When I recently told an acquaintance that I study and teach in a Department of English Language & Literature, they commented that I must be a real stickler for grammar and vocabulary. In some ways, that’s true. Part of my job is to teach my students to write well and to communicate their ideas effectively. The truth is, however, that I’m much less interested in perfect grammar and spelling than I am in whether or not an idea or argument is conveyed as unambiguously and clearly as possible (especially in academic writing!). After all, even in my own academic and personal writing, I often flout the usual rules or expected usages of grammar. I often start sentences with coordinating conjunctions such as “and” or “but.” I don’t always use semi-colons or dashes properly (although I do try). Ultimately, however, the goal of my writing – and the ways in which I teach my students to write – is to make sure that as much as you can, you try to make sure that your audience knows exactly what you mean to say.
Sometimes, part of clear and unambiguous communication does indeed have to do with grammar, as this wonderful and popular example illustrates.
Sometimes, part of clear and unambiguous communication has to do with sentence structure and phrasing. It’s this type of issue, I believe, that lies behind the issues with a recent campaign by Vancouver’s Transit Police, as part of their ongoing series of campaigns and services designed to address harassment on public transportation. As you can see in this photograph, the poster suggests that “not reporting sexual assault is the real shame” – a phrase which seems to suggest that a failure to report assault is a primary source of shame.
Vancouver-based artist Anoushka Ratnarajah brought attention to the problems with the poster’s message via an Instagram post, and the story was soon picked up by Ms. Magazine, The Huffington Post, and various other news outlets. The Vancouver chapter of Hollaback!, an international organization dedicated to ending street harassment, issued a powerful statement to the Vancouver Transit Police. Playing on the phrasing of the poster itself, Hollaback! Vancouver’s response was that “we see something, and we’re saying something.” In the end, the Vancouver Transit Police issued an apology: as the CBC reports, they will be taking these posters down, and replacing them.
As was to be expected, perhaps, many of the commenters on social media have painted this pushback against the poster as just another example of “oversensitive feminazi crusading,” arguing that we live in a oversensitive and critical culture where even good-hearted gestures by authorities are being overly-harshly criticized. Just like the recent debates about whether or not so-called “trigger warnings” are useful or necessary, especially in a world where triggers and violence abounds anyway, it seems to be the case that those who have complained or criticized (many of whom are survivors of sexual assault and harassment, including incidents which have taken place on transit) are being characterized as merely reactionary, ungrateful, or sensitive.
To be clear, many of these commenters are missing the point, or choosing to ignore the ways in which activists have suggested that it is not the entirety of the poster, nor all of the Vancouver Transit Police’s initiatives that they take issue with. As Hollaback! Vancouver clearly states: “This is the text from a See Something Say Something Campaign, the real-time, easy-to-use, confidential, texting initiative launched in April by the Vancouver transit police. Transit users can report harassment by texting 87-77-77 and police are notified and can investigate as early as the next stop. This initiative is an important piece in supporting victims, but we hope transit police will reconsider the victim-blaming message sandwiched in their ad.”
More importantly, I think that many people are missing the fundamental problem: despite the VTP’s intentions, the ad is clearly not…well, clear. A very brief close reading – the kind I’d have my students do in my classroom – shows just how these ambiguities work, and how/why the critiques of this poster were justified.
1) Who is the audience?
The advertisement seems to be targeting both victims and bystanders, and does not necessarily make it easy to understand who is being addressed. While “if it doesn’t feel right, it’s wrong” can apply equally to victims and bystanders, the third line seems to focus primarily on the victim: “nobody should touch, gesture, or say anything to YOU.” The last line, the “see something / say something” slogan, seems to suggest that the bystander (the person who may be witnessing an assault or instance of harassment) is being addressed.
2) What is the source of shame? Who is it placed on?
Because there are two different audiences being addressed, it becomes confusing as to who, exactly, the shame is meant to be placed on.
Is it meant to be the bystander, who sits/stands by and does nothing?
Does this assume that the bystander CAN or should intervene physically? Or is the shame, as phrased, in not reporting after the assault?
Are bystanders meant to feel shame for not reporting an assault on a passenger?
Is shame actually a productive way of forming a community of care?
Or, as many others, including myself, have pointed out, is it intended to reach the victim? Should victims feel shame for not reporting their assaults, and, presumably, not “helping to prevent” future assaults?
Again: is shame a productive or useful way to get victims to report or seek help?
I hope it’s evident, at this point, that you can unpack a lot of issues with audience and intended meaning just from one short phrase. That, after all, is the power of language: a lot can be said with very few words. The next step, however, is to figure out how this poster can avoid some of these communicative problems.
3) A simple question: how can we modify or re-write this phrase in order to have a less ambiguous and potentially harmful meaning?
A simple suggestion: “There is no shame in reporting sexual assault.”
As you can see, we haven’t taken shame out of the linguistic equation. We’ve simply rearranged it. After all, the problem isn’t using the word “shame”. Rather, it’s how, when, why, and where we use it. Articulating the fact that victims of sexual assault or harassment often feel shame is incredibly important to acknowledge. When it comes to street harassment, or incidents that are often perceived as “minor,” it’s easy for victims to feel ashamed, to worry that they won’t be taken seriously, to wonder if they provoked it. Shame and sexual violence too-often go hand in hand. As you can see, if you read through many of the stories collected by the Vancouver initiative “Harassment on Translink,” feelings of shame and guilt still abound.
