Pedagogy · Reflections

Rape Culture in the College Classroom

I am now always searching for safety, and I appreciate safe spaces—the ones I create for my students in a classroom, the ones I create with my writing and the ones others create, too—because there is so much unsafe space in this world.

—Roxane Gay, “The Seduction of Safety, on Campus and Beyond” 

I’ve been thinking about rape a lot recently.

Granted, as someone who has been raped and sexually assaulted multiple times, I think about it a lot. I think about it every time I go to a bar, every time I am in a space with unfamiliar men, every time I walk my dog, every night before I fall asleep.

I think about it when a male student grabs me by the arm during class.

I think about it when a male student argues with a female student that rape jokes are acceptable because rape, like death, is natural and that we make fun of death, too, don’t we?

I shouted in class today. I couldn’t process what I was doing until my cheeks were burning and I could hear myself shouting, “Are you seriously having this conversation in my classroom right now?” Except there was profanity.

And then there was silence, averted eyes, an embarrassed apology. More silence.

I have been assaulted by strangers and close friends and partners in both unfamiliar places and very familiar places. There are few spaces that I consider safe spaces. According to the sticker on my door, my office is a safe space. And I often think of my classroom as a safe space.


Two days ago, I read “What I Learned from Dating Women Who Have Been Raped.” Normally, I would stay away from an article like this, but for the first time in many years, I am single. I have not been single for any substantial length of time since before I was raped as a 17-year-old first-semester college student.

In a new job/city/geographic location, I have been reflecting on this new person who I feel like I am. Part of that reflection inevitably involves the recognition that—for the last ten years—I have valued myself in relation to how others have valued me. I have lived my adult life so far questioning the worth of my body. This has affected every serious relationship I have had. There are times when I fear and am repulsed by physical touch. I cry when someone playfully slaps my hand. I start scratching my arms when I am in a situation that necessitates close contact with other people.

This article interested me because I wanted to know if other women who have been raped are also triggered this way. Instead, the article began by talking about how women who have been raped are not broken, which made me feel awful. I often consider myself broken—not in a self-pitying way but because I often cannot force myself to function. I find myself unable to articulate why I’m suddenly curled up in a ball on the floor. I find myself unable to speak to my students after having a panic attack an hour before class.

I’m not always broken, though, which maybe is the point.


On college campuses, we are having continuing debates about safe spaces. As a teacher, I think carefully about the intellectual space I want to foster in my classroom—a space where debate, dissent and even protest are encouraged. I want to challenge students and be challenged. I don’t want to shape their opinions. I want to shape how they articulate and support those opinions.

—Roxane Gay, “The Seduction of Safety, on Campus and Beyond” 

A few weeks ago, I nodded my head vigorously while reading “Girlfriend, Mother, Professor?” an opinion piece about how students lack the cultural scripts to figure out their relationships with female professors. Certainly, I do not fit whatever script that would be.

I am 28. I have short, asymmetrical hair and am usually sporting bright lipstick and high-heeled boots. I feel weird when I’m not wearing skinny jeans, and I refuse to lecture in class. I am sarcastic and am by no means nurturing enough to be mistaken for a maternal figure. All of these factors contribute to how my students read and react to me.

In the moment of silence after I shouted this morning, I wondered if my male colleagues have been in similar situations. I wonder how other female professors with histories of sexual violence manage these interactions in the classroom. After I stopped feeling panicked and angry, I felt sad. I felt sad that the only thing I could do in that moment was shout to diffuse the situation. I felt sad that nothing productive came of that moment other than embarrassment. I felt sad that, in my own classroom, I could little more than resort to self-preservation.

Statistically, the chances are good that my female students have also experienced sexual violence. Do they feel safe in their classes?

How do we co-construct college classrooms that engage the complexities of rape culture productively and respectfully? Once I started teaching disability-themed writing classes, I began to incorporate a respect policy in my syllabus:

You are expected to behave professionally in your contributions to discussions, feedback given to your peers, interactions with the instructor, and the work you do on class assignments. We will be working with content and issues that may be new, weird, or controversial. I ask that you suspend judgment, ask questions about your assumptions, and be reflective of your ideas.

