. Rape culture not only creates the problem of sexualized power within relationships, but supports heteronormative relationships. In a rapidly changing culture regarding gender and sexuality, this constructs yet another barrier to breaking down norms. Justin Bieber is just one example of the countless celebrities encouraging rape culture, further enforcing the monolithic ideology behind heteronormativity.
Bridges, Tristan, and C.J. Pascoe. “Pop Music, Rape Culture, and the Sexualization of Blurred Lines.” Feminist Reflections. The Society Pages, 12 Nov. 2015. Web. 06 Sept. 2016.
JustinBieberVEVO. “Justin Bieber – What Do You Mean?” YouTube. YouTube, 30 Aug. 2015. Web. 06 Sept. 2016.
Levy, Mason, Jason Boyd, and Justin Bieber. “What Do You Mean? – Justin Bieber.” Google Play Music. Warner/Chappell, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group, n.d. Web. 06 Sept. 2016.
Lyons, Sofia. “How ‘What Do You Mean’ Promotes Rape Culture.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 04 Sept. 2015. Web. 05 Sept. 2016.
Redkar, Nikita. “4 Reasons Why Telling Women to ‘Play Hard to Get’ Perpetuates Rape Culture.” Everyday Feminism Magazine. Everyday Feminism, 30 Nov. 2015. Web. 11 Sept. 2016.