First, American high school football players tweet photos of themselves sexually assaulting a girl who is passed-out drunk. Next, a Nova Scotia teen commits suicide after having been allegedly raped and exposed online in the same way. Then, groups of university students on both coasts lead chants glorifying rape.
These news events — Steubenville, Ohio; Rehtaeh Parsons; and the Y-O-U-N-G chants at the University of British Columbia and St. Mary’s University in Halifax — have been linked in the media by the term “rape culture.”
Popular British commentator Laurie Penny said Steubenville was, “rape culture’s Abu Ghraib moment,” when the world finally took notice of what’s been going on in plain sight.
Through a series of interviews with professors, lawyers and public health officials, Torstar News Service has attempted to unpack the idea of “rape culture.” What emerges is an invisible circuit of social attitudes, laws and cultural phenomena that normalize and even encourage rape.
It starts in schools, where an outdated sex-education curriculum doesn’t address consent, new technology or sexual assault. It then gets exacerbated on social media, a forum that eggs on sexual bravado and shames victims into silence.
The cycle is completed with a justice system that has difficulty prosecuting sexual assault cases, despite progressive laws, because of prevailing social attitudes toward women and sexual activity.
Days after St. Mary’s University made national headlines for students participating in “frosh week” chants glorifying rape, the mood in Ardath Whynacht’s youth culture and crime class was tense.
“Students were crying,” says the Halifax sociology professor. “I had a student in my class who was one of the frosh leaders involved and she was crying . . . They were mortified. Not to excuse their behaviour, but in their mind, they were carrying on a tradition.”
Some students who had chanted “N is for no consent” and “U is for underage” had felt uncomfortable, but were afraid to speak up. Many, however, didn’t feel they had done anything wrong. The chant was just a dumb joke, a way of pulling nervous freshmen out of their shells — besides, it was no worse than anything in a Robin Thicke video.
“A lot of them just didn’t think about it. In the same way we say, ‘It’s just a perfume commercial. It’s just a music video’. . . It was just a chant,” Whynacht says.
While many advocates are dismayed that 18- and 19-year-olds are able to shrug off a chant that makes light of sexual assault, they are not necessarily surprised. Today’s youth have been immersed in rape culture their entire lives.
“There has been a lot of talk about ‘rape culture’ but I think many people are missing the point. We are talking about it as if it exists somewhere ‘out there,’” says Whynacht.
Instead, rape culture is embedded in hip-hop videos, beer commercials and video games — anything that sends a message that rape is sexy, masculine and cool. “Rape is culture,” Whynacht says.
Youth are exposed to these messages daily, while sex education remains woefully out of date. In Ontario, the words “consent” and “sexual assault” are nowhere to be found in the high school health curriculum, which was last updated in 1998.
While students are taught to defend themselves against unwanted touching and harassment in elementary school, the first and only appearance of the word “rape” is in the Grade 12 curriculum — in a parenthetical reference.
“By the end of this course, students will: analyze the causes of certain types of interpersonal violence (e.g. stalking, date rape, family violence, extortion),” the curriculum reads.
Some high school teachers may spend more time talking about sexual assault with their students than others, but the curriculum does not specifically address the meaning of consent or the influence of gender roles on sexual violence.
This fall, the province introduced an optional Grade 11 gender studies class, which discusses the roots of gender-based violence. Education Minister Liz Sandals has promised consultations with parents on updating the mandatory health curriculum, but has yet to start.
For the time being, it’s no surprise young people are confused, says Noa Ashkenazi, an adviser at the Sexual Harassment Prevention Education office at the Centre for Human Rights at York University.
“Consent is nowhere. It’s nowhere, but rape culture messages are everywhere. I do feel like I’m fighting a Goliath sometimes,” she says.
Ashkenazi teaches workshops on consent, which are attended by about 30 students, both male and female, every month. Common questions include: “Can girls ‘ask for it’ by dressing or acting a certain way?” and “Can someone give consent while drunk?”
