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. Click here for Part 1. Part 2 is below.
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 – The combination between hookup culture and rape culture is a dangerous thing. Universities are getting better about acknowledging this is a real problem, but in terms of prosecution of rapists and seeking justice, there is still a long way to go because universities do not handle rape cases well.
Chris – Yes. There is a lot of accuracy to that, and to jump in on the hookup culture angle and why that can complicate this issue, we talk about the gray areas from our perspective. We can see where there can be problematic communication. One of the exercises I have done in class, with 20 students, is to write different sexual acts on notecards and hand them out to the class so that each person gets one. I like to do this in the first week when they’re still green and they are going to be really uncomfortable by this.
Anna – Oh my god, why did I never have your class?
Chris – So what I do is make them line up in order of most to least sexual. It’s fun for me because I like making people uncomfortable, but what happens is you get them in order…they finally settle on an order, but even that isn’t easy because you’ll get people saying the most sexual thing you can do is actual intercourse, so they’ll say that goes on the end. Then you’ll get people saying there are way more sexual things that you can do that I would never even think about doing, so they’ll get into an argument about this. What is really interesting is after you get them to settle on their order, then you ask everybody to tell you where the virginity line is. It’s really fascinating because you’ll get totally different answers. Some people will say like, “Oh, the virginity line is sex…anything else is fine until you have sex.” Others you can pretty much only hold hands and anything involving anything else and you are no longer a virgin. The reason why this is relevant, other than being super uncomfortable to talk about, is if one person goes further than the other person expected. If two people agree at a hookup that one or both want to remain virgins, and then one goes further than the other thinks is the virginity line, then one person is sitting there thinking, “What’s going on? Why are they pushing me to do this?” The other person is thinking “Well I can do everything up to actual sex, so we’re good.” Just the fact that they cannot agree what that means shows how these miscommunications can turn into much more dangerous situations.
Diane – Yeah, I think the whole concept of virginity is problematic. Like you said just that it fosters miscommunication between people but also that people use it as a means to degrade one another. There are a lot of influences telling women that they can’t express themselves sexually and that is very problematic.
Jordan – I was just going to say that the statistics don’t surprise me in terms of the female statistics; they surprise me in the male. Mostly because I feel like the female statistic is slapped in my face almost every day. You know. You can see it in commercials, media. You can see it in class. It’s not that I don’t take it seriously; it’s that it’s lost its scare factor sometimes and that is scary within itself. Then I see the male statistics, and I think that is not something that I ever see. They are victims also.
Diane – That leads into my next question that sexual violence victims or survivors are primarily portrayed and represented as women but 3% of American men have actually endured rape or attempted rape. 3% of our male population has the same problem. Why do you think that these men are not represented, and what kind of stereotypes, generalizations, conceptions about gender influence would explain this underrepresentation?
Sarah: I think there’s a stereotype that runs deep for men that if they say they didn’t like a sexual experience of any kind they are somehow less of a man, right? I think that is at play.
Chris: Yeah, that is really accurate. Men are definitely shamed for not wanting sex. It’s sort of like when we’re talking about virginity and women are always the ones who have to supposedly guard their virginity and make sure that everyone knows that they’re virgins. Whereas in high school, men are encouraged to go around and say they’ve had sex even if they haven’t just because to do otherwise would be shameful. And so, on one hand, a male is raped by a female, that seems unthinkable because how could a man not want to have sex with a woman because, obviously, he should want to. So if he claimed he didn’t enjoy it, he is going to be shamed for that. If a man is raped by a man, then there would be possible accusations of latent homosexuality with that person and that’s also something that men are shamed for and so either way, it’s going to be very difficult for the man to speak out and not lose some aspect of his place in the power structure.
Jordan: I’ve been thinking that the media perpetuates the stereotype. Mainly because we don’t think of men sexually assaulted but of male children. The subject is uncomfortable for everyone but I feel that the media has perpetuated that it is more uncomfortable to hear that it has happened to a child. We heard about it happening to male children and people just assume that’s when it stops. It doesn’t go beyond that. I feel like it is a media issue on some level if not just an assumption that we grew up with. When they’re children, they’re vulnerable; when they’re men, they’re tough. They don’t have that issue.
Anna: I think the vulnerability thing is huge, too. It’s like men aren’t supposed to appear vulnerable or weak ever. It’s ok for women to appear vulnerable or weak, so it’s ok and a comfortable narrative for us –in a weird way—to talk about women being sexually assaulted which is just everything.
Chris: That’s exactly right. We have this idea that men need to be and are expected to be powerful. Right? We assign power as a gendered characteristic. Where it’s expected of men, not expected of women, and in fact when women are exhibiting power it’s often referred to women acting masculine, which shows that we have a cultural idea—an incorrect cultural idea—that power is gendered. That being masculine is being powerful. That being feminine is weak and to go back to the very beginning, that is part of our culture and how we conceive of these ideas of masculine and feminine, and that’s why we use terms emasculate when a man is shown as weaker. But this is part of that “man cannot be shown as weak” and there’s this idea that people have that all sexual assaults are a man hiding in the shadows wearing a ski mask with a knife and so there’s this idea if you are assaulted, that there is a flight or fight response, but the most common response to these situations is to be immobile. It’s called tonic immobility. It’s this thing where you freeze, and this can happen to men and women. Men would be shamed for like, “why didn’t you fight?” “Why didn’t you do something? You’re a man and powerful. You should be able to fight back.” And people get really ashamed for not fighting in those situations.
