In true late adopter fashion, I’ve finally jumped into watching “Game of Thrones” after, well, years of seeing headline after headline about the epic novel-turned-TV series. I got completely sucked in from the first episode. However, a curious thing happened while I watched some of the sex scenes — I noticed that I had completely turned off my ability to feel, because it was honestly too painful to watch these violent scenes as a feeling human being. I asked myself, “Am I turning numb to sexual violence on TV?”
This was a disturbing thought to find floating through my head, because just a few weeks before, when I’d been walking through the local mall with someone close to me who pointed out a display of dresses in the window of Charlotte Russe and said, “Those dresses are so short they’re not even dresses. No wonder girls are getting raped on campus.” Appalled, I turned to this person and snapped, “A girl’s outfit has nothing to do with whether she gets raped or not.”
But it’s something to consider: Perhaps we have become so numb to sexual violence and objectification through seeing in on screens that when we hear about sexual assault, we immediately wonder how the victim could’ve prevented it.
Given how easily we blame the victim, it’s no surprise that sexual violence and assault is still a huge problem nationwide. As April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, I want to start a conversation about what it means to be living in a culture that subtly and overtly condones rape.
It’s important to include everyone in this conversation because it’s a cultural issue — hence the phrase Rape Culture. Unfortunately, like “Friendzone,” “Rape Culture” is one of those terms that make people immediately defensive. And it makes sense — most people in their right mind would not say that they to condone sexual violence. Yet sexual violence continues to happen. Despite all the talks and the books and documentaries, sexual violence continues.
At this point, it’s become so systemic that we’re not even aware of the many ways we accept Rape Culture and help it to continue. We call people out for being “too sensitive” when they point out sexism in a show or a movie or a comment. Worse, when a woman comes forward about experiencing sexual violence, we ask what SHE could have done differently, as opposed to asking the deeper question: “Why have we taught men that it’s okay to violate anyone, ever?”
I recently saw an example of the type of victim-blaming that is so familiar in our culture. In an episode in season three of Masterpiece Theatre’s “Mr. Selfridge,” one of the female shopkeepers gets attacked by some unemployed male soldiers on her way home from work. While her employer stands by her, a lot of the gossip following the attack faults her for working late and wearing too much makeup.
Examples like these of Rape Culture that we see in movies and on TV point to how widespread its assumptions are. Rape Culture doesn’t just exist on our screens: it’s everywhere. It exists in the conversations we are now having about what consent means. It exists in our use of language: “Oh that dude just got RAPED.” It exists in our music. I think we can all remember the debate about Robin Thicke’s problematic summer anthem, “Blurred Lines,” or the one even more recently about the Christmas favorite “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and its questionable lyrics regarding a woman’s consent to stay with a man or not.
But how do we stop something so pervasive? The first step is to get over our the numbness we’ve allowed ourselves to feel for so long. When I had that bad yet numb feeling during “Game of Thrones,” I could have gotten angry (or at least allowed myself to feel my sadness). It’s okay for us to be sensitive to seeing people hurt on TV, in advertising, or in movies. It’s okay to call out songs and music videos for perpetuating violence against people. In fact, it’s not just okay — it’s vital to begin speaking out if we want culture to change.
Our numbness is a cause of our defensiveness. When we’ve seen and heard something awful so many times, and we stop allowing ourselves to feel the devastating effects, we resort to becoming defensive about the cause of the problem because being defensive is a way we try to continue not having to feel — we immediately try to deflect any indication that we might be contributing to the problem, not even wanting to acknowledge that there is a problem. And there is — a huge, culture-wide one, and it’s causing a great deal of pain not just for the women who are exploited and violated, but for all of us: men, women, people of all gender identifications.
No one person or group is to blame for perpetuating a culture of rape, yet it’s everyone’s responsibility to make different choices about how we respond. Of course the majority of us would never say that we condone interpersonal violence or sexual assault, but we often end up using language that condones it, watching movies and TV shows that depict it and even glorify it, and staying silent at times when we could be calling someone out, for instance for blaming the victim. For so long, we’ve been taught that it’s okay to objectify women, it’s okay for men to have high sex drives that women have to tease and give in to, it’s fine if less hypermasculine men get targeted for their lack of participation in media’s inherent bro culture. Yet despite our jaded nonchalance, we collectively feel a lot of pain that stems from the eons of sexual violence that we’ve endured.
When you do allow yourself to feel this pain, know this: You are not “too sensitive” — rather, you are responding with the deep empathetic human compassion that is part of your nature.
This month, let’s make a pledge to start feeling and start speaking out about those feelings. Nationwide, campuses and other organizations will host talks and displays in recognition to the people who have been affected by sexual assault. RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual assault organization reports that every 107 seconds an American is raped. Additionally RAINN reports that 1 in 6 American women have survived attempted or completed rape, while 1 in 33 men have survived rape.
If enough of us can take on this challenge, bringing with us the courage, compassion, and strength to have difficult conversations, to call out problematic language, themes, and images in media (and in our own friend groups), then we might finally begin to see the shift that we all deserve.