It’s our job (all of us, including the authorities) to make an effort to make sure that we are recognizing the possible experience of shame, rather than suggesting (even inadvertently), that sexual assault survivors should feel a sense of shame for their inaction. We all want sexual assault and harassment to end, and we acknowledge that reporting can be, and clearly is, a part of that effort.
But I cannot say it enough: reporting sexual assault is NOT a victim’s DUTY. It is one option, and it is the absolute right of the survivor to choose whichever option is safest and best for them. It is all too easy for those who have never had to report, or for whom reporting may have been relatively easy and/or offered justice/healing, that it is a simple and necessary task.
Ultimately, what I take away from this incident is a difficult truth: despite the fact that we use it every single day—no matter which language we speak, read, or sign— language is a very tricky business. Whether it be from one language to another, whether it be from one context to another, whether it be from the way we understand something to the ways that others read, hear, or interpret it, we have all been in situations where our words have missed their mark. We all know what it’s like for something to get lost in translation. Sometimes, of course, we don’t realize it until someone’s pointed it out to us.
When we call others out for their use of language (whether their words are explicitly or implicitly harmful), many of us do it because we believe that change can happen. We believe that we can help to educate, to re-frame, or to re-think through a particular problem in how ideas are expressed. As the CBC’s interview with Constable Anne Drennan notes, this is precisely the outcome of the critiques and feedback that individuals and organizations offered:
“When the complaints began to arrive, they started looking at the ads from a different perspective, Drennan says.
“We [could] see where they are coming from,” she says.
The ads will be taken down over the coming days as cars return to service yards, Drennan says, and will be replaced by new posters with wording approved by an advisory council that includes representatives from women’s support groups. (CBC)
The old adage that “sticks and stones can break our bones, but words will never hurt us” is, as most of us know, patently untrue. We know the degree of injury can vary, depending on the language used, and depending on the individual who reads or sees the language in question. We know that our “intended” meanings may not necessarily be the received meanings, and it’s important to recognize that good intentions do not devalue or cancel out the harm that can be done. However, I firmly believe that with a greater understanding of the immense power of language (as well as the ability to speak and write about, well, how we speak and write!) we can use our words for great acts of compassion, education, and justice.
If you have a story to share about harassment/need resources:
Trigger Warning: This article contains graphic discussions of sexual assault.
In my line of work, I read about a lot of horrible things, some of which actually happened.
As a doctoral student in English literature, whose research focuses on representations of sexualized violence, I study both fictional (novels, plays) and non-fictional (memoirs, auto-biographies) accounts of these crimes. Ultimately, my goal is to understand how writers and readers, and how survivors and witnesses, all make sense of the experience of sexual violation. At best, my job allows me to see the ways in which language, even language that is disturbing, raw, and graphic, allows the reality of sexualized violence to be made visible, to break free from the shackles of silence and stigma. At worst, my job forces me to think about the stories and the languages of sexualized violence that are used as weapons, that are turned back against survivors. Whether they come in the form of humour, in the form of gleeful boasting, or in the form of callous indifference, these stories always manage to hurt.
I will be brief, and, I hope, not too graphic in my recapitulation of what Choe said. Over the course nearly half an hour, Choe recalled having repeatedly forced a massage therapist to perform sexual acts on him. Along with denigrating and fetishizing this woman, whom he calls “Rose,” on the basis of her racial background and her profession, Choe expressed both nonchalance and absolute merriment at having carried out these assaults. His co-hosts, who, while they called Choe’s behaviour out for being the actions of a rapist, nevertheless engaged in banter and joking about it. Choe showed absolutely no remorse, and seemed to take only mild offense at being termed a sexual predator. According to Choe, what he did was “rapey,” but he is not a rapist.
As if this apparent admission of rape were not horrifying enough, Choe took a somewhat predictable, if no less disturbing tactic in response to his critics.
According to Choe, none of this actually happened.
Choe, the one-time protagonist in his seemingly heroic tale of raping a woman, claimed that it was simply “bad storytelling,” and an extension of his art practice. More specifically, Choe wrote, in a response on his podcast’s website: “I never thought I’d wake up one late afternoon and hear myself called a rapist. It sucks. Especially because I am not one. I am not a rapist. I hate rapists, I think rapists should be raped and murdered.”
Now, can’t say that I’m surprised. Choe’s further defense of rape as a mere subject for his dark humour,is one that has been trotted out by comedians such as Daniel Tosh, in a now-famous controversy. [For an excellent discussion of ways in which Tosh’s joke in no way performs the often-recuperative function of humour, see Elissa Bassist’s article from The Daily Beasthere.]
To be very clear: I am not suggesting that violence and humour are utterly incompatible, nor am I suggesting that violence and art are utterly incompatible. Obviously. I study violence that is featured in works of art every single day. I have often used humour in order to deal with my own trauma. There are some jokes about rape culture that are so spot-on and scathing in their critiques of the problems in society. What I am suggesting, however, is that if one’s humour or one’s art are virtually indistinguishable from actual practices of violence and exploitation, especially when one is placing oneself in the position of the perpetrator, there’s a big problem.