About one in four college-age women will be sexually assaulted at some point during their time at university. In response, many schools are beefing up security, but critics say what’s really needed is more education.
For Lucia Lorenzi, a PhD student at UBC, the news that rape chants took place at her school was not surprising. Lorenzi was assaulted by a fellow student two years ago.
Her attacker was a liberal arts student who took a gender studies course. There seems to be a disconnect between the ideas students are learning and how they are applying them in their own lives, says Lorenzi.
“That was sort of a wake-up call. This person could speak articulately about feminism, but still couldn’t see that what he did was not OK.”
Rape goes viral
Rehtaeh Parsons’s father has been quite insistent: it wasn’t the alleged sexual assault that drove her to suicide, but the shared photos of her partially naked body and the scorn and ridicule that was heaped upon her online afterward.
Young people are now so connected to social media that the online repercussions after a sexual incident can be just as painful as — if not worse than — the incident itself.
But the role of social media in sexual violence is so new and ever-evolving that it’s hard to pinpoint whether it has worsened the problem, or simply drawn public attention to what has been going on all this time.
“Now cases that may have gone unreported in the past are reported on Facebook, almost always without the consent or knowledge of the rape survivor,” says mental health therapist Elizabeth Donovan, who is writing a book on teen rape and recovery. “Young sexual abuse survivors are suddenly thrown onto centre stage with no regard for their privacy, dignity or self esteem — exposing them to brutal bullying.”
Twenty years ago, a teen bully may have had an audience of dozens; now he or she has a potential audience of hundreds or even thousands, which can fuel the pressure to participate in otherwise unacceptable behaviour.
Citing research published this spring by Duke University, Donovan says teen brains are uniquely susceptible to peer influence.
“Boys who normally would never sexually assault a girl are much more likely when they feel their peers are watching and will support their efforts . . . And in high school, peer support and likability is everything,” Donovan says.
Recent research into cyberbullying seems to confirm that it has a worse effect on victims than traditional bullying because of the impression that “everyone knows” about shared photos or abuse.
But others say that what these boys are doing is far more serious than bullying.
“The problem with the word ‘bullying’ is it’s a bit of a whitewash,” says Dusty Johnstone, a post-doctoral fellow in the women’s studies department at the University of Windsor. “When we use the word bullying we take out the misogyny and the sexism that’s actually a part of the victim-blaming.”
Because social media accelerates the transmission of cultural norms, when it intersects with rape culture, “it normalizes sexual violence,” Johnstone says.
One of the reasons for this is that social media happens to be heavily used by the demographic — girls and women between 14-24 — that is also at the highest risk of becoming victims of sexual assault, she says.
Rape jokes and photos of young women in sexually compromised situations join the never-ending stream of images on Facebook news feeds and “instead of seeing sexual violence as violence, we see it as entertainment,” she says.
And if being publicly humiliated weren’t bad enough, the comments that appear with the photos literally add insult to injury. The backlash comes in many forms: claiming the victim was irresponsibly drunk, had consented, or that the attackers were not “bad boys” or criminals.
This silences the victims, shames them, and often prevents them from seeking help or going to police.
Out of synch
Professor Lise Gotell introduces her first-year women’s studies students at the University of Alberta to the pyramid of attrition — a popular graphic that shows how few sexual assaults lead to criminal convictions — by drawing it on a whiteboard.
At the tip of the triangle are the 1,680 sexual assault convictions in Canada in 2010-2011, the last year for which data is available. It then widens to 3,989, the number of prosecutions for sexual assault that took place in those years. The next level down is 8,279, the number of people charged with sexual assault in 2011. Then there are the 21,821 incidences of sexual assault recorded by police nationwide.
When Gotell gets to the bottom of the pyramid — the 460,000 sexual assaults reported in a survey in 2004 — she turns to the class and explains that it is actually too wide to fit on the board for the pyramid to be drawn to scale.
