As Coachella rolls into its second weekend, those not fortunate to attend the music festival have been left to wade through the inevitable controversies arising from the event. Whether it was Madonna and Drake’s face-sucking or Chanel West Coast throwing a temper tantrum when security guards denied her access to the VIP area, gossip blogs have certainly had enough material to keep them chugging along over the course of the past seven days.

However, one piece of Coachella controversy was certainly no laughing matter. When Thump managing editor Jemayel Khawaja posted a photo on Twitter of an unnamed man wearing a t-shirt feating the words “EAT SLEEP RAPE REPEAT” emblazoned on its front, there was understandable outrage. In what world could any individual possibly feel that wearing a shirt with such an aggressively gross statement is acceptable?

With Coachella having a history of rape and sexual assault allegations, from a woman reportedly being raped by some of the festival’s security guards in 2011 to a 17-year-old girl being sexually assaulted in a restroom in 2012, there continues to be heated discussion surrounding the possible perpetuation of “rape culture” at the event, and in music festivals in general.


(image via CRAVE)

To gain a clearer explanation of what rape culture is, and why festivals such as Coachella could potentially be responsible for its perpetuation, I spoke with Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, sociologist and author of the upcoming book Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment.

How do you define rape culture? 

“Rape culture” is the way we as a collective 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.

In what ways do you believe Coachella in particular is perpetuating rape culture?

I don’t believe that Coachella in particular is perpetuating rape culture. Rape culture is something that’s embedded in the fabric of our society – it’s far larger than a music festival event that allows attendees to make uncensored or unencumbered wardrobe choices.

What was your initial response upon seeing the “Eat Sleep Rape Repeat” t-shirt worn by the festival-goer?

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?)” – both of which speak rape culture. But the fact that the shirt is a product created and chosen by other members of our collective community, well, that may speak to rape culture even more.

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 when you actually think about it, the number of choices and decisions that went into publicly displaying that shirt are astounding – from concept and design, to production, to making it available in the marketplace, to the decision to purchase and wear it. This shirt is not “just” evidence of one person’s poor choice, but of legions of others’ poor choices before and including his, all of which are evidence of the pervasiveness of rape culture in contemporary US society. 

Do you think there’s anything specific about the Coachella festival and its attendees that would lead to the wearing of this t-shirt to be deemed OK by certain individuals?

This is an interesting question, but one that’s not necessarily about Coachella.

Music has long been an arbiter of expression and a platform for the development of incendiary (and/or totally idiotic) ideas. From the highly sexist to rousing and political and everything in between, someone’s wrote a song about it. In many ways, music-related events are accessible proxies for the same “expressive” standpoints. As such, and on a very basic “freedom of expression” level, many people certainly think it’s totally fine to wear a shirt or sing a song that says whatever you want, at Coachella and everywhere else.

But the issue with this shirt isn’t about freedom of expression – it’s about reproducing and reinforcing a toxic environment that negatively impacts all humans. Considering the issue at this level renders it larger than “just” being about free speech or music or fun summery public gatherings. It’s about a social environment that we’ve created, one that allows for both victimization and the trivialization/erasure of said victimization.


(glorious Florence, image via CRAVE)

There have been various stories over the years of sexual assault and rape taking place at Coachella. Do you think that the festival is doing enough to prevent these kinds of crimes being committed, or do you feel that its prevention is something that needs to be ensured by its 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 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.

A large facet of rape culture is the heinous trend of victim-blaming, with right-minded groups pointing out that people shouldn’t be informed of how to avoid rape, but instead everyone should be taught how rape is wrong. However, what impact could it have to teach something that is so obvious to the majority of us?

Well, if you look at statistics attempting to capture the prevalence of sexual assault – all of which are themselves only estimates due to underreporting and misreporting, both of which are tied directly to rape culture – and the way we trivialize rape in common language (just as two examples), I’m not sure how “obvious” the idea that “rape is wrong” is to anyone.

The message that sexual assault is wrong triggers people on multiple levels, and I don’t just mean violent offenders. The idea that rape is wrong strikes many as a personal affront, offensive, tedious, or hysterical – “Duuuuuh, I KNOW it’s wrong, I was just kidding/would never/etc.” Therein lies the problem. We can talk about murder as being wrong without a person who has never killed getting offended – we need to get to that place with sexual assault.

How do you think the attendees of Coachella, and people on the whole, could help fight against rape culture and end the cycle of victim-blaming and the trivialization of sexual assault?

Well, and this is entirely contingent on a person’s comfort level, the foremost way is to speak out. Not to put too fine a point on it, but how many people saw the shirt before it ever even arrived at Coachella? And how many people saw it there before someone decided to snap a picture? Further, how many members of the media, people with large audiences and the capacity to get many eyes on an issue, saw it before a representative from VICE finally “spoke up”?

Point being is that simplest way to challenge rape culture is to challenge it directly –

speak up! This doesn’t mean that every person must start a rally, but each of us can help enact change in large and small ways. Collectively, these efforts will move us all forward.

What would be your response to those who have defended the t-shirt and the guy’s right to wear it at Coachella?

Well, part of what’s awesome about the US is our right to express ourselves as we see fit (as long as we’re not infringing on the rights of others in the process). So for those who have rallied behind one young man’s right to wear a shirt proclaiming “Eat Sleep Rape Repeat,” more power to them I suppose…

…because with this power comes my right to point out the pervasiveness of rape culture and the implications of said shirt. And though some people may turn off their critical minds at the “freedom of expression” point, some may begin to think further about the wider social injustices perpetuated by said sentimentalities. As such, the next time someone walks by with a shirt advocating sexual assault, someone may say something to help enact wider social change.

It’s not about shuttering speech, it’s about considering our wider humanity.

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Reprinted from here (4/16/15).

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

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