Two weeks ago, a leaked tape released audio of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, turning away a substantial amount of his voters and government supporters. The next week, I was with a friend and looked over his shoulder to see messages from his fraternity’s group chat referring to women with the sentiment: “if you’re not going to fuck them, what’s the point?” When I expressed my concern, someone else replied, “I didn’t say you should look.” My friend looked away and smiled awkwardly, uncomfortable enough for me to assume he knew something was wrong, but not uncomfortable enough to do anything about it. “Just locker room talk, right?” I wanted to ask sarcastically, but I held my tongue.
What I saw was just a small incident, though one of many; but this article isn’t about frats. We all know the statistics, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men will be sexually assaulted in college. But limiting the conversation to the ways in which fraternities perpetuate rape culture is exactly what I don’t want to do. Often fraternities are made a scapegoat to avoid meaningful reflection on our own behavior. We write off a group of people on whose shoulders the we assign the blame (I know I am guilty of this), but the conversation stops there. By placing the blame on an easily defined group, we stop ourselves from having to think about the ways in which we perpetuate rape culture and violence against women ourselves.
Rape culture can be perpetuated in many ways, some obvious and horrifying, and some small and insidious. Rape jokes, sexist comments and exclusion of women happen frequently, and often remain unnoticed. Men don’t have to talk about blatantly assaulting women to be perpetuating rape culture. Expecting sex in exchange for friendship or basic decency is a symptom of male entitlement that fuels rape culture, one that happens frequently. We all perpetuate misogyny and rape culture in the language we use, without even meaning to. Offhand statements like “that test raped me” water down the trauma of assault, and, when repeated, make those around subconsciously downplay very real consequences. We let it slide when our well-intentioned friends make sexist statements and they do the same for us. However these incidents, though small, build up. Rape culture is perpetuated by everyone, and just like those text messages, won’t magically disappear if we just don’t look.
Many people in “progressive” circles pride themselves on self awareness and social consciousness, yet do not stop to reflect on their own behaviors and the undertones of their words and actions. We shift the blame to easy targets like frat boys, leaving the rest of us with a clear conscience because, of course, we aren’t like them — not part of the problem. We call out sexism when we see it happen but are oblivious to when we or our friends perpetuate it.
The cases are endless and we all know them: there are the mactivists (men who engage in activism to get closer to women) who wax on about justice, equality and radicalism, yet brag about their ability to and habit of emotionally abusing women. There are the men who emphasize the importance of feminism, consent and respecting women’s choices, and yet continue to periodically check up, just in case women who said no have changed their mind and want to sleep with them. The men who like to express racial solidarity by fetishizing and only dating women of color. And of course, the men who proudly call themselves feminists, but feel it is okay to grope others after a few drinks.
Many men in leftist circles talk at length about class and race struggles, but expect the women in their lives to provide all the emotional labor in all of their relationships (whether they are platonic or romantic), without recognizing and acknowledging that emotional labor and the toll it takes. Instead of focusing legitimate criticism of problematic women to policies and actions, many people target women’s looks in the most painfully traditional and sexist way. Additionally, many people will condemn harassment against women, yet the ways in which they do so reveal their subconscious misogynistic beliefs. Women should not have to say “what if that was me/your mother/your sister/your daughter?” for men to listen to us. We should be free from harassment because we are humans, not because of our relation to men. There seems to be a belief that identifying as progressive is enough, and deeper reflection and change is therefore not needed.
The purpose of this article is not to complain about men, it is a reminder that no one is off the hook. It is all of our responsibilities to realize that sexism is perpetuated in all circles, no matter how progressive they seem. We all must do our part in realizing when our actions are problematic, and understandingly call out our friends when they are too. We must think hard about where our attitudes come from and by what forces they are shaped. Everyone is capable of perpetuating rape culture and we must not give ourselves a free pass.
Katy Habr is a junior in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org On the Margin appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.