Pedagogy · Reflections

#wordsmatter: calling out rape culture

Last spring, I wrote a post reflecting on a moment in class when a male student was arguing with a female student that rape jokes are acceptable because rape, like death, is natural and therefore acceptable to joke about. I was upset that someone would make that argument and that a conversation like that could happen in a classroom–my classroom.

Rape should not be something that we naturalize as part of the human experience. And yet, we are hit every day with news from national and international media, state and campus newspapers, facebook and twitter that seems to suggest otherwise. Last month, I avoided facebook as Brock Turner’s face clogged my newsfeed. As is the case when another Black body is murdered, people are quick to share this imagery on social media for awareness. But it’s traumatic to constantly see images denying that you have value (“Editorial: How does a steady stream of images of black death affect us?”). It is traumatic to know (and to be told repeatedly, through images & words & actions) that you can be assaulted just for existing.

I often wonder how some people make existing look so easy. Existing is painful and hard. For some of us, it’s hard all the time (even in seemingly good times).

How can existing be easy in this cultural and political moment, in this world, in these bodies that are policed and assaulted and told they’re not good enough and silenced?

***

Last week, a man who has built a presidential platform against hate for everyone except for elite white men caused the most recent in a string of uproars. An assault. Audio from 11 years ago bragging about how you can do whatever you want to women when you’re famous (story linked here).

This is the exchange between Anderson Cooper and Donald Trump at the beginning of the second presidential debate last Sunday (transcript linked here):

COOPER: We received a lot of questions online, Mr. Trump, about the tape that was released on Friday, as you can imagine. You called what you said locker room banter. You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?

TRUMP: No, I didn’t say that at all. I don’t think you understood what was — this was locker room talk. I’m not proud of it. I apologize to my family. I apologize to the American people. Certainly I’m not proud of it. But this is locker room talk.

COOPER: So, Mr. Trump…

TRUMP: And we should get on to much more important things and much bigger things.

COOPER: Just for the record, though, are you saying that what you said on that bus 11 years ago that you did not actually kiss women without consent or grope women without consent?

TRUMP: I have great respect for women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do.

COOPER: So, for the record, you’re saying you never did that?

TRUMP: I’ve said things that, frankly, you hear these things I said. And I was embarrassed by it. But I have tremendous respect for women.

Why does this matter? Sexual assault is a crime. Yet despite increasing news presence and protests across campuses and high-profile cases, sexual assault and rape still aren’t actually criminalized.

There’s another element here. For a presidential candidate who can seemingly get away with whatever claims he wants, it’s interesting to see folks take issue with this most recent development. Many Republicans have since denounced Trump and his lewd “locker room” talk, advocating for the importance of women because they have daughters, mothers, wives.

The image is a woman with her back turned to the camera, floral wall paper in the background. The text reads she's someone's sister/mother/daughter/wife.
she’s someone(‘s sister/mother/daughter/wife)

Of course, lots of folks have critiqued the idea that women matter only in relation to men (i.e., as sisters, mothers, daughters, and wives), and this Tumblr post is a good place to start the discussion of how this language constructs our understandings of women (“Because she’s someone’s sister/mother/daughter/wife”).

For more than one perspective, this collection of tweets is useful for starting a discussion of the different reasons this wording–and the impact of this wording–is harmful (“21 reminders that women are more than just daughters, mothers, and wives”).

***

“It’s just words, folks.”

This has been ringing in my ears since Sunday night. This was Donald Trump’s response to the audio tape (“Trump responds to 2005 tape: ‘It’s just words, folks, just words”).

He has also dismissed it as locker room talk, which athletes are unhappy about (“Not ‘locker room’ talk: Athletes push back against Trump’s remark”). This comparison to locker room talk sparked a fascinating and heartbreaking discussion of abuse on Twitter (“For many women, Trumps ‘locker room talk’ brings memories of abuse”).

It is an interesting time to be a writing professor. My students just submitted their annotated bibliographies yesterday, and we are introducing the argument essay this week. I teach argument specifically as a genre that makes an informed (researched) claim while carefully incorporating and making space for multiple and opposing perspectives about that issue. I also teach a disability-themed writing class, so we frequently discuss how our understandings of disability (and of disabled people) are shaped by language.

“It’s just words, folks” seemed like a good writing prompt and an even better way to jumpstart a discussion about the importance of listening to others’ words and choosing our own carefully. This is what I wrote on the board:

Write about a time when language–words that someone said, that you said, that you read–made a significant impact on your life (i.e., angered or offended you, hurt you, inspired you).

I listened as students shared (slowly, quietly) what they had written: international students talking about the stereotypes they encounter from their American peers, students of color discussing teachers who told them they’d never amount to anything, students talking about motivational speeches from mentors or texts that they happened to come across that set them on new life paths.

Words matter.

A tweet from @ahhitt on Oct 10: Anyone who's experienced assault/abuse/discrimination knows that words have material consequences. It's not
Anyone who’s experienced assault/abuse/discrimination knows that words have material consequences. It’s not “just words, folks” #wordsmatter

I tweeted about this yesterday. I felt good about my decision to bring this discussion of words into my writing classroom.

As I left my second class, three male students were standing in the doorway. They gathered around me in an otherwise-empty room and started talking to me about how really, these are just words. One volunteered, “every guy I know talks like this.” Eyes wide, he nodded at the other two for support. I thought of that feeling of panic last semester as my students argued about rape, how I am made uncomfortable every time a male colleague comments on how I am dressed (or more often, the lipstick I’m wearing), how nervous I get when a male student shuts my office door when I ask to keep it open.

It is scary to stand in a dark classroom among three male students who feel the need to stay back and argue with their female professor about the language of sexual assault.

Yesterday, a colleague said that I was brave for bringing this into the classroom. I am perhaps more scared than I am brave, but I’m also tired of not speaking up against the pervasiveness of rape culture, which leaks into our politics and our classrooms and our internalized assumptions about ourselves. I want people to start thinking critically about difference and how to listen to perspectives and experiences that are different from their own. And although it will be difficult for me, we’ll be discussing this again tomorrow (with some of the articles linked above).

We need to make space for these conversations in college writing curricula that are grounded in critical thinking, language, and writing.

My university’s newspaper reported that sexual assault cases on campus have been more frequent this fall. We all know the statistic that 1 in 4 women are raped in their lifetime and that the majority of rapes and sexual assaults are not reported. When the media reinforces the idea that their assaulters will not face serious repercussions (if they are privileged enough), who can blame them?

By my first month of college, I had already been raped and had no idea who to tell. As writing professors who teach required courses and see a large population of first-year students, the chances of our students being sexually assaulted is high. Lots of students have complex and traumatic experiences in college that can be triggered in the classroom, particularly in classes focused on public discourses and political issues.

We need to bring these issues into the classroom in ways that are thoughtful and critical.

For me, it’s an easy choice to bring explicit conversations about the language of rape culture into the classroom because I teach a writing class focused on how language grants and denies access to particular groups of people, how it shapes our understanding of people and issues, how it is deeply embedded with cultural and social and political values.

Words matter. Calling out harmful–hateful, ableist, misogynist, & racist–language must be part of the work of the writing classroom.

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