Diane: These statistics are startling. What’s more startling is that they only take into account reported complaints of sexual assault and rape and only 63% of sexual assault and rape are never reported at all. Well over half of sexual assault and rape incidents don’t even see the light of day, so how can we encourage survivors to come forward with their stories without fear of retribution or endangerment? I know we touched a little bit on this with social media as a means of connecting people.
Sarah: I think just constant, constant, constant dialogue especially in a world we are living in today where rape culture has just gotten a little bit more legitimized, right? I think just continually recognizing and understanding why survivors may not come forward. There was a “why women don’t report” social media campaign. I found it incredibly powerful because there is an impulse toward shame. When it happens, you are immobile, and it’s not until after the fact that you think, “why didn’t I say something?” “Why didn’t I do something?” So I think it’s just constant and repetitive and shining a light on the fact that it is nothing to be ashamed of and it’s the culture that’s twisted, not the person that it happened to.
Anna: I think that in the system there needs to be some kind of change. There needs to be some other way of handling these cases that is less traumatic.
Sarah: You are exactly right. Thinking about the workplace, right? There need to be clear, codified courses of action for people that find themselves in this predicament, because if you are assaulted by a superior what is your course under the current structure? You speak up and you fear you may lose your job or your position or you shut up and deal with it—obviously not what we want happening. The culture does need to change but the structure underneath it also needs to change.
Chris: And a lot of this from my perspective—maybe because of what I do, it’s my job—I see education being so important to this and I don’t just mean classroom education. I mean just educating other people; like you said, Sarah, this constant dialogue. We need to make sure that people understand why rape is often not reported and the reasoning in the culture for that. If you say post-traumatic stress to someone, the media has trained us to think of soldiers as experiencing post –traumatic stress, but we don’t think of rape survivors as experiencing post-traumatic stress. Putting that person in a courtroom with a rapist or even just them encountering any situation that is in some way sexual can trigger that post-traumatic stress. We need to understand they are very similar situations and when we get that into our conversation, we start to change the way that we talk and think about it. That’s when we can start to alter that culture.
Diane: A question for Jordan: we’ve been noting people in a position of power raping and sexually assaulting those who are powerless. So, Jordan, your character Chelsea on Unwritten has trouble believing that Gerald Wagner was capable of being a sexual predator even after Elaine assures her that she has definitive proof. So why do you think that Chelsea struggled with this accusation and personally how do you think you would act if you were in Chelsea’s position?
Jordan: I have to first say that when we started recording these, I knew the backstory. I knew what was happening, but I found myself questioning Elaine on my own. I think I related with Chelsea so well that I questioned my own sanity in some ways and questioned how would I react in this situation. The reason Chelsea has difficulty believing Elaine is it’s easier to believe the people you trust are paranoid versus monsters. As you can see early in the podcast, Chelsea and Gerald have a great relationship. They are buddies. She owes her entire career to this person and he’s someone who she believes embodies everything that she stands for, and to have her best friend accuse him is hard to come to terms with—not just because he is someone she trusts but because of her own pride. She’d be asking in her mind, “Did I just trust this guy who could do this? Hurt someone?” Chelsea just tried to internally rationalize everything rather than come to terms with the fact that this could happen. She ignored the signs. She trusted the system—unfortunately for partially selfish reasons because it was her career, her dream job. When you ask about how I would react. I felt so strongly about her part and how her internal struggle was going, and that made me question several things in my life. Do I tend to brush those things under the rug? Do I tend to accept the things I’ve been told? Why don’t I question more often? After we recorded everything, I realized that if anyone were to ever come to me to confide, I would never say no to them. I would never say, “Are you sure you didn’t dream that?” Or, “Are you sure you just didn’t get enough sleep?” But I also realize I say that, but what if it actually happened? What if it was someone I really cared about? I don’t know. I find it hard to believe that I would ignore that, but I’ve also never been in that situation. So, thanks, Chris, for messing with my mind. Ha! And, I don’t know if anyone realized what we were going through or what I was at least going through when I was trying to do this part. I didn’t realize how human all of us could be and how ignorant we could be until after I read this part.
Chris: To jump in on that, too, and to add something, as far as Chelsea goes: as smart as she is, as savvy as she is, as inclusive as she is, she plays the role of rape culture on the show. One of the ways she does that is by constantly turning it back on the women in these situations. In one scene, she says they embarrass themselves. It’s embarrassing how students fall all over Gerald, and when she’s drunk, she even calls them sluts. So she does play that role where she is putting the onus on them, right? Not even considering whether he (Gerald) is capable of this but instead turning around and blaming them for any sexualization of the situation.
Jordan: Great point. I had this internal struggle this whole time. The Chelsea who we all see as the most positive person in the show, the one who is most inclusive, but she was most ignorant. She was the most trusting but not in a good way. Her mind was as closed as possible without being able to know it. Damn good writing, guys.
SO WHAT CAN YOU DO?
- 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.