Endearingly nicknamed as the unofficial “Buzzfeed Sex Guru” and known for her Youtube channel, Just Between Us, with best friend and co-star Allison Raskin, Gaby Dunn has made a name in the media circuit at only the age of 26. Dunn’s secret to success? Being unapologetically herself. Her sharp sense of humor and nature have guided her career as a journalist, comedian, and social rights activist. Whether it is in advocating for a broader acceptance of sexuality or promoting the empowerment of young girls, Dunn uses her vast platform to talk about important issues that threaten us today. In an exclusive interview with Project Consent, Gaby Dunn sits down to discuss with us what it means to be living under the forecast of rape culture.
According to a study conducted by RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), an American is assaulted every 107 seconds. In the United States alone, an average of 293,066 human beings are sexually violated every year. These statistics glare out at anyone following the news. Even so, the sheer number of reported cases often goes unnoticed by the general public, and that’s not even counting the undocumented cases. It has become apparent data alone cannot win the fight against sexual assault. The numbers are just proof of a deeper problem: the culture that encourages sexual assault.
“Rape culture is the normalization of sexual assault and the objectification of women in media, in society, in everything. It’s the whole thing of ‘Oh, if you like a girl, just grab her and kiss her.’ It’s a whole thing where women aren’t seen as people – they’re seen as a conquest or a prize that you win for just being decent. It’s so pervasive, like the whole ‘sex sells’ or ‘nice guy,’” Dunn said
In context, the “Nice Guy” is a male who possesses a sense of entitlement over a female, body or otherwise. That entitlement, while it may seem like a minor offense, is within the same scope that allows that sense of demand to be warped into justification of sexual assault. Dunn was quick to add, “It seems like micro-aggressions but it’s small things that lead up to the normalization of sexual assault. It’s the small things that lead to a culture where a rape victim reports their rape and the cops are like, ‘Oh, what were you wearing?’ It’s the small things. It’s so pervasive and it’s everywhere - like air.”
So then the question becomes how do we, as a society, decide what is or isn’t allowed? How do we define the lines of consensual sex and sexual assault? For Dunn, the answer was obvious. “I get a lot of questions from teens like, ‘How do I know if this person likes me?’ or ‘How will I know if they want to kiss me?’ And it’s like - we read body language all the time. You know not to learn to slap an old lady in the face. You know not to call your teacher a dickbag. You just know certain things in society, like how to behave. So when someone’s like, ‘How do I know if this girl doesn’t want me to feel her up?’, it’s like you read signals all day long! How is it all the sudden you don’t know how to read signals?”
She elaborates. “Also, the thing that’s weird is that you’re not supposed to talk about shit. People are like ‘I want to do this thing sexually but I don’t want to talk to my partner.’ And I’m like, just like talk to each other! Why is that so weird? When someone’s tensed up or pulling away, how do you not read that as don’t do this? People go conveniently and socially ignorant when it comes to hooking up or it becomes an excuse.
With that, Dunn brings up a crucial point: As a society, we’ve convinced ourselves that we need to be constantly defining consent, when it should be the norm. Even after the prosecution of a rapist (as rare an occurrence as that may be), we continue to make allowances and excuses for the guilty party. Dunn was quick to exclaim, “I hate that! I mean, what is she going to do? She’s smeared all over the Internet but we’re concerned with ‘Oh, he had such a bright future?’ So did she! So why don’t we care what her life is like now? If someone mugged you, you wouldn’t be like ‘Oh, except for that mugging, he had such a bright future!’ It’s just super fucked up. But again, it’s part of rape culture.”
The legal system is rarely in favor of the victim. In almost every scenario, the victim is demonized for his or her actions while the media is often lenient with sympathy for the rapist. As a former journalist, Dunn is all too aware of this phenomenon. “There’s so much of a burden of proof on women. It’s always like, ‘Is that really what happened?’ It’s like the whole thing with Emma Sulkowicz. There was that article where they put her on the stand and were like, ‘Why didn’t she behave properly?’ The expectation for victims to be perfect is crazy.”