The thing it, it’s all too easy to just shrug off these problematic positions with any number of excuses, which is precisely what Choe does.
It’s JUST art.
It’s JUST a story.
It’s JUST harmless fun.
I’m JUST kidding.
All of these “justs,” all of these excuses that people make, whether it’s for assault or rape or harassment or whatever, these are precisely the hallmark of rape culture. They’re used by bystanders who wish to shame, blame, or silence victims, and they’re used by perpetrators themselves. Here’s the thing: David Choe didn’t merely engage in a brief, off-hand joke, that could be possibly construed as thoughtless. This was nearly a half-hour of consistent, un-ending descriptions of sexual assault, that placed him at the centre of it all. That’s a lot of effort to put into “just” a story.
Men’s Rights Activists, who trumpet endlessly about the numerous false allegations made by rape victims against innocent men every year, point to the ways in which “it was just a story” or “I made it up” gets in the way of the pursuit of justice. Now, it’s important to remember that victims sometimes recant their testimonies precisely because they are terrified of any number of consequences: of not being believed; of retaliation on the part of the perpetrator; under pressure from families, communities, or institutions. Not all claims of “it was just a story” are made equal. So, too, does a lack of a conviction not mean that an assault did not happen: a case may not be brought to trial, or a defendant may be acquitted because of a sufficient lack of evidence. Assault cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute, but this is NOT because assaults are not, in fact, occurring.
The fact that actual false assault allegations constitute a small percentage of reports aside, why would anyone in their right mind want to further muddy the waters of justice by pretending to have committed a rape when they hadn’t? Why would you want to place any doubt in someone’s mind as to whether or not you condone rape, find it funny, or heaven forbid, may have actually committed a rape yourself?
I think one of the things that bothers me most deeply about this incident is that as a researcher, I think it is vitally important to hear perpetrator narratives. If we want to understand how and why perpetrators rationalize their actions, or groom their victims, if we want to see them not as outliers, not as monsters in the night, but as human beings who do horrendous things, these are stories we need to listen to, as fundamentally disturbing and horrifying as they are. I have listened to perpetrators speak in some fairly eye-opening documentaries, and while it is confronting, it is a source of valuable information.
Whether or not “Rose” exists, and whether or not David Choe committed a rape is still unclear. I have my own hunches and beliefs about this, and I am suspicious of his feigned innocence. Regardless, this story has given us at least two pieces of valuable information: 1) that rape culture and rape as a source of humour (in which victims are the target) is still well and alive; 2) that even if this story was a mere piece of fiction, a mere fantasy, a mere figment of the imagination, that there will always be doubt in many people’s minds as to whether or not Choe committed a crime, and he alone is to blame for that. I have no pity for Choe, and no sense of sympathy for his pleas of understanding and to not be labeled as a potential rapist. He alone is responsible for the trust he has broken, for the survivors he has triggered, and for the contributions he has made to rape culture. And, if he has committed a crime, he alone is responsible for it: not the victim.
Many words and stories, like so many crimes, are not victimless. They hurt. They have a tangible impact on people’s lives. As Denise Riley so eloquently states in her book Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect (Durham: Duke UP, 2005), “in its violently emotional materiality, the word is indeed made flesh and dwells amongst us—often long outstaying its welcome” (9).
Thanks to David Choe, every survivor out there has just received one more unwelcome blow, yet one more hurdle to face in their attempts to be heard and to seek justice.
“Bad storytelling,” like assault itself, can have a lasting, if not a lifelong, impact.
Today, Canadians mark the 24th anniversary of the day that a gunman walked into the campus of the École Polytechnique in Montréal and carried out a brutal massacre that left 14 women dead, and another 10 injured. Like the numerous school shootings that have followed in the intervening years, both in Canada and in the United States, the gunman’s actions demonstrated a shocking level of violence and callous indifference to life, though what made the École Polytechnique massacre unique was the gunman’s explicit hatred of the gender of his victims. His suicide note, which was only released to the press months after the incident, clearly revealed the anti-feminist reasoning behind the attack: “Would you note that if I commit suicide today it is not for economic reasons…but for political ones. […] Because I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker […] I have decided to put an end to those viragos.” It was revealed, too, that the perpetrator had been previously rejected from the École Polytechnique, and especially resented women who occupied fields that had been traditionally dominated by men, such as the numerous young female engineering students who were the casualties of his assault.
The Montréal Massacre left an indelible mark on Canadian history, and sparked national conversations about gender violence. The national day of commemoration—known as the Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women—recalls the tragic deaths of these 14 women in order to bring attention to a variety of forms of gender violence, from domestic violence to sexual assault, from workplace harassment to the murders of sex workers.