Remember, you do not have to agree with someone to treat them, their ideas, and their work respectfully.

I frequently encourage students to challenge my ideas, to voice their ideas even if they come out wrong. I think making mistakes and reflecting on those mistakes is part of the learning process. I tell my students that I don’t have to agree with them for them to succeed in the course, and I believe that. That was an integral part of my college experience. My professors frequently told me that they didn’t agree with my interpretations and arguments but that I had supported them well. I want to do that for my students.

I don’t know how to promote open discussion free of judgment when it comes to sexual violence.

As a writing professor who encourages critical thinking and rhetorical awareness, I feel an ethical obligation to engage rather than ignore these issues when they surface. But I don’t know how to facilitate discussions about sexual violence in ways where no one feels threatened or silenced or shut down.

Maybe diffusing an unsafe situation is an okay first step.

7 thoughts on “Rape Culture in the College Classroom

  1. I think the key is where you say, “you do not have to agree with someone to treat them, their ideas, and their work respectfully.” I have a similar paragraph in my syllabi. Once you have rape jokes in the classroom, there is no longer respect but violence. I don’t actually think you can have a conversation free of judgement when it comes to sexual violence. It’s violence. Once that enters the conversation, people will not feel safe.

    To give a similar example, we try to allow “respectful disagreement” on the Creative Writing Pedagogy Facebook group as well, but we recently had a very angry commenter who kept saying that certain opinions needed to be “taken out and shot.” Ultimately, we decided that was not respectful disagreement because it was introducing violence and gun culture to the conversation. We told the commenter that if they could not refrain from saying these things, we were going to ban them from the group.

    When I first taught, I was floored and unprepared for what students would sometimes say, to the extent that I wouldn’t call them on it. I realized soon enough that by doing that I wasn’t protecting the other students and making the space safe for them and that was what I needed to do. I think you did absolutely the right thing today. That student needed to be called out. Ultimately, it’s your classroom.

    1. Thank you so, so much for this. I get overwhelmed when things like that happen because I assume that people are capable of reflection in the moment and will realize what they are doing/move to correct it. And then I’m sad that that’s something that even has to be addressed.

      I really appreciate your perspective.

  2. thanks for writing this. as survivor whose rape and assaults also occurred on college campuses, i wonder how I can do more to create an anti-rape classroom space even as it feels triggering to go there on purpose. and i also think of the #s of my female students who are suffering or vulnerable to sexual violence on campus, and the limited resources available to them around prevention and support. thanks for highlighting the scary and important work of contesting rape culture in the classroom.

  3. As always, thanks for your beautiful writing and insights. I had a recent incident in my classroom that wasn’t nearly as graphic or extreme, but it has had me thinking about this weird balance we’re expected to hit in the classroom between teacher/guide/emotionless guru. In analyzing the recent rhetoric around the pro-life/pro-choice sides in relation to the Zika virus outbreak, a student parroted some of the worst ableist arguments floating around. My chair was off to the side, meaning I could see the whole row of students bracketing him. Before I had even fully processed my reaction to what he said, I was able to see the students on either side of him pull faces of disgust/look at him askance. Strangely enough, it was that show (unthinking or not) of solidarity, that helped me to reframe what he said in rhetorical terms and then also flag it as a problematic statement.

    So I guess my ultimate point is that even if it’s your classroom, it’s also not just you in there. There are ALWAYS other voices, inarticulate or confused though they may be, that are on your side.

    Also, I hope someone pointed out that the analogy to rape jokes wouldn’t be death jokes, they would be murder jokes. And people tend to be a whole hell of a lot less easygoing about those.

    1. You’re absolutely right about that. Everyone looked completely shocked and upset that the exchange was happening.

      And that’s a good point that it is more equivalent to murder than death. All I could think to shriek was, “Death is a natural part of life. Rape is not.”

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