This graphic says everything about the barriers to justice for victims of sexual assault in Canada. These barriers occur every step of the way: when women come forward to report an incident, when police lay charges and when prosecutors seek convictions.
Canada has some of the most progressive laws on gender-based violence in the world. Consent, as it’s defined by the law, says Gotell, can best be summed up with the phrase: “Only yes means yes.”
The Supreme Court has ruled there’s no such thing as implied consent, says Gotell. It has decided that silence and ambiguity don’t constitute consent and that consent must be ongoing and active. Yet this standard for consent isn’t being applied during sexual assault investigations.
“Police don’t understand the definition of consent. It’s shocking, really,” says Gotell. “A police officer investigating an allegation will say to the complainant, ‘Did you say no?’ (But) that question is not relevant in terms of the legal definition of consent. You don’t need to say ‘no.’”
Despite these progressive laws, rates of sexual assault haven’t dropped. They’ve stayed more or less stable for decades.
That’s because outdated social attitudes continue to inform the justice system, says Amanda Dale, executive director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, which offers legal help and counselling to women who have experienced violence.
“Lots of questions are still asked about: Why did you put yourself in a position where you were going to get raped? . . . We never ask these questions when a person’s house is burgled. What did your curtains do to invite the intruder to break the glass?”
Dale says another cultural myth built into the justice system is the idea that false accusations of rape are commonplace. In fact, the rate of false reports — between 2 per cent and 8 per cent — is very low and identical to other crimes.
University of Ottawa criminal lawyer Blair Crew has published research showing police in Ottawa refused to press charges in sexual assault investigations, dubbing the allegations “unfounded” more than 30 per cent of the time.
“Overall, women in Ottawa were being told that their report of a sexual assault was fabricated at a rate that was more than 10 times greater than this occurred for any other crime,” Crew wrote in a 2009 paper. “The police decision to label a complaint as fabricated bore no relationship to reality. Complaints are not only being determined to be ‘unfounded,’ but are being ‘wrongfully unfounded.’”
Even when armed with photos, online comments and text messages, investigators still have trouble laying charges, let alone getting convictions, says Dalhousie law professor Elaine Craig.
Prosecutors in Nova Scotia didn’t have the evidence to lay a sexual assault charge against Rehtaeh Parsons’ alleged attackers. They turned instead to distribution of child pornography — a law hardly intended to be used in this kind of case, says Craig.
Perhaps in an attempt to remedy its inability to lay charges, Nova Scotia passed the Cyber Safety Act shortly afterward. It’s a civil law that allows people to sue others for engaging in bullying through electronic means. It also makes it possible to get a protection order — like a restraining order — and a breach of that order would be a criminal offence.
In this week’s throne speech, the federal government took a similar approach, pledging to make it a crime to distribute “intimate images” without consent, though how this law would work is far from clear. There has been no information on how “intimate images” would be defined or on how consent would be determined on platforms such as Facebook.
“The larger question here is whether or not the (new laws) are going to respond to the social dysfunction that produces that kind of behaviour . . . Do I think this is the best way to respond to this social problem? No,” says Craig. “Criminal law, it’s not just that it’s a blunt instrument with which to respond to this social problem, it’s an ineffective one. The solution has got to be proactive.”
Time and again the experts who spoke to the Star pointed to one solution: education. They say the solution has to be proactive instead of dissuasive.
“If young men were not taught to dominate, compete and repress emotional empathy, then perhaps more young men would call each other out on misogyny and sexual violence,” says St. Mary’s professor Whynacht.
But she’s not waiting for a top-down solution.
“Culture is changing rapidly, and the bureaucrats and administrators who are tasked with implementing solutions are way too out of touch with youth culture,” she says.
“I don’t put much faith in the ‘special committees’ who are tasked with investigating public incidents of ‘rape propaganda.’ I would put my money on young activists who are connected, informed and don’t have anything to lose by really shaking things up.”