SHIRTS, SKIN, AND SAYING NO
When I was five years old, the boy I swore I was in love with used to tug on my ponytail (this was, remember, the stuff of romantic comedies, perfect moments scored by professionals to make hair tugging look like romantic gestures of love), and I would blush and swat him away and tell him to go away,
When I was seven years old, a boy who liked me used to stand behind me in line and kiss my hair and tell me he loved me. In response, I decided to shrink into myself (a decidedly uncharacteristic movement for me. As a person, I love attention and making myself seem larger than life), dreading when we would have to fall into line alphabetically, and I would, once again, feel his lips against the braid my mother would tug my hair into every morning, and his fingers brushing against me.
When I was fifteen years old, a boy put his hand on my leg, brushing against the inside skin of my thigh with his finger, while looking straight forward and having a conversation with someone else. I had never expressed interest in this boy, or given him permission to hug me, let alone put his hand between my legs.
When I was seventeen, I got drunk at a party, celebrating the end of high school and the beginning of what I wanted to be the perfect summer. Nursing a bottle of water -- the alcohol had hit me in all the wrong ways, and afflicted by a pounding head and dry mouth, all I really wanted to do was go to sleep – a boy came up to me, put his arm around me and tugged me closer into him and called me a goddess before brushing his lips against my ear.
Though I had considered him one of my friends – I knew he had a crush on me, and chose to ignore it. I didn’t feel the same way, and it felt pointless to dredge up feelings and potentially ruin a friendship – he ended up going to bed drunk, alone, and more than anything, angry at the fact that I’d rebuffed his advances.
Rape culture has been a part of my life before I could articulate what it was. My agency had been taken away from me as a part of my gender identity: as a female, I was never offered the opportunity to claim the basic right that was not only offered, but inherent to the male experience.
(As a disclaimer, I am not claiming that rape culture is a strictly female problem: it affects people of any gender. I am simply talking about my experience with male privilege and my own story).
I go to university in Los Angeles, and I love my school: it’s an institution grounded in history, with students who could literally not be any prouder to be Trojans. We’re a top 25 university, with one of, if not the, largest endowment funds in the nation. We have a top football program, and alumni like Will Ferrell and the founder of Tinder. This upcoming year, we elected two amazing women of color to be the President and Vice-President of our student body: the first all-women ticket in the PAC-12 to win for the past decade. We’re an incredible university, and despite all of this, we still have major institutional problems, especially in the way of how the administration deals with sexual assault.
In May 2013, sixteen women filed Title IX complaints against USC for mishandling their sexual assault cases.
Sixteen women found the courage to share their stories with a world that would undoubtedly push back at them as liars, cheaters, and attention-seekers. Sixteen women might not seem like a lot of people affected by sexual assault, especially for a campus that hosts over 18,000 students. Sixteen women constitutes less than 0.00009% of the population, but we cannot forget that almost 70% of rape cases go unreported.
As a result of the Title IX complaints, it was found that USC had been underreporting the prevalence of sexual assault on campus. For a place where education and common sense seem woven into the culture, to a select few it still, somehow, seemed like a good idea to alienate and sometimes, shame, survivors of sexual violence.
Over the past two years things have been changing at USC, but the problem of sexual assault is not unique to my college. One in five women will experience some form of sexual assault while in college. When we’re supposed to be worrying about midterms, internships, and getting enough sleep, some people have to shoulder the harrowing experience of sexual assault as well.
And though sexual assault has gained traction over the past few years, showing up in policy debates and making headlines globally, the issue of rape culture still remains, perhaps stronger than ever.
Rape culture isn’t just not talking about sexual assault: rape culture manifests itself in microaggressions people have to face every day. It manifests in the five year old boy tugging your hair on the playground and your teacher telling you that that means he likes you, it manifests in shrinking and avoiding attention in order not to attract any unwanted advances, it manifests in the mere existence of the “friendzone,” and in the fact that I have a fake number memorized to give if anyone asks for it, just because I’m terrified of straight out rejecting a man on the street.
Rape culture is when you’re walking down the street with a friend a two o’clock in the afternoon and the guys in front of you slow down to let these “two hot ladies” walk in front of them and one tries to touch your ass as you pass. It’s when you’re at a party and don’t want to dance with a guy and he calls you a bitch and pushes your shoulder.
Rape culture is a part of my life, but it shouldn’t be. Rape culture is the culture I grew up in, but it’s not the culture I want my children to have to contend with.
Change is possible. My experiences don’t have to be yours. You can change your world, by just talking about it. Call out people when they make jokes about rape, and call out the people who laugh at it. Make cat-calling unfashionable and even more disgusting than it is now. You can change the world: you just have to want to.