As a scholar who studies sexualized and gendered violence, the École Polytechnique massacre has always held a particular professional interest for me. As a young female academic, however—now around the same age as many of the victims were at the time of their deaths—I find myself inevitably reflecting on the legacy of gender violence that still haunts post-secondary institutions in Canada, a legacy that directly impacts the lived experiences, as well as the professional pursuits, of both myself and my female colleagues. While this is a subject that should merit reflection at any given time in discussions of post-secondary education, literary production, or intellectual life, this particular historical and cultural moment has been saturated with incidents that have renewed and intensified the discussions around gendered oppression, unequal representation, sexism, and misogyny. This September, at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, and at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, undergraduate students at frosh week events participated in chants that made light of the rape of underage girls. Weeks later, Canadian writer and instructor David Gilmour stirred up controversy when he declared that he “[doesn’t] love women writers enough to teach them, that if [students] want women writers, [they can] go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys.” And, perhaps that which is most unsettling and representative of the legacy of December 6th, over the past six months, a series of sexual assaults on female students at The University of British Columbia has served as a reminder that aside from the intellectual or social forms of oppression, there are ongoing violent physical assaults perpetrated against students on the basis of their gender.
And so, on this day of remembrance and action, I sit with the following questions: what are the ways in which female students and scholars still face gendered violences or oppressions? In which spaces, and by which means are these violences enacted? How are women made to feel unsafe, unwelcome, or devalued?
I have had the strange feeling, at times, that because women are not currently being murdered on our campuses, and certainly not targeted in mass murders, that it is easy to believe that they are safe and welcomed into institutional spaces. It is easy to believe that if women comprise 50-60% of the post-secondary student population, if they are occupying spaces in classrooms, in offices, in workshops, at conferences, presidential positions, and on athletic teams, that they are not under siege. But perhaps the greatest disservice of the legacy of the December 6th massacre is precisely to ignore the myriad ways in which women’s safety or welcome in academia continues to be compromised, not only physically, but emotionally, mentally, intellectually, and spiritually. Too often, I have spoken with students and colleagues who have a spectrum of stories to share, whether they are about being silenced in the classroom, being made to feel uncomfortable in social spaces, or being subjected to outright sexual harassment and belittlement. Whether it is a pregnant faculty member whose body has been appropriated for public commentary at a conference, where fellow scholars elide her intellectual contributions, a graduate student who is assaulted by her classmate, an instructor who is sexually harassed and objectified by her student, students who are subjected to hearing rape chants, or any number of female scholars who are called “passionate” instead of “compellingly argumentative”, who are patronized, patted on the head, and shrugged off. Queer women, trans* women, and racialized women face further marginalization and oppression within these spaces. The stories of violence, of dehumanization, of humiliation, of frustration, of belittlement are seemingly endless.
I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: some of the most egregious acts of oppression occur within the institutional and social spaces we have often considered to be the most sacred, the least likely to be sites of violence. We cannot continue to be surprised that such incidents occur in academia, as if somehow our educational spaces are immune from the problems that plague the rest of society. We cannot continue to label inequity, casual misogyny, and violence as “isolated incidents” on our campuses.
I have to break my composure here to admit that at times, I am very frightened. I am frightened about the state of higher education and its social and institutional policies and practices regarding gender. I’m frightened that our sisters in the United States, who are filing Title IX complaints, are having to fight tooth and nail against administrations that covered up numerous sexual assaults and rapes. I’m frightened that sisters like Malala Yousufzai are under threat of death for even pursuing education. I’m frightened for many of my colleagues, with whom I have conversations about the incredible frustrations they have faced on the basis of their gender. I hear the stress, the sleepless nights. I hear the righteous anger. I’m also frightened for my students. I want them to go through their educational careers unscathed. I want to them to maintain some of that idealism, to pursue their goals, to thrive. I want them to feel as though they have voices in their classrooms, and that their ideas will be judged on their own merit alone, rather than on the gendered (and sexualized and racialized) bodies from which they spring. I’m frightened for myself. I have days where I am incredibly skittish and fearful on my campus. I sometimes sit in the common room where I was assaulted, and I feel unbearably sad that a place where I now experience so much joy and connection with colleagues is also a place where I once felt utterly petrified and helpless.
But I believe that change is possible. I see it happening. There are so many absolutely incredible acts of activism that are being undertaken for women’s rights in academia and in intellectual life.
Following the rape chants at SMU and UBC, numerous campus activists, with support from the community, and from many faculty members, have organized rallies and and community events to address sexual violence on campuses, to petition school administrations, to call for more safety initiatives. At Carleton University in Ottawa, a team of activists have finally secured support and funding (after a nearly seven-year fight) for a sexual assault centre on campus. And these initiatives are not limited to oppression on the basis of physical violence. For instance, for the past two years, CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) has undertaken a count that documents gendered representation in literary arts and literary publications; their timely work seeks to address the gender gap in Canadian review culture, and to create strong critical communities and alliances for female scholars, critics, and writers working in Canada.
And beyond these larger acts of solidarity, I am grateful, each day, for the sisterhood and solidarity that I have found. Brave women, phenomenal women (as Maya Angelou might say!), women who remind me not only of how hard-won our places in the ivory tower have been, but also of the contributions that we are making. These are the women with whom I collaborate, who I learn from, whose shoulders I cry on, whose laughter I share, whose sorrows I share, whose words I treasure.
But ultimately, today, I am thinking of the fourteen women who were murdered on that day in 1989. I think of Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz. I think of how, in their memory, I must never take for granted what it means to be a woman, a student, a feminist. I sit with sorrow for their lives cut short by cold-blooded violence, with sorrow for the knowledge that for so many, the threat of violence is always present, by virtue of the bodies we inhabit. I think of their families. I think of their classmates, those who survived.
