Rape Culture: One Through/In Four


By Kelly Hatfield ’17

TW: sexual violence, victim blaming, offensive language

  1. When I was in third grade and in the car on the way to school, I was told what to do if I was physically assaulted—I was taught to kick between the person’s legs with all the strength my eight-year-old body had; to bite through duct tape if put over my mouth; to hide and to never approach a stranger, because who knows if they would help or hurt? I was told ways to prevent being attacked—never walk alone, always walk with keys between my fingers, don’t dress a certain way, do wear my hair down. 

    Years later, a car followed me as I walked home alone at night without cellphone service. I tried to shake them off by darting down side streets, but as I reached my apartment building, I heard the car slow behind me and the sound of running footsteps.

    I barely made it inside and shut the door before they reached me—slamming against the inches of glass that separated us. I could hear their breathing from the other side, but all I can remember thinking is that I shouldn’t have worn such short shorts.


This story is mine, but it’s not unique in my life, or to me at all. Almost everyone I’ve ever met has felt some lack of agency in terms of their body—whether it be profound feelings of violation, feeling distanced by normative understandings of what a body “should” be, and so on. Any number of combinations of feelings can coexist around bodies and bodily ownership—there are likely as many as there are people. But in part where these feelings of violation and fear and cooptation and violence lead is to a broader discussion of how, exactly, we can understand the term Rape Culture.

More specifically, what does it mean for an entire culture to condone and perpetuate sexual violence? What does that look like in practice? How can and should we understand the word violence—and what are the different forms that violence takes in a Rape Culture? How are we personal agents of this violence?

How do we end it?

These are abstract questions for a concept that, at its core, is not an abstraction. It’s a lived reality for all of us, with Rape Culture’s manifestations affecting us all at different frequencies and to different degrees in no small part based on intersections of our identities.

I propose a way of entering into the conversation through three more concrete expressions of violence in addition to the one above. These sometimes-graphic reminders of some of the ugliest elements undergirding American society are examples that can and must be deconstructed until our collective hands are compelled to move away from our eyes.


  1. I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful – I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. […] Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.
    Donald Trump


This fragment of a longer recording has, of course, been much commented upon already – from formal political statements to Facebook posts to think pieces, it has captured the national discourse in an unprecedented way, even in this election. But beyond its narrow-minded sexism, Trump’s comments are just one manifestation of a broader culture of dehumanization of the ‘other’ – here, women, but more generally speaking, anyone who does not fit into the specific mold of white, male, straight, cisgender, wealthy, able-bodied privilege.

This othering is coded for in the vulgarity of Trump’s language, and in its generality. He doesn’t refer to Arianne Zucker, the ‘her’ in question, as a person, but rather as ‘them,’ ‘they,’ and ‘ ‘em.’ And he certainly didn’t mean it in a way denoting an inclusive awareness of gendered language, but rather as a distancing technique that also allows him to discuss action without consequence, without personhood. ‘Just kiss.’ ‘You can do anything.’ This neglect of Arianne Zucker’s agency, identity, and humanity resonates with another well-publicized statement, a twin manifestation of Rape Culture:


  1. The night of January 17th changed my life and the lives of everyone involved forever. I can never go back to being the person I was before that day. I am no longer a swimmer, a student, a resident of California, or the product of the work that I put in to accomplish the goals that I set out in the first nineteen years of my life. […] I wish I had the ability to go back in time and never pick up a drink that night, let alone interact with [redacted]. […] I never want to experience being in a position where it will have a negative impact on my life or someone else’s ever again. I’ve lost two jobs solely based on the reporting of my case. I wish I never was good at swimming or had the opportunity to attend Stanford, so maybe the newspapers wouldn’t want to write stories about me.
    Brock Turner


Brock Turner, also known as the Stanford rapist, demonstrates a sense of flimsy contrition similar to Trump’s “locker room” dismissals – his  variety is predicated on denunciations of alcohol and wishing that he’d never had the privilege of attending Stanford so the details of his crime would not have been so widely publicized. In a part of his statement not included above, he only briefly mentions the damage he has done to his victim, the irreparable harm he has caused her. He erases her from the narrative into which he forced her with a violence that resonated throughout the world.

