Rape culture: Defining and teaching a taboo subject

Alyssa Jackson

Why does society emphasize teaching women how to avoid being victims of sexual assault rather than teaching men not to rape?

That's an example of the "rape culture" that has been a factor in national and local cases of sexual assault — and that's being addressed on college campuses and in secondary schools as educators and parents become increasingly aware of the dangers of date rape and college sexual assault.

Penn State York student Michelle Lin on campus following her night class, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Young women such as Michelle Lin, a student at Penn State York, face situations in their daily lives that fall under the umbrella of rape culture.

Lin, the 20-year-old student-body president and a double major in business administration and philosophy, notes that rape culture doesn't have one simple definition. That's because it encompasses societal norms that haven't been questioned until recently, with an uptick in reports of date rape and college campus sexual assault cases.

Penn State York student Michelle Lin on campus following her night class, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"It's a lot of subtle messages from society that we aren't even always aware of," Lin said.

Nick Silveri-Hiller, community-outreach advocate for Access-York and Victim Assistance Center, said he would define rape culture as an "assortment of norms that overtly or subtly promote sexual violence," and delegitimizing survivors of assault is a big part of rape culture, as well.

Patrick Tanner, director for student engagement at Penn State York, said he defines rape culture as "when power-based personal violence is trivialized or normalized or made into jokes."

Catcalling, slut-shaming and educating on how not to be raped, rather than how not to rape, are all examples of subtle things that happen in society under rape culture.

Local and national cases highlight the dangers young women face on college campuses.

In late August, an alert sent to students and faculty at York College notified them of an off-campus sexual assault of a student who ultimately decided not to pursue the charges with local police.

Lin pointed to the Brock Turner case as a widely known example of rape culture.

Turner, a Standford University swimmer, sexually assaulted an unconscious woman behind a trash container in January 2015. He was convicted in March of three counts of sexual assault and spent just three months in jail — a sentence victims' advocates agree is tantamount to a slap on the wrist. Turner is now free.

The Turner ruling prompted the survivor of his attack to write a widely circulated letter in which she defined the disadvantages a sexual-assault victim has as she makes her way through the legal system, essentially suffering a second victimization. The letter brought to light the issue of rape culture for those in this country who are unfamiliar with it — or deny its existence.

EDITORIAL: Rape sentence smacks of privilege

York College: For former rape victim and current York College student Tia Achile, education on sexual assault and rape culture is imperative. In her own experience, many students might not realize they're engaging in rape culture. Speaking out about her experience is a way for her to hopefully help people see differently.

"It’s really a touchy subject," the bio chem major from New York City said. "It’s emotional for a lot of people, and it’s emotional for students."

Achile's assault happened before she went to college, but she still knows how important it is for college students to be educated and take precautions. She particularly emphasized bystanders speaking up about situations they might see. She said she observes a lot of people who think they are making jokes, but really they're making other students feel unsafe. For example, people joking about rape or groping women in a joking manner.

York College partners with the "It's On Us PA" and the "It's on Us" national campaigns to educate students about preventing sexual assault and to encourage more bystander intervention on campus.

According to a release provided by the college, all incoming students are required to complete an online course titled "Consent and Respect," which includes lessons on bystander intervention, reporting cases of sexual assault and sexual misconduct and fostering healthy relationships. Incoming students also are required to attend "The Hook Up," an educational session that explores sexual beliefs, behaviors and stereotypes.

New this semester is a LiveSafe mobile application, which provides services such as a virtual escort, safety map and anonymous tip-reporting among other safety features.

Achile spoke mostly to survivors of sexual assault in her interview, encouraging them not to place the blame on themselves for their assault. She said she felt blame for a while after her assault — and sees many others do the same.

"Don’t blame yourself, speak up about it and admit that you need help, because it does cause a lot of psychological issues," Achile said. "Don’t go in the dark and leave yourself in the dark, you’re worth more than that."

Penn State York student Michelle Lin on campus following her night class, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Penn State York: For Penn State York — and all Penn State campuses — the main avenue for education is a program called Stand for State, which the administration works on with Silveri-Hiller. The program seeks to educate about bystander intervention much like the online course at York College. Lin said that the campus held a series of workshops to help educate students several weeks ago.

"I think it's very important that our campus and colleges are having this conversation," Lin said.

The program and the security on campus make her feel very safe, she said, but she recognized that many of her female friends at other campuses don't feel the same way. Before her sister went to college for the first time this year, they had a conversation about birth control and rape.

"We were talking about birth control and other prevention, because she was asking me 'What if I get raped,'” Lin said. "It’s ridiculous that women have to think about it, but when you look at the statistics, it’s more common than it should be."

Lin felt that, overall, Penn State York's focus on education and safety is good. However, as a society, she said, she wishes people would focus less on how women can not get raped and more on teaching men not to rape in the first place.

She, too, pointed to the infamous Turner case as an example. She pointed out that Turner's family focused a lot on college drinking as an excuse for their son's behavior.

OPED: What the Stanford rape case can teach our sons

"But there’s a lot of people that go to college parties and drink and don’t go around raping people," she said.

Tips for prevention: Education is key, but bystander intervention is an important aspect to ending rape culture, too, which is why there is such a focus on that aspect of education at colleges.

Lin explained that intervening doesn't always need to be "dramatic," like physically involving yourself to stop a conflict. Oftentimes, just going up to someone you see in an uncomfortable situation and making conversation can help.

Silveri-Hiller also offered that option as a tip for bystanders. If you see someone in an uncomfortable conversation or being harassed, acting like you know them and striking up a conversation can distract the perpetrator.

He acknowledged that not everyone will feel comfortable with inserting themselves into a situation, but there are alternatives. Silveri-Hiller said you can always ask another person to get involved, such as a bartender or friend who is nearby who might be more comfortable.

Bystanders also can reach out to local authorities, whether it be campus safety or the local police.

"The most important thing I try to bring home is that it’s not about being Batman and putting on a cape and running around fixing bad things, but taking a small moment to interrupt a situation that may cause someone harm," Silveri-Hill said.

Education on rape culture must continue and widen to help eradicate the culture and lessen sexual assault as well, he added.

"I think rape culture is constantly teaching us messages," Silveri-Hill said. "At every stage of life it’s important to have a counter-narrative to rape culture."

Educating all ages: Women ages 18 to 24 have the highest risk of sexual violence, and 11.2 percent of all students experience rape or sexual assault, making college campuses an important area to educate young people when it comes to sexual assault and rape culture, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

However, educating students at even younger ages is important, too, according to Vanessa Maldonado, prevention advocate for Access-York and Victim Assistance Center.

Maldonado works with K-12 programming throughout York County. Typically with younger students, she focuses on ownership of their bodies rather than outright sexual assault and rape culture. She might go through different scenarios with elementary school-aged kids and ask them how comfortable they feel with that scenario.

For older students at the middle and high school level, she talks a lot about sexual harassment, behavior in school and communication for healthy relationships. Catcalling and body-shaming often come up with this age group.

"I did a presentation at a high school talking about catcalls, and there were teenagers that were quick to defend their position," Maldonado said. "'Why are they being so uptight, can’t they take a compliment,' they said.

"A girl responded, 'It’s not just being nice because it’s not a blanket agreement to a whole bunch of people. I'm being singled out.'"

For Maldonado, talking about relationships with middle school and high school students can be difficult because parents aren't always comfortable with it. She said students often hear what not to do, like not to date at such a young age, but aren't educated on healthy relationships or their different options.

"It's going to happen anyway," Maldonado said. "I go into schools and counselors say (kids are dating but) it's a topic we have to tiptoe around.'"