Let’s talk rape culture, part 1

At the end of last year, a few of our performers and writers gathered to talk about rape culture with our intern Diane. The conversation is real people talking about real topics associated with rape culture. We enjoyed the conversation so much that we had to share. Here is part one.

 Unwritten Conversation Participants:

  • Diane Leverich: Intern
  • Sarah Ammar: Performer
  • Jordan Lopez: Performer
  • Anna Adami: Writer, Script Editor, Performer
  • Chris Burnside: Executive Producer, Writer, Director

Diane – Define what rape culture means to you.

Sarah – Essentially, it is all of those things that were socialized throughout our lives…the things that make rape OK in our culture even though it’s not.  They’re victim blaming and victims questioning themselves because they didn’t see something and they should have.

Jordan – I’ve got to be honest; I couldn’t nail this down. There is so much that we’ve been brought up with that we almost don’t even recognize. There are so many things that we question that I couldn’t nail this down. I really couldn’t even fathom a good way to put this into a sentence.

Diane – Yeah, I think it is ingrained in a lot of parts of our society and a lot of it we don’t even notice because it happens so frequently. I definitely agree this is a tough question.

Anna –I think the thing about rape culture is that it is all of these different factors playing into one big cultural issue so those can be things from gender dynamics to patriarchy—the idea that men are more powerful than women like a very laissez-faire way of making women uncomfortable.

Diane – Do you see rape culture being perpetuated in your own life? Do you see any examples?

Sarah –I think part of rape culture says that the perpetrator expects the victim to be grateful. Right? Like if you get catcalled or some unwanted advance and you say, “No Thank you,” too often, they say, “Well, I’m just trying to be nice.” They are compliments that are inappropriate, and even me calling them ‘compliments’ is the rape culture being sort of embedded in my answer.

Chris – Yeah, that seems exactly accurate. A lot of this leads to the concept of privilege. When someone has privilege, in this case when we are talking about gender privilege/male privilege, they expect you to be grateful for what they said, and if you were to express disinterest, they would be offended because again they are making it about them. It has nothing to do with what the woman being catcalled is interested in or wants; it has everything to do with what they expect they deserve from that person.

Diane – And I think a lot of it has to do with not treating women as people—just objectifying them and treating them as objects that can be acted upon without consent.

Jordan – Another thing that I noticed is that we are actually trained as women to accept it–accept the inappropriate behavior, even at the workplace. I’ve worked in restaurants and now in corporate America, and it’s the same thing. It’s smile to the client/customer or let’s make sure that you have makeup on if you are on camera…things like that.

Diane – Definitely. This kind of goes into our third question: What are some ways that you can think of to combat these ideas? How would you go about fighting back against rape culture?

Jordan – I think recognizing it, first of all. Things like I just told you. It’s ok if I don’t have makeup on that day as I am still going to bring good service to whomever I am talking to. Recognizing it in your own life. Recognizing survivors of rape culture and sexual violence. We live in a world where social media is at our fingertips and that is how we share our opinions—at our fingertips. We can share with the world that we are a safe person or someone who understands. Even if it is just posting articles or following Unwritten, something like that can speak to someone who you may not even know.

Chris – Something that is definitely a big part of this is that we have to recognize it. The trick with rape culture—the reason that it so difficult for us to find or even to talk about—is it’s kind of this amorphous thing. It is something that is happening in the background, and a lot of times it is our assumptions or things that aren’t being said that make that up, so a lot of this is about recognizing first—and recognizing it in ourselves, too. There is this problem that people have where they assume that their gut reaction or first thought about something is in some way the most accurate. After we have our stupid gut reaction, we should go back and say, “You know what…I actually know something about this, and it is different from my first thought.” And, so, a lot of this is about our first thought when we hear about one of these situations:  “Well, what really happened?” If someone you know says that they are a victim of sexual violence, our first thought may be “Well, what really happened?” or is this a “he said, she said” kind of situation? And what we need to be able to do is recognize that those questions, those thoughts are products of rape culture, and we need to be able to step back from those and say, “I understand that was my gut instinct to think that, but I also know why that’s wrong because that’s rape culture.” We have to be able to do that, and if we can’t step back from that and we can’t recognize that, we can’t really address it at all.

