I have done quite a few interviews on this topic lately (and an entire hour-long Sex Talk Tuesday twitter chat on April 21st), but I really like this particular one…

I spoke with Jesse Capps for Rock Confidential about rape culture. Our conversation gets at race and class directly, as well as victim-blaming and the spurious factor (haha sociology jargon – sorry) of hook up culture – enjoy?

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RC: What is “rape culture”?

DrC: “Rape culture” is the way we as a society think about sexual assault. It’s a concept with roots in feminist theory that maintains sexual assault is pervasive, unevenly distributed, and normalized, all while constantly being maintained by various inequalities related to gender, sexualities, race, social class, physical ability, age, and more. Behaviors commonly associated with rape culture include victim blaming, slut shaming, and sexual objectification, as well as trivializing or denial of assault and/or various forms of sexual violence.

The “Eat Sleep Rape Repeat” shirt is pathetic. The first thing I thought of is there is actually someone producing these, making money, and obviously finding an audience. What were your first thoughts upon seeing the shirt?

My initial response to seeing the image of the shirt was “No way… That has to be some kind of error (though, how?) or a terrifically tasteless stunt (though, really?).” But then, I too started thinking about the number of choices and decisions that went into publicly displaying that shirt – from concept and design, to production, to making it available in the marketplace, to the decision to purchase and wear it, think about how many people had to sign off on that message before we ever even saw it!

This is where we can see rape culture happening. It’s easy to simplify the incident as one individual’s choice – one dude decided to wear a shirt brandishing an inflammatory message, the end. But the truth of the matter is that the shirt is a product created and chosen by other members of our collective community. As such, it’s not “just” evidence of one person’s poor choice, but of legions of poor choices, including his, all of which are evidence of the pervasiveness of rape culture in contemporary US society.

There are those that will argue “free speech” and that guy’s right to wear whatever he wants. What say you?

Sometimes protecting free speech involves protecting speech that one personally finds reprehensible, because we don’t get to pick and choose. So on that level, those who want to argue “free speech” and the guy’s right to wear what he wants have a point – this is ‘merica, and we can wear and say what we want (as long as we’re not infringing on the rights of others).

If we’re considering this shirt on the broader level of rape culture, however, what we are then saying with the free speech argument is that we’re ok, in some capacity, with how we currently think about sexual assault – we’re ok with trivializing it, ok with ignoring it, and ok with defending it as someone’s right (vs the rights of others). Evolving beyond rape culture is not about the cessation of speech though – it’s far more complicated than that, and just because you prevent people from saying or doing something doesn’t change their minds. It’s about challenging the way we engage the issue overall.

What about the people that say “lighten up, it’s only a joke”?

Well, I’d probably refer them to my points about free speech. There are many ways to work towards changing a wider social conversation, including with provocative t-shirts and uncomfortable jokes. I didn’t see the critical thought piece necessary to get us to either place with this particular shirt though.

Sexual assaults are on the increase at concerts. What is it about concerts that encourage this behavior?

There’s actually no way to say definitively that sexual assaults are on the increase at concerts. Because of misreporting and underreporting (further harbingers of rape culture, by the way), there’s no way to say what’s really happened before, nor what’s really happening currently. But what we can say is that we’re now actually hearing about sexual assaults occurring – this awareness is different, a development that may be a result of everything from technology to people looking to challenge rape culture and more.

But your question: What is it about concerts? This is tricky. Because one could say it has something to do with every conventional scare tactic out there – drinking, drugs, hooking up gone awry! But the things to remember here are that, one, there are all kinds of public gatherings, concerts and festivals included, happening that involve drinking and drugs and music wherein sexual assaults do not occur. And two, the involvement of drinking and drugs and hooking up (for example) is not a reason – it’s victim blaming and excuse making. There’s nothing about concerts in particular that encourage sexual assault, at least, not that I’m aware of. Though we may notice the presence of (spurious) situational factors, this is a wider social concern that has more to do with how we think about assault than it does with the particulars of an event.

Drugs, drinking, and hooking up – three things we’ve been warned about since we were old enough to sneak out of the house. Are younger people just making more wrong choices than ever before? Does social media make it easier to make bad decisions? 

Well, that question assumes a lot. It assumes drugs, drinking, and hooking up, for example, are bad decisions. They’re not. It’s what we do to each other within these contexts that makes them “bad.” It’s how we make each other feel about hooking up, for example, and it’s that we leverage “the evidence” against one another via technology and social media. In my view, I don’t think young people are making choices that are more or less egregious than ever before – I think the stakes may be higher now though, partly because of the technology-saturated world we live in.

Sexual assault is just as important of an issue as race equality, yet the emphasis doesn’t seem to be there in the media. Why does rape and sexual assault not get the same coverage as other social issues?  

This is another tricky question, because in many ways you’re correct. We as a culture seem to be making more progress with calling out structural racism and the race-based social inequalities that are pervasive today, but thousands of people likely saw that shirt – including, most likely, many prominent members of the media – before someone decided to snap a picture. Why?

It might be the differently-hidden nature of sexual assault that makes it easier to ignore, something that’s connected to our wider social discomforts with anything having to do with genitalia. (I feel I must make the hopefully obvious point that sexual assault has nothing to do with sex, per se, and everything to do with power and cruelty.) But sexual assault and the tenets of rape culture do not impact everyone in the same way – it too varies with race and class and sexuality and age and so on. That’s another piece we need to be mindful of.

Should music festivals like Coachella be more responsible for the education and awareness about sexual assault to their attendees?

I think everyone needs to step up their game when it comes to the cessation of sexual assault. While we’re all working on internalizing the message that sexual assault is not ok, there could be enhanced security and/or a more mindful presence of safety established at public events like Coachella. And attendees need to get on board, as well. No more of this standing around and watching when a person appears to be in crisis. This doesn’t mean one has to intercede directly if they themselves feel at risk, but tell someone – a security guard, call the cops, anything! Standing by and watching when something seems to be amiss is akin to being complicit.

How can we fight rape culture?

The simplest way to challenge rape culture is to challenge it directly – speak up! And be mindful of the bigger picture. This doesn’t mean that every person needs to start a rally, but each of us can help enact change in large and small ways. Collectively, these efforts will move us all forward.


(This butterfly apparently means “Coachella” – via RC)

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Reprinted from Rock Confidential here (4/24/15).

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Got a sociology question? Need some social justice informed life advice? Contact Dr. Chauntelle right here.