But wide resonance does not mean that he didn’t—and Trump didn’t—get away with their actions on a fundamental level. Because part of what makes Rape Culture, Rape Culture, is the fact that it’s not about sex at all. It’s about power and the exertion of power over others, both implicitly and explicitly, which both of these men do. With their straight, cis-gender, able-bodied, wealthy, white male privilege myopia left unchecked, they describe the subjugation of another as casual banter, or neglect it altogether.

Then they get away with it.

Brock Turner received such a light sentence – six months, of which he served three – largely because he is a rich white athlete. People of color are imprisoned at disproportionate rates, receiving much longer sentences for much lesser crimes, and yet Turner is free after serving a fraction of the original, puny sentence.

Trump maintains strong support among Republicans because, although he is being denounced for violence towards white women in a way he never was for any of his other hate speech, he plays into his privilege and spins the story in the discourse of anti-PC and free speech. As many people have said, if we lived in an alternate, character-bending universe, and President Obama said any one of the things Trump has, he would have been eviscerated. If Trump’s statements hadn’t reminded many of his supporters – among them prominent Republicans like Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – of their wives, daughters, sisters, friends, would they have jumped ship? Or would they have stayed, as they have for months already?

And while it’s important to talk about the nuances of individual and structural responses to these two men, it’s also important to look at those individual narratives we ourselves write in the aftermath of other well-publicized instances of violence:


  1.  I don’t know anyone who would say that. Or do anything like it. We’re not like that.

    I’m not a misogynist.
    I would never rape anyone.Those are just extreme examples.

    Not all men.* 

These lines and their cognates may not be easily attributed to any one person, any one moment, any one case, any one anything. But I can almost guarantee that you have heard them. Whether it be in the dining hall, on Facebook, on the phone, in the locker room, in precept, in your own voice, you have likely heard them in some form. And they are poison, just like the hate Trump and Turner spew.

Because, when it comes to sexual assault, the bottom line is that it happens in our community. We Speak data from the past few years at Princeton proves that. Broader evidence proves that. You interact with victims and survivors of all forms of interpersonal violence every day, and with statistics showing that roughly 75% of victims and survivors know their assailants, it’s almost a certainty that you also know someone who has perpetrated this violence.

That is to say, there is no distance—not in the way that sensationalizing particular stories, however important those stories are, can sometimes give the illusion of. And denying the proximity, forcing the lived experiences of those around you into outdated narratives of strangers jumping out of bushes, is not only invalidating, but also its own form of violence towards victims and survivors.

But it’s not the only form of violence enacted in the casual comments above. To in one breath minimize others’ experiences as not that bad, and with the next denounce Trump and Turner is to enforce broader systems of power in which other people’s pain is not enough until you’ve lived it. To tell a friend that their assailant is not an assailant, because no one you know would do that; to redirect the conversation based on your own discomfort; to minimize—these are all forms of complicity (i.e. violence) in the system you ostensibly decry with every think piece you share about Trump, Turner, or others.

That is to say, do we only have so much outrage? So much compassion? Does our compassion extend only to strangers, and not even to those very same partners, children, siblings, and friends we invoke to justify the condemnation of interpersonal violence? Can we not allow ourselves to be even a little bit vulnerable, so that those closest to us may feel loved, safe, and validated?

That is to say, is it too much to ask that the people who denounce Trump and Turner denounce the people they know who’ve done things that are not that different? Is it too much to ask that people denounce the minimization of sexual assault and interpersonal violence in their own circles? That they denounce rape jokes, a specific form of minimization of this violence?

If we want to dismantle Rape Culture, the answers have to be no. If we want to dismantle broader systems of oppression that play out in Rape Culture, the answers have to be no.

*note: people of all genders may be assaulted and assault others, I only use this in the context of statements I’ve heard more often

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