Sarah – I think that’s exactly right, and the thing that I have trouble with… And, even as a woman who is subjected to all of the numbers of things we just talked about, the piece that is really difficult for me is how to help other people learn how to recognize that rape culture is real. But, you hit on something earlier when we talked about perspective and power. When people are advancing rape culture, it is not about the object of their action; it is about how it makes them feel.  We have to recognize it in ourselves and what’s in our own brains, and two, once we get the hang of that and are mindful of that, there has to be a teaching of empathy, which I think applies across the board in a number of issues, but that I think is the key and I’m at a loss for how to really do that.

Diane – Let’s talk more about the Unwritten podcast itself. So, I’d like to ask a question to Anna first about writing in this context. How do you go about realistically writing sexual violence scenes or scenes pertaining to rape? What do you take into consideration?

Anna – My thoughts, along with the team of writers, were to be realistic but also respectful. We didn’t want to write anything that was too possibly triggering but make it real, not what we typically get through the media. And I think the podcast too gave us a specific form to work with, so like we’re focused solely on words, which is we’re hearing what people are saying. We’re hearing conversations. So we got to explore a lot about the language and how language perpetuates all of this. How sexual assault is talked about afterward by the survivors and by the friends of the survivors and how people hear that and as Chris mentioned earlier how they respond. What is the gut response? What do people say? What is realistic? And, often times, unfortunately, that becomes “Were you wearing something slutty?” “Your skirt was just asking for it,” or, “Why were you not more careful?” Instead of the question: “How could someone do this to you?” And so we got to explore the different impact of language on these situations of sexual violence. But, it was tricky. I still am not entirely sure I gave it all of the respect that it deserved, and it is hard to write about this stuff, but it is important to write about and to have the discussions that we are having about it now.

Diane – Yes. I do think it would be hard to write about. There is an importance of balance between being realistic but not offensive but also not sugar coating anything and trying to be just as genuine as possible.

Chris – Thinking about when we were working on that particular episode that Anna wrote, episode 6 “Without Hope,” we talked a lot about making sure that we write it in a way that is realistic without being too triggering, but one of the ways we did that was dealing with education. We were all sitting in the room talking in our writers’ room, and we all understand these concepts to a reasonable degree. One thing that Anna and I discussed was to be really, really simple with the way that we talk about some of these concepts so that we can make them straightforward. The scene in that episode where Elaine is talking to Sarah, who was one of the survivors, Elaine states in no uncertain terms exactly how the situation that happened to Sarah is rape even though Sarah is trying to downplay what happened or increase her own fault, and that seems really important to make sure this idea is coming out loud and clear. This is not a gray thing, and this is not something we need to dance around or be ashamed about. We need to make it upfront and straight forward for people who haven’t necessarily read and studied the theory behind sexual violence.

Diane – I think that scene was very accessible. It allows people to hear a realistic version of how a conversation like this may actually happen after an event like that occurs, and sadly, I feel like a lot of us can identify with this type of conversation. Maybe they’ve had this type of conversation with a friend.

So, focusing on the central plotline of Unwritten, it’s highly dependent on a University setting, and statistics show that one in five women and one in sixteen men are sexually assaulted or raped while in attendance at a university, so I was just wondering if these numbers surprise any of you or if you’ve heard them before and if you feel sexual violence is a major issue at university settings.

Anna – I’ve heard them before, but they are one of those things when you focus in on becomes really horrifying. If you think about your friends that you have. I had five roommates, and they were all women, and we in a house sitting together would have one in five. That is the one in five. If you think about it in those terms, it makes the numbers real.

In college, not only the rape culture is perpetuated but also the hookup culture, which entirely leads into that (rape culture). And there’s also college kids partying and alcohol and date rape drugs are involved, and there are fraternities and sororities—I don’t want to make a blanket statement, but a lot of times there is a goal like, “Tonight you need to do this.” Again, it’s with the language and it’s the way people interact with people and treat stuff like this with the hookup culture. “This is just what everybody wants. This is just how things are.”

In our next blog post, we’ll continue our conversation about hookup culture, university settings and much more.


  • The first thing is to understand your personal tendencies that support rape culture–whether action or language. Once you recognize your own behavior, you can start to shift it in a more positive and supportive manner.
  • Have conversations. Help your fellow humans. Spread the word. Grow the understanding. Support survivors of sexual violence in whatever way you can.
  • Share the Unwritten podcast, in which we address this important social issue.

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