Much has changed in the past 24 years, but much has yet to be done. We must ensure that the deaths of these fourteen women was not in vain, and that each day we bring their legacies alive again through our desire to make our places of education also become places of refuge and revolution.
The University of British Columbia has been in the local and national headlines a great deal this fall. At the beginning of this term, controversy arose when a group of frosh week leaders were found to have led incoming students in a chant that minimized the impact of sexual assault.
Now, as students are facing the frenzy of mid-term exams, UBC is in the headlines once more for issues regarding sexual violence. In the past three weeks, three separate incidents of sexual assault have been reported on campus. As the RCMP have now declared, it is believed that all three stranger-attacks, which took place on the weekends between midnight and 3 am, were perpetrated by the same individual.
When news of these assaults emerged, I reflected back to the seeming indifference of many of the rape-chant leaders, thinking that if there had been any lingering doubt in our campus community that sexual violence was not a subject to be minimized, joked about, or taken lightly, that these heinous attacks on women, on members of our university community, would make it very clear that sexual assault is a serious issue.
Yet, while the outrage against the attacker and expressions of fear about campus safety have been clearly expressed, so too have contempt, mockery, and disdain for the three victims.
While the Tweets in question have now been deleted, there have been at least two publicly-visible incidents of victim-blaming stemming from members of our own campus community. Both alluded to the fact that women at UBC’s campus should be smarter (well, more specifically, that they shouldn’t be “dumb”), and one asserted, very bluntly, that the victims were “asking for it.”
It’s horrendous enough to know that our campus is currently in a state of fear because of the actions of one depraved individual, and even more horrifying to know that in 2013, even after the discussions we’ve had on campus and in the news about why sexual assault is not the fault of the victim, that we’re seeing these kinds of statements being made.
But don’t listen to my criticism alone: listen to the woman who was the 2nd survivor in the recent string of assaults. She published a piece in the campus newspaper, which clearly articulated both the frustration of being spoken about like a news story, and the callous indifference with which people still talk about assaults that take place when an woman is walking home late at night. She writes:
Imagine sitting in class and having the professor bring up your sexual assault. I wanted to stand up at say, “Yo, this is my story. Who are you to talk about how I could have prevented this? Don’t I have the right to walk home alone?”
Imagine having to read about this on Twitter. Or in the comments section of a news story. Imagine having to hear your professors or your peers analyzing and scrutinizing your actions, speculating on what you could have and should have done differently. That’s not an indignity that any sexual assault survivor deserves.
Here’s the thing: people who have been affected by sexual violence are all around us. Whether we know it or not, we all likely know at least one survivor of sexual violence. They may be our professors. They may be fellow staff members. They may be peers in our classrooms. They are of all genders, all sexual orientations, all ages, all ethnic backgrounds, all socio-economic backgrounds, all professions. We never know who has been affected by it, and, as such, we never know who is hearing our words or reading them on the Internet.
Campus safety is not merely a question of how many security guards and police officers are on patrol, or of how many streetlights are installed to create visibility. It is also a question of how our campus community chooses to respond to survivors. If we take seriously the assertion that the University of British Columbia is a community of fellow students, faculty members, and staff members, ones who look out for and are concerned with the well-being of others, then it is simply unconscionable that we have members of the community who are actively seeking to blame and shame the victims of what are clearly horrendous and terrifying experiences.
We can still have conversations about campus safety and precautions, but we can do this without blaming the women who were attacked.
We can still have conversations about our own fears about safety, without suggesting that if only the women had been “smarter,” they wouldn’t have been assaulted.
So long as there are individuals who are blaming women for their own assaults, no place, even a well-respected university campus, is a safe place for survivors.
Dear Mars, Incorporated, and, specifically, those involved in creating advertisements for M&M chocolates,
There’s this thing that happens sometimes, when you’re a survivor of sexual violence, or if you study it for a living, or if you’re simply attuned to and interested in how sexual violence continues to permeate our society. You start to see sexual violence everywhere. You hear it referenced in songs, like Rick Ross’s “U.O.E.N.O.” that casually mention using date rape drugs. You notice it in rape chants sung on Canadian university campuses. You may start to find out that a large number of your friends, family members, and acquaintances (of all genders and sexualities) have experienced some kind of unwanted sexual contact. And, most notably, you see sexual violence in numerous advertisements, especially in the fashion, alcohol, and luxury goods industries. In fact, once you look around, you tend to find it in more places than you might have previously liked to believe. You might even ask yourself: “How has this become a socially acceptable thing? Why is rape the punchline of a joke, the casual lyric of a song, or a popular image used to sell anything from handbags to shoes?”
Of course, once you start to notice this, people will probably tell you that you’re overreacting. They might tell you that the critiques of rape chants on university campuses are proof that “feminist ideologues” are just pushing their “pro-consent propaganda” on everyone, and that anti-oppression activists are always just looking for a way to ruin people’s fun. Because they’ll say, as you might have previously believed, that rape culture is just something that can “build community and bring people out of their bubbles,” like when they chant about it at a frosh week event. Or they might tell you that you’re totally missing the point, and that images of a woman’s bruised and battered face are just a creative choice and that you’re clearly not appreciating what constitutes art.