As seen in highly publicized rape cases, there is a notable attempt by the media to discredit victims on the grounds of strange behavior after the assault. But as Dunn pointed out, “You cope how you cope and you behave in all sorts of different ways. You try to sort out what happened to you. How many people get raped and then date their rapist to normalize the situation? People want to forget. People do whatever they need to normalize it, and that’s seen as proof that they haven’t been raped.”
Dunn’s criticism of the media’s sway is not unwarranted. In a time where mass media is so accessible, news corporation's responsibility to uphold moral integrity becomes even more pressing. How the media chooses to portray rape cases often feeds into the stigma with which its audience views rape victims. Not only is it problematic that the media rarely ever portrays victims in a positive light, there also comes the idea that sexual assault victims must fit a certain profile. The characterization of the “normal rape victim” has purposely excluded minorities from being able to get the proper justice and help for their assaults. Rape is an act of violence that stems from dominance, and sexual abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of their identity. By only featuring white females in their early 20s, mass media has failed in its duty to show the whole picture.
But as Dunn points out, it’s not at all unheard of for men to be assaulted as well: “I have a male friend who was sexually assaulted by a woman and everyone treated it like it was a funny story. This girl, who he wasn’t into, put his dick into her and it’s just like, what? Everyone was like, ‘You have to stop making a big deal out of this!’ But he wasn’t fine. He just didn’t want to go through the embarrassment and it shouldn’t be that way. If a guy reports a rape, everyone’s like, ‘Shake it off!’ But yo, that’s traumatizing.”
In addition, the entertainment industry also feeds into the trivialization of sexual assault. Along with mass media, pop culture has an undisputed influence over the way we perceive and judge our environment. But when entertainment becomes about mocking sexual abuse and encouraging non-consensual activities, it shows how deeply we have failed victims of rape. As a comedian, Dunn has no tolerance for fellow entertainers who perpetuate harmful notions. “It’s boring. It’s boring and it’s hack. It’s fucking redneck boys who get up at open-mics like they’re the next Patton Oswalt. The problem is that these male comics are joking about a thing, about women getting raped, that they will never experience. They’re not coming up with anything new. They’re punching down at the audience, which is classic comedy mistake 101. It’s just boring to me. It’s just lazy too. If there was another premise that was so tired as that and people were like, ‘Don’t joke about that!’, they would be like, ‘Oh, okay.’ But because it’s rape, people want to fight for it and it’s like, that’s the hill you wanna die on? No art is above criticism.”
Furthermore, it’s come to the point where violators of consent are rewarded for their actions. In the entertainment industry, the concept of breaking someone’s agency is spurred on by the large demand from audiences. “Like Jennifer Lawrence,” Dunn adds in. “Jennifer Lawrence can do a naked photo-shoot and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, that’s fine’, but if someone steals her naked pictures then it’s instantly more titillating. It’s the continuation of non-consent where it has to be scandalized and it has to be taken from her. People want the ones that they don’t want you to see. It’s gross.”
What people don’t realize about rape culture is just how prominent it is and how deeply it runs in our society. Not only is it damaging to actual victims of sexual assault, rendering them disgraced and isolated, but it’s a fear factor that lives on within everyone. Rape culture is personal and invasive and no one is exempt. As Dunn notes, “It’s everywhere. It’s walking down the street and it’s deciding what to wear.” But a way to conquer the mentality of rape culture is being actively aware of what we consume. It’s about unlearning harmful ideologies and it’s about understanding the true complexity of what is now considered the norm.
“I used to be very different with my style. But now I’m like, I can do whatever I want! I can pose in my underwear! I’m still worthy of respect, I’m still intelligent and I’m probably still funnier than you. I grew up in an orthodox Jewish community where women couldn’t even sing or show their elbows because men might be tempted. I grew up with don’t do this and don’t do that. And that fucked me up. That fucks anyone up going through puberty,” Dunn pans. “I wish that when I was younger, I knew more. That’s why I’m so impressed with this project because there’s so much more awareness and knowledge. It’s an uphill battle and I didn’t have any of this growing up. Hell, I didn’t have that a year ago.”