Is ‘Rape Culture’ the New Normal?

 Is ‘Rape Culture’ the New Normal?

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Rape Culture: shaming victims of rape, making women feel bad for having consensual sex, making fun and trivializing rape and not embracing sex positivity so the victims of rape who want to put their rapist behind bars will have fear that they will be blamed. Examples: 1. Blaming a female for dressing like a “slut” instead of blaming the rapist. 2. Teaching women not to get raped instead of teaching men not to rape people. 3. Telling rape jokes or normalizing rape in any way. ~ Urban Dictionary

I moved to Merced from Boise, Idaho, five months ago. When I joined a local writing group, We’Ced, shortly thereafter, rape culture was a topic that immediately interested me because of the direct impact it’s had on my own life. Not only that, but I see its effects everyday -- when I go to school, check my Facebook page, or even just watching the news. More specifically, I see rape culture play out in American high schools, and it’s an issue I believe we all need to turn our attention to.

About 89,000 rapes are reported annually in the United States, according to statisticbrain.com. Yet an estimated 60 percent of rapes are never reported to the authorities; 95 percent of college rapes are not reported; and 38 percent of rapes are committed by someone the victim considers a friend or an acquaintance. Only two percent of charged rapists actually spend time in prison.

I had a direct encounter with what I would describe as rape culture about six months ago. I had a group of male friends who I’d known since we were young. We went to school together, went to the same church and spent a lot of time together. They were among the friends I stayed close with, even after dropping out of high school during my junior year.

One Saturday night, I got a call at about 11:30pm from one of these friends, inviting me to hang out with him and some other people at another boy’s house. My social life ever since I had stopped going to school was bleak, so I accepted the invitation without hesitating.

When I arrived, I saw that I was the only girl there; the other two girls who had been invited were upstairs vomiting and drifting in and out of consciousness. There were a total of four boys in the kitchen with me. Two of them seemed to be enjoying themselves, but the other two boys stood in a corner of the kitchen, looking tense. Since I trusted these boys, I felt comfortable with the situation. I decided to let myself have a little fun, so I took a gulp of gin. The boys in the corner watched as I swallowed the liquor and as soon as they saw me stumbling around a little, their behavior changed – they seemed to gain confidence.

One called his brother and another boy to join the party. Soon the boys were asking me to play strip poker, and offered me money to take my clothes off. Because of the alcohol in my system their advances didn’t offend me, but I didn't cooperate either. After a lot of prodding, though, I agreed to participate in the strip poker game. I was winning for a while, but when I started to lose and got down to my last pieces of clothing, I decided to quit. By then I had been handed plenty of booze and even some pills. I still don't know what I took. At that point I would have never guessed that any of those boys had malicious intentions.

I remember going into a bedroom to put my clothes back on and all the boys were following me. Before I knew what was happening they had locked me in the room with one of the boys. I didn’t know what was going on but I still wasn't worried – I knew this boy and he was a normal guy. I used to see him every day at school, and he seemed pretty nice. Without saying anything, he took me into a closet and turned the lights off. I have no recollection of what happened in there. When I returned to consciousness I wasn't wearing any clothes, a different boy was standing in the doorway, trying to help me get dressed. I was confused and when I asked him what happened, he said that the other boys had left in a hurry after the boy who was originally in the room exited without me. I called that boy to ask him what had happened, and he claimed we did nothing. The rest of the night was a blur.

The following Monday, one of my friends told me that a boy who was at the party was showing other boys from the school basketball team nude pictures of me from that night. I had overwhelming feelings of anger and betrayal and I wanted to do something about it, but every boy I talked to from the basketball team desperately tried to underplay the situation. They told me that the boy in question was an essential part of the basketball team; that he couldn’t get in trouble; that there was no evidence he or the others had done anything, and that it was my own fault for being drunk. When I mentioned the police getting involved, they got angry with me and told me I couldn't ruin his life like that. I had never seen that side of those boys.

Shortly before moving to Merced, I discovered I was pregnant. At that point, I knew that announcing my pregnancy would only bring me more negative attention. The best thing I could do for myself would be to not tell anyone, so that is what I did. Two months into the pregnancy, I lost my baby. I still hadn't told anyone, so it almost seems like it never happened. At the same time, I’m affected every day by the choices that were made that night. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about those boys, and how they made me feel.

That night in Boise, I felt the weight of rape culture, and I’ve continued to feel and sense it right here in Merced. I see the effects of rape culture all the time, especially at my school. The types of things I’ve heard have been as mild as boys trying to be funny and joke around about how much they “love to rape girls,” to hearing about a girl being taken advantage of at a weekend party as if it was no big deal. I asked my teachers what they thought, and I got more responses than I expected.

The story that interested me the most came from Mr. Hansen, one of my teachers who used to be a sports coach at Merced College. He shared a story about a student he had named Kelly:

“It was a party where alcohol and most likely drugs were involved. After drinking a lot and blacking out, she woke up to a boy she had been talking to at the party having sex with her. She screamed, and he panicked and ran out. When she re-joined the party, people said things like, ‘You were hella drunk, are you sure you didn't say it was okay?’ Pretty much at that point she decided to pretend it never happened. After about two or three months, she began talking to her friends about it. But the girls were more concerned about how people would see her. They pretty much felt like, ‘If you weren’t drunk, it wouldn't have happened. She tried to report the incident years later, but the police said there wasn't enough evidence. It still affects her to this day. She's married now, and there are times that her husband touches her in a way that reminds her of that night and [it] frightens her.”

Hearing about what her friends had said to her, I asked Mr. Hansen if the girl had a reputation for being promiscuous. He nodded, “She was a party girl.” From what I was heard of her story, it was a classic case of “victim blaming” -- when the victim of rape or sexual assault is blamed for what happened to them based on their reputation, how they dress, how they talk, or how they live their lives. When this happens, blame is taken off the criminal and placed on the victim. Basically, the thought process is this: If a girl wears a tight dress and drinks at a party, she’s inviting sexual assault upon herself.

I asked Mr. Hansen if he thought there is a rape culture that exists in high schools. “I would like to believe not,” he said. “But based on what kids say... I know that guys would take advantage of a situation if it was there.”

I would say that in high school, the concept of rape culture has become normal. If a girl is intoxicated, it’s almost expected for a boy to take advantage of her. It would be weird if he didn't take advantage of her. To me, that kind of thinking is sick. Human beings have to be able to respect other human beings or the whole world will fall apart. Rape culture exists in America, in California, and right here in Merced. What is frightening is that most people don't know what it is, and don't know they contribute to it. We need to face this because it directly affects people in our community, and the battle starts with raising awareness.

Emily Castriagno is a participant of We'Ced, a youth media program founded by New America Media in Merced, California.