But, you see, there’s this problem. Rape chanting-students, Rick Ross, and Dolce & Gabbana aren’t the only ones who are using sexual violence as a means of having fun or selling products. You are too.
Last night, after unwinding from a long day of feeling sick and doing work, I decided to watch some television. Rather coincidentally, I had just spent the afternoon eating most of a bag of M&Ms. And that’s when I saw one of the commercials that you released earlier this year. You’re obviously familiar with it, since you created it, but for those who aren’t, here it is. I’m going to put a TRIGGER WARNINGon this.
Now, here’s the thing. I wonder that you think your ad is kind of funny, I mean, these cute little M&Ms are about to be devoured by this big bad red-haired lady who totally just can’t help herself around chocolate! That’s not like rape at all, right?I mean, first of all, they’re animated chocolate characters. Plus, the “big bad devourer” who is unwittingly going to attack the little anthropomorphized M&M is a woman, so, obviously that’s way more funny, and way less rape-like than if it had been a man, right? And it’s an advertisement for chocolate, not for alcohol, so that totally has nothing to do with sexual violence, right?
I’m sorry. But I’m going to have to tell you that you’re wrong.
The entire premise of this advertisement is a classic reflection of real-life scenarios of sexual violence, and it’s being used, just like so many other companies, to try and sell products. An anthropomorphized M&M is “warned” about the predatory nature of a woman who “just cannot help herself,” then sets up her M&M friend to be taken away from the party by this predatory woman, who then leads that M&M away to her car, locks the doors, and attacks him. The last frame of the advert is the a shot of the parked car, with the poor little red M&M screaming.
The advertisement does not merely “imply,” “gesture towards,” or “hint” at what has happened to so many victims of sexual violence, it actually mirrors it and reproduces it, line by line, word by word, action by action.
People setting up their friends to be assaulted? Definitely happens.
People having to be warned of the predatory nature of certain partygoers? Definitely happens.
Perpetrators being justified in their actions because they or others say that they “just couldn’t help themselves?” Definitely happens.
Individuals being isolated, especially in cars, by their perpetrators? Definitely happens.
Women being the perpetrators of sexual assault? Definitely happens, even though society keeps treating male victims and female perpetrators as a source of comedy. [Just read, if you can stomach it, the absolutely abhorrent article that Star columnist Rosie DiManno wrote following the gang assault of a young man in Toronto.]
M&M has a long history of being a successful and well-known product, and the Mars Chocolate company has a long history of being a successful and profitable corporation. You certainly don’t need to stoop to shock-tactic advertising in order to garner more sales.
Corporate responsibility goes far beyond product safety and health standards about how many calories are in M&Ms and are there peanut-free facilities, etc. Your responsibility extends into social responsibility. As a consumer, especially one who has bought your products, I do not need to be reminded that rape is taken so lightly in this culture that it is being used to sell candy. I do not need to hear the lock of a car door and a scream, to be reminded of what once happened to me in a car. Male victims, especially, do not need to be reminded that they face an uphill battle in being taken seriously.
You don’t have to sell out rape victims in order to maintain a hefty profit margin, or or in order to keep your consumers amused. Your website says that you “take [your] responsibility for marketing brands appropriately very seriously.” As a well-known global brand, it is your duty to live up to that statement.
In the meantime, consider me a lost customer. Not surprisingly, I’ve lost my appetite.
This spoken word piece is a way of responding creatively to the various voices that I’ve heard in the past week since the news about the rape chants on two Canadian campuses broke. I have been fortunate to be able to speak with many news outlets about this issue, but I felt that I also wanted to craft a longer and more nuanced response. I speak back not just to the justifications by those who participated, but to the other voices that still condone, excuse, or rationalize this type of behaviour. I speak as way of contextualizing why these chants are not merely innocuous, and as a way of situating them in a broader culture of violence.
You say that Y is for your sister but it’s always somebody else’s sister, isn’t it? It’s always the sister of the friend or the family down the street or the sisters of colour who face disproportionate violence, or the fact that so many of them have been slaughtered for the colour of their skin, or the fact that so many are missing, are absences in the family tree. Or perhaps they are sisters that you don’t recognize as yours because they say that a sister is determined by her biological sex and not by the knowledge that she was born into the wrong body. Because heaven forbid that you have to say “yes, this is my sister,” mine, a person for whom I am responsible, a person with whom I share relation, if not through blood or name or shared appearance but through the social fabric that binds each of us together. No man or woman is an island.
You say that O is for oh so tight but it’s always about how tight a woman’s pussy is, isn’t it? It’s always about the value that we place on the vagina and virginity, about how much you hate a loose woman. Because you want it tight like that first time. Tight like a woman who hasn’t opened her legs wide because you believe the myth, of course, that every man that a woman allows to penetrate her is taking up space, stretching her out, reducing her value like the time that you called that woman a “slut” for having too many sexual partners, that time you said that girl was a “whore” for sleeping with half the football team, like that time you said a friend was devaluing herself and that she shouldn’t just “give it away.” But her body does not belong to you, or to anyone else. It is hers to share, to enjoy, to take pleasure in and from.
