A Cornell professor apologized to his students two weeks ago after he showed a slide of “rape prevention tips” during lecture on Sept. 5. Although he said the tips were intended to be satirical, in the wake of two reported sexual assaults on or near campus, students expressed mixed feelings about their content.
The incident broadly resonates on a campus-wide and national level about the appropriate means of public discourse regarding rape. Student protesters have, for instance, recently demanded that the University create mandatory sexual violence training for all faculty and staff, and several politicians have been recently embroiled in scandals for their comments about rape.
Prof. Breton Bienvenue, psychology, said he had wanted to use humor to diffuse tensions on campus following multiple reported sexual assaults over Labor Day weekend.
The 10 “Rape Prevention Tips” — pulled from the website canyourelate.org, which is run by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence — were greeted by overwhelming laughter when Bienvenue presented them to the more than 200 students in his Introduction to Cognitive Science class, according to students.
Excerpts from the list include “tips” such as, “If you are in an elevator and a woman gets in, don’t rape her” and “Carry a rape whistle. If you find that you are about to rape someone, blow the whistle until someone comes to stop you.” The final “tip” reads: “When asking a woman out on a date, don’t pretend that you are interested in her as a person; tell her straight up that you expect to be raping her later. If you don’t communicate your intentions, the woman may take it as a sign that you do not plan to rape her.”
Noting that the list was not actually created by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Kelly Starr, a staff member for the organization, said that the list was intended to provoke thought, not laughter.
“Sexual assault and rape is not a joke,” Starr said. “The intent with this list is to challenge the way we think about these kinds of crimes, and to shift from a culture that focuses on blaming victims to one that focuses on preventing violence in the first place and holds perpetrators accountable.”
Bienvenue, however, may have omitted the context with which Starr said the fake rape prevention tips are supposed to be presented. Though he said he spoke in class about how society needs to focus on the perpetrators of sexual violence rather than the victims, some students may not have heard because the class is large and many students were laughing, he said.
Bienvenue emphasized that he did not display the satirical “rape prevention tips” in order to upset make light of rape.
“It’s not that rape is funny and we should treat it as a laughing matter,” Bienvenue said. “It obviously wasn’t my intent to be insensitive or treat rape as a humorous subject.”Instead, he said, the comedic elements of the slide were intended to provide students with another way of grappling with the sensitive issue.
“I do think humor is a way to deal with horrifying situations. It’s obviously a disturbing subject and humor for me is a way to interact with the subject,” he said. “My intent was to use the humor of the slide to point out an incongruity: that rape is often presented as up to the victim to prevent. Instead we need to address the role of the perpetrator.”Still, some students said Bienvenue’s presentation did not include background information crucial for understanding the purpose of the list.
Perry Cadwallader ’13, a student in Bienvenue’s class, said Bienvenue wrongly treated a violent and traumatic crime in a dismissive manner.
“He put up this list of 10 rather unhelpful ways of preventing rape and brushed over completely that a girl had just been raped less than 100 feet from where the class was taking place,” Cadwallader said.
In contrast, Shane Kalb ’15 saw Bienvenue’s presentation of the “Rape Prevention Tips” as a statement. Kalb described Bienvenue’s action as a “bold move,” explaining that “[rape] is a really sensitive issue — humor like that disempowers something that evokes fear, and that’s really important … it was comforting to hear the issue addressed in a way other than the ominous emails that came in the middle of the night, just to hear something else.”
Devon Horton ’15, however, said she did not understand Bienvenue’s reasons for presenting such material in class.
“I thought it was weird, kind of bizarre,” Horton said. “I don’t think he had any place in saying anything — it’s not something we cover in class.”
Bienvenue said he apologized for approaching such a sensitive issue without considering the full consequences and impact of his words. He also provided an anonymous channel online through which students could provide feedback on the issue directly to him. Several students had done so and had been understanding, he said.
Nina Cummings, Cornell’s victim advocate and a health educator at Gannett Health Services, said that if professors decide to talk about current on-campus issues — such as the reported sexual assaults over Labor Day Weekend — in the classroom, they should consider that individuals in the class could be particularly sensitive to a particular issue.
“How do they want to address it — what’s their goal in bringing it up in class? Is it to have resources available? Is it to try to connect more closely to students in the class? Is it related to the academic work of the class?” Cummings said. “If a faculty member is going to raise it, at the same time they may want to think ahead.”Cummings also noted that although nothing prohibits faculty members from responding to campus crises, the University administration ultimately takes responsibility for addressing on-campus issues such as sexual assault.
She added that despite the temptation to use humor to dissipate what may be a tense on-campus environment, rape is never an appropriate topic of humor.“I think it minimizes the severity of the experience and shows an insensitivity. I think it’s an easy way for people to dismiss the numbers, if you make fun of it,” Cummings said. “I would say rape is a serious issue that too many women and many men experience. Efforts at addressing it should always be handled sensitively and carefully.”