Are mass media creating a culture of rape?

Toronto Star
Sep 26 2010
By Antonia Zerbisias

Not long ago, Professor Lise Gotell, an expert on sexual assault law at the University of Alberta, was taken aback to hear her 15-year-old son describe his football team’s crushing defeat as being “totally raped.’’

She wasn’t sure whether to call the coach, or the cops.

“Can’t you just say that you were humiliated? I asked him,’’ she recalls on the phone from her Edmonton office. “He explained that he meant to convey that ‘They turned us into their bitch.’’’

As if that were any better.

“There’s something about this sexualization and the use of rape as a colloquial verb that is really startling,’’ Gotell says. “Culture is a terrain that we should take very, very seriously.’’

Culture, or, as the feminist blogosphere often refers to it, “rape culture.’’

Writes Melissa McEwan, of the feminist blog site Shakesville: “Rape culture is encouraging male sexual aggression. Rape culture is regarding violence as sexy and sexuality as violent. Rape culture is treating rape as a compliment, as the unbridled passion stirred in a healthy man by a beautiful woman, making irresistible the urge to rip open her bodice or slam her against a wall, or a wrought-iron fence, or a car hood, or pull her by her hair, or shove her onto a bed, or any one of a million other images of fight-f***ing in movies and television shows and on the covers of romance novels that convey violent urges are inextricably linked with (straight) sexuality.’’

As good a definition as any.

“Thanks Wind, you have totally raped my hair’’ is the name of one Facebook group (about long hair and wind). Another is called “If you rape a prostitute, is it rape or shoplifting?’’ Still another: “You can’t say no if you can’t say anything at all’’— accompanied by a mock-up of a Superman comic showing the Caped Crusader disrobing behind a sobbing victim face-down on a bed.


“You gonna get raped!”

Fashion magazines use sexualized violence with alarming frequency, depicting sprawled dead-eyed and bloodied models. One Dolce & Gabanna ad, since pulled, showed a shirtless man pushing a woman to the ground while four other men watch, and wait for . . . what? Their turn?

Another D & G ad presents a naked youth inert on the floor while four men look on, one doing up his fly.

American Apparel has been criticized for ads that appear to some to be invitations to rape.

One competition for America’s Next Top Model infamously had the contestants, in lingerie or skimpy dresses, posing as murder victims.

Movies are built around rapes - The Last House on the Left, Deadgirl, Descent—all dwell extensively on the most violent and vile rapes. And then there’s the hit comedy Observe and Report, which treated the rape of a vomiting, drunk girl as a joke. All this, and more, in the past year or so.

It seems every other episode of primetime crime series features rapes. Just this week, Law and Order: SVU, Criminal Minds and The Whole Truth had rape plots. Women characters are systematically introduced only to be bound, gagged, leashed, collared, trashed, slashed, chained, raped and murdered for entertainment.

Even 30 Rock’s most recent episode had a rape scene . . . played for laughs.

Go on Amazon and you can buy T-shirts emblazoned with “Two Beers $7/Three Margaritas $15/Four Jello Shots/ Taking Home the Girl Who Drank All of the Above . . . Priceless.’’

There are rape jokes. Rape songs. Music videos that covey a sense of sexual entitlement to men while portraying women as insatiable, available.

Just the other day on, there was an implied gang rape of a woman in a video featuring well known comics such as Will Ferrell, in a spoof of public service messages promoting environmental awareness.

Is it any surprise then that, two weeks ago at a rave in Pitt Meadows, B.C., as many as a dozen young witnesses stood by and watched — and at least one boy videotaped with his smartphone — what police have described as the "gang rape" of an apparently drugged 16-year-old?

This kind of assault happens all too often. Just last year, a 15-year-old in California was attacked by four youths, while another 20 watched. How many attacks go unreported?

What made the B.C. incident so remarkable was, to add stunning insult to the incredible injury suffered by the victim, graphic images of the assault were repeatedly posted online, while at least one Facebook group was created to defend the attackers. It has since been shut down, ostensibly by police who have also been working to remove the images and charge the offenders with distributing child pornography.

Is this to be expected in a culture that encourages male sexual aggression, against women — or other men?

Margaret Lazarus, a Massachusetts producer, director and activist credited with coining the term “rape culture’’ in her 1975 documentary of the same name, says that what’s happening “reflects the integral connections between attitudes and something in the culture that’s promoting (rape).’’