You say that U is for underage but then again aren’t kids just having sex younger and younger these days anyway? Can’t we blame this on Miley Cyrus somehow? Because Cherice Moralez, a fourteen-year-old girl who was raped by her fifty-year-old teacher was “as much in control of the situation” as her perpetrator, was “older than her chronological age.” At least that’s what the judge in Montana said anyway. At least that’s what was said by the people who make excuses for a culture in which many adults have consistently abused their power and tried to paint their victims as mutually consenting parties. At least that’s what said by the perpetrators of sexual abuse. Tell me again how a child asked for it. Tell me that statutory rape isn’t as “real” as “rape-rape.” Tell me again how funny that is.
You say that that N is for no consent. It’s almost as if you know that it’s wrong. It’s almost as if you realize that you should have stopped chanting by now. But you weren’t really listening to the lyrics, were you? I mean, it’s hard to keep the rhyme and the meaning in your head at the same time, isn’t it? You know what’s hard to keep in your head? The constant memories kept by those who have known intimate violence, the ways that you try to keep the nightmares from disrupting your sleep, the way that you try not to flinch when someone walks to close to you, the way the word “rape” or “sexual assault” always catches your ear on the news because it is happening again, it is always happening again, it is happening right now. Someone is not giving consent. Someone is being held down. Someone is unconscious. Someone is screaming “no, please stop, don’t, please stop.” Someone is being silenced.
You say that G is for “grab that ass,” but it’s always that street harassment isn’t such a big deal, right? As if women should just ignore the constant deluge of comments about their bodies when they are getting groceries, crossing the street, or going to work. As if a woman should simply not pay attention to the man who decides to sidle up to her, real easy, on public transit, and grope her repeatedly. As if her body does not belong to her, but is a public commodity, placed on the meat market with a high turnover and a low rate of exchange. Or maybe you say that G is for “go to jail,” but what you need to know is that the legal system is not perfect, and that even with forensic evidence, few perpetrators ever serve time. Do not buy into the fantasy that the perpetrators of sexual violence do not walk among us.
Maybe you say I’m too sensitive.
Maybe you say that I’m a feminist bitch.
Maybe you say that I should just learn to take a joke.
But I say to you that the language you speak and the words that you spell have meanings far beyond the spaces in which you say them, that the breath of your words is not a declaration of neutrality. Words and phrases are not benign, not drummed into everyday existence simply because they have been repeated over and over by generations of students. You have been given the gift of freedom of speech: use it wisely, and know that the seemingly innocent syllables you speak may just be the word-weapons that wound others.
Just two days ago, I published an article (which was also republished on Rabble.ca) detailing my concerns about having heard misogynist lyrics being played loudly on campus during frosh week at UBC. The song, which was played at a booth run by an off-campus nightclub, right near the Student Union Building, described—repetitively—being here “for the bitches and the drinks.” I expressed my frustration at having to be exposed to such misogyny in this environment, especially when we know that sexual assaults (especially those facilitated by drugs and alcohol) and sexual harassment run rampant on so many post-secondary campuses.
Shortly after I posted my article on my blog, national news services began sharing coverage of an egregious frosh-week incident at Saint Mary’s University, which involved 80 student orientation volunteers leading a chant that promoted underage sex and rape. Every major newspaper and television station in Canada has carried the story, featuring interviews with SMU students, SMU frosh leaders, the SMU president, women’s centre and sexual assault centre staff, and concerned community members. While there have been a predictable number of individuals who have dismissed the incident as a mere moment of “juvenile ignorance,” or, as former SMU student union president Jared Perry put it, something that just happened “in the heat of the moment,” many have been quick to condemn the behaviour. SMU president Colin Dodds, in an interview with CTV Atlantic, expressed his shock at the situation, even apologizing to the family of Rehtaeh Parsons (the Halifax teenager who took her own life after being sexually assaulted and viciously taunted) for the likely impact it would have on them.
Despite my anger at the situation in Halifax, I also felt somewhat relieved. While my article about hearing misogynist music was referenced in a GlobalBC article about SMU and rape culture on campuses, what happened at SMU wasn’t happening on my campus. I mean, if the worst thing that happened at my campus at frosh week was an off-campus nightclub blasting a song about “bitches and drinks”, rather than student representatives of a university actively cheering about underage sex and sexual assault, then it couldn’t possibly get worse, right? Right?
Late this evening (September 6), my university’s student newspaper, The Ubyssey, published an article revealing that the exact same thing had happened during Sauder FROSH, the “long-running three-day orientation organized by the Commerce Undergraduate Society (CUS)” (Rosenfeld, Ubyssey). Not only was I appalled to know that the same chant apparently had a long history of being used at frosh events here at UBC, but even more appalled to hear the reactions of the FROSH co-chair and other students. Co-chair Jacqueline Chen reported to The Ubyssey that previous complaints had been articulated about the chant, but that its use during frosh week had not been prohibited. Rather, Chen says, “We let the groups know: if it happens during the group, it has to stay in the group” (Rosenfeld).
Beyond the disgust and shock that I feel towards the fact that this chant is clearly widespread among university campuses (and who knows which other university frosh weeks have also used it), I am quite literally sickened by the attitudes towards this chant. Rather than the seeming-remorse and regret expressed by SMUSA president Jared Perry, UBC students who participated in the chant do not seem particularly concerned with the fact that it was brought to light. Indeed, unlike what we heard at SMU, the UBC students interviewed seem perfectly aware of the troubling and offensive nature of the chant, but opted to keep it under wraps, or argued that it was fine since it was only chanted in less-public areas.
