“It was a joke; calm down” // Melissa Ertl
Photo cred: Demi Dahl
“It was a joke; calm down.” It’s a phrase women often hear after expressing anger or outrage at a sexist “joke” made by a man in their presence (or made by a person of any gender, but in my personal experience they have been predominantly made by men). It’s a statement made to deflect, to draw attention away from the offensive statement and assert that the person is interpreting it differently than its original intention. This form of plausible deniability charges that the offended person is somehow misperceiving the message – that their interpretation of it is not a valid experience – and that the person who said it knows best the intention behind it. But regardless of intention, sexist jokes promote rape culture. Regardless of how men perceive rape culture and their role in promoting it, it is rape culture nonetheless.
Recently, several college student men on the campus of University of Wisconsin-La Crosse hung a banner across their balcony. It read: “Free creampies w/ valid freshman ID,” thus advertising what has been described as a “lewd sexual act” in a very public place during freshman welcome week. It was posted on several of the men’s Instagram accounts and eventually shared to Facebook, making headlines with local news outlets. The university came out and denounced its message in plain language.
At the very least, the banner should obviously be viewed as disgusting and distasteful. But I’ll argue that even more than these things, it was an unashamed example of how rape culture is perpetuated in our society, especially as its appearance surfaced during welcome week, a time in which sexual assaults tend to spike on college campuses.
In case you have never been taught about rape culture, it’s good to begin with a definition: Rape culture has been defined as “a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and support violence against women,” so much so that the sentiment pervades society’s culture and becomes normative. Rape culture includes jokes, media, laws, words, and imagery that “make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people believe that rape is inevitable. Rather than viewing the culture of rape as a problem to change, people in a rape culture think about the persistence of rape as ‘just the way things are’” (Women Against Violence Against Women, 2014). If you can’t already see how the banner promotes rape culture, I’ll explain.
The sign was placed on the men’s balcony on a street in an area that many college freshman women, new to campus and in a relatively vulnerable situation, would see. Its message, specifically referencing a “valid freshman ID” insinuates that the men are looking for these young women in particular. On college campuses across America, 25% of women will experience sexual assault (Pérez-Peña, 2015), and the men who commit it may not even realize the act was rape (Shalby, 2015). Taken together, the banner exists in an environment where rape is already common; the concept of consent is blurry to many men; and women new to campus are in a vulnerable point in their lives (e.g., not knowing the area or people well yet as they transition to college). It is exactly this sort of message, both objectifying and sexist, that promotes a culture of sexual violence toward women and contributes to the norm of one in four college women experiencing rape.
More than 60 women commented on the Facebook post to express their views, which were overwhelmingly against this blatant promotion of rape culture with an intimidating sexual message. Several survivors commented, sharing their experience and how it influences the way they perceived the banner’s message. However, instead of apologizing for their unacceptable behavior, the slew of men who created the banner doubled down and defended the message. Below is a series of their posts and the direct quotes they use in an attempt at plausible deniability:
“how is that rape culture? they arent promoting raping girls. It also said nothing about girls. they did nothing wrong. Free also doesn't mean forced. Also they may be taking up baking class. Cream pies are yummy.”
“you think these guys are posting this to support raping chicks? guys dont constantly just think about rape. Its absolutely disgusting and vial and rapists should be shot dead in my opinion, but i do not think that they are in any way pro-rape by having that. no one is pro rape.”
“We are in college after all so we thought the sign would create a little bit of laughter. We never meant it to be taken serious. To comment on you point of promoting rape culture I would like to point out that never in the sign does it say anything about rape or anything aggressive at all. Our household is very much against rape, so is any sane person. … But targeting my friends and I for a sign that we had no intent of offense is a little bit unfair. To state that we are bad people is also unfair because I do not know you. We also had no intention to demean women in anyway.”
“But its people like Brock Turner and his judge that perpetuate rape. Not a sign offering free cream pies. And it doesn't even mention women. It says freshman, in general. But I don't in anyway see how this is advocating rape culture. It's was just merely condemned that by a few individuals that felt offended. Did you honestly fear for your safety when you read this? You know you don't have to go into their party right? People can be advocates for anything, but feminism is not equal rights. It's the advocacy for equal rights. So by being the first person to mention rape or rape culture you're actually the leader in this active process of perpetuating rape culture. So I mean, ironically, this IS rape culture just because you condemned it so.”
The role of plausible deniability in the promotion of rape culture becomes clear. Because the banner didn’t specifically mention “girls,” it can’t mean its referring to young women. Because it doesn’t explicitly use the word rape, it can’t be a promotion of rape culture. Or, better yet, because the women who are offended by the banner feel offended, they are the ones perpetuating rape culture. I guess we should all look at that sign and naïvely think that these men posing in front of the sign are all advertising that they picked up a new baking hobby. Right. The danger of rape culture is that it is so insidiously ingrained in our society that people only view the most overt acts, such as “Brock Turner and his judge,” as contributing to the harmful culture – but not banners like this.
The take home message, though, is that it does not matter how the men who crafted this message feel about its intent. Their alleged intent is beside the point. How they interpret this message, what it means to them, whether it feels like a joke to them – it is completely irrelevant. Because when women come forward and state that it makes them uncomfortable, uneasy, intimidated, upset, or triggered – that’s all the proof that anyone should need. An astute man who commented on the post said, “Not knowing how this could insinuate rape culture also shows how embedded it is in college culture, how privileged you are to not feel unsafe on a college campus.”
Written by Melissa Ertl
Photo cred: Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment at UW-Madison.