Another one of her award-winning films, Rape Is ..., is required viewing for U.S. military recruits.

“Everybody says, ‘Oh yeah, the education has been done,’’’ she says, referring to all the lectures and classes to which young people have been subjected. “But then something like (Pitt Meadows) happens and you are reminded that you can’t stop being vigilant.’’

Rape culture is about desensitization, says Lee Lakeman, spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres.

“There are lots of things in the culture that promote rape,” says Lakeman, who works for the Vancouver Rape Relief centre. “Very vicious pornography is readily available, mean-spirited pornography is ever-present, even the kind of porn we see in fashion ads looks brutal.

“I do think that young men and women get told in many ways that rape is normal, that it happens a lot and there’s no particular reason to fight it.’’

But York University psychology professor Jennifer Connolly, who studies adolescent dating aggression, disagrees.

“Girls, I would argue, continue to be shocked and horrified by rape and sexual assault,’’ she says. “But the fact that a few groups of young men within a few subcultures are misogynist and behave badly is not surprising. I think one can look back at our culture and see that this has often been an attitude expressed by certain men.”

Despite the behaviour of, say, some jocks, frat boys and other testosterone-fueled groups, Connolly insists that research indicates that most youth don’t tolerate aggression in relationships.

That said, she adds, “The media play a role in romantic aggression.

“In our research we find that frequent use of violent media encourages youth to be very tolerant of aggression towards a romantic partner and then, by extension, to be more likely to get involved in relationships with aggression.”

Aggression comes in many forms.

The Pitt Meadows girl has been further brutalized by the age-old “she asked for it’’ victim-blaming (she shouldn’t have been at the rave, she drank too much) and so-called “slut-shaming” comments online.

On a 14,000-member Facebook group for her that offered overwhelmingly positive support, she was repeatedly identified and attacked by trolls who joined merely to stir up trouble — for example by posting images of other rapes, including an unspeakably horrifying photograph from Congo.

One “John Smith’’ commented: “I think there are more than a few people here that know people that enjoy sex outdoors or in public places, like it rough/simulated rape scenarios, and/or like sex with multiple partners. So, with all that, there is a good chance that this was a consensual act.’’

And he’s not the only one to believe that, as media interviews with B.C. youths, including some at the victim’s high school, have shown.

What is clear from all of this is the utter lack of understanding of Canadian law. Here, it’s not “No means no’’ but “Yes means yes.’’ The person must agree to sex. And nobody is deemed to have given consent if they appear to be under the influence.

“The law has moved beyond cultural understanding,’’ Gotell explains. “There’s very little understanding of what the legal standard for what consent is.

“We need to reach young men in particular. If you think somebody is too drunk to give consent, then get her number, wait another day.’’

It would help, adds Gotell, if there were political will to bring these issues into the open. That’s been happening in Scotland, which has an innovative and celebrated multimedia campaign to educate men.

But in North America, where social conservatives hold more sway, it’s women who are told not to drink, not to go out at night and to dress to avoid rape, rather than men being reminded of their responsibility not to commit rape.

“I do think the conservative agenda has a lot to do with this,’’ says Lakeman. “We don’t see public officials standing up for women. We don’t see the denunciation of ordinary violence against women. We don’t see men being held to account in any way that speaks to the whole society’s values.’’

“In Stephen Harper’s Canada, women’s groups which could have provided a voice on these issues have been weakened or eliminated,’’ says Gotell, referring to the cuts in government funding to some women’s groups. “That’s another explanation for the escalation of rape culture.’’

The experts agree these are not simple issues.

“I don’t see the explosion in rape; these things have always been going on,’’ says Guelph University professor Mavis Morton, who teaches criminology. “But there really has been an explosion in the media and the messages. Social media are another venue now where we see messages in support of gender inequality and that stereotype concepts of masculinity and femininity.

“As a sociologist, I have to say that we are not asking the larger questions about what is reinforcing this entitlement: How many more times do women have to be told to be afraid, to be very afraid, and change the way they live their lives?’’

“You can’t say, ‘Oh, the battle has been won.’ It just keeps coming back again and again,’’ concludes Lazarus. “We have to keep up the struggle.’’