I am going to make it very clear why this is a problem: using secrecy to legitimize violence and sexism is precisely the tactic used by abusers and assailants themselves. Suggesting that things are “okay” so long as they are not brought into the public eye is exactly how domestic abuse continues to be perpetrated and excused. Informing people to “keep a secret” is one of the top tactics used by abusers to silence their victims.
It is reprehensible that the same rhetoric and the same dynamics of power are being used in this context.
It is shocking that at UBC, a place when students will be excused from classes on September 18th to attend events at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—which focus on the legacy of horrific abuses, including the physical and sexual abuse of Indigenous children in residential schools—that callous and casual attitudes towards sexual violence are being openly flouted.
As a survivor of sexual assaults, including one that occurred on the UBC campus, I am tired of this.
As someone whose research focuses exclusively on language and its importance to cultures of sexual violence, I am tired of this.
As someone who wants a safe campus community, for my colleagues, for my mentors and supervisors, and for my own students, I am tired of this.
I am tired of living in a world where even the youth that we expect will be educated leaders of the future are engaging—and actively encouraging others to engage—in the mockery and dismissal of violence.
UBC’s motto is “Tuum Est,” which translates to “it is up to you.”
It is up to the UBC students who participated in this chant, to take true responsibility for their behaviour, and to understand why it is not even remotely something to joke about.
It is up to UBC, as a institution, to draw a line in the sand about what kind of behaviour will and will not be tolerated on campus.
It is up to UBC, as a community, to come together to stand against sexual violence. We must empower our students to call each other out when they hear or observe statements or actions that support or condone violence, so that this chant does not get simply pushed back underground, to be repeated again outside of the watchful eye of the university. We must offer support to those who may have been re-traumatized by this kind of behaviour.
For nearly 4 years, I, like many other students, have proudly called UBC my home. It’s time to make it feel safe again.
If you would like to contact me about this article: firstname.lastname@example.org
When I was growing up, I fervently disliked my first name. I can’t quite explain why. Perhaps it had to do with the numerous times that people mispronounced it, or the fact that I honestly thought that “Sophia Lorenzi” would be a much more poetic and dramatic moniker. As I got older, however, I learned to embrace my name as a wonderful gift that my mother had given me. Lucia is from the Latin word for “light,” and I can’t think of a more apt description for myself, as someone who is curious, creative, and stubbornly optimistic.
During the process of learning to accept my name and to enjoy hearing it spoken by others, especially by those who I loved the most, I also learned that there was another process of naming that I had started to face: the ways in which I was spoken to and addressed by people who saw me not as a person, not as Lucia, but as a sexual object.
These names—adjectives or nouns turned into imposed identities—have been hurled at me from across the street, whispered into my ear by abusive individuals, or spoken to me by men who were little more than acquaintances and wanted only to sleep with me or objectify me. I was no longer myself, but was being claimed, written on, territorialized by the naming practices of street harassment and male entitlement. And it didn’t just stop there. The re-naming of women is often followed by attempts to solicit sexual favours, to imply sexual availability, to taunt, terrify, and to try and tell women that they are nameless, faceless, and powerless.
“Hey, sexy….wanna fuck?”
“Hey, baby….why don’t you smile for me?”
“Hey, gorgeous….nice ass.”
I became very confused. It had always seemed to me that pet names (honey, sweetie, darling, dear, baby, sexy, beautiful, lover, depending on one’s relationship to a person) ought to be an indication of familiarity and affection, trust and mutual respect. It seemed that to call someone something other than their given name ought to be an indication of an pre-existing relationship, and of intimacy. It seemed to me that it ought to denote shared vulnerability. And yet, it wasn’t. I felt dehumanized. I felt ashamed.
This troubling re-naming practice doesn’t just manifest itself in the ways in which street harassment and catcalling dehumanizes women by suggesting that their identities and personal lives don’t matter, because they are objects to be targeted, identified, and (potentially) consumed or used. It also extends to the ways in which individuals in relationships only use these names when they want or are engaging in sexual acts with a person, when you’re only “baby” in the bedroom, “sexy” in the sack. I’ve been there once before. I’ve been the girl who is kept a secret, the girl who is good enough to sleep with but not good enough to acknowledge or hold hands with in public. It’s humiliating.
It’s this incongruity, the strange melding of affection and violence (or affection and cruelty, affection and coldness, affection and indifference, etc) that can be so difficult to reconcile. It’s unsettling. It feels unsafe. At times, it has made me question whether or not I will ever be seen for any more than my body. It makes me start to question myself, and wonder if because I dress a certain way, or look a certain way, that that’s all I’m seen for, in spite of the creativity and intellect that I nourish and cultivate. It makes me wonder if people see ME at all. While I may embody sexiness at times or a particular heteronormative aesthetic of femininity at times—especially considering my love of fashion, modeling, and photography—those things are not who I am, and nobody has the right to make those things my identity, or to reduce my value to my presumed sexual availability. I, Lucia, may feel or be or look sexy, but “sexy” is not an outright replacement for my legal name.
Naming practices and acts of address are powerful, and they are deeply political.One need only look to histories of colonization, in which names are and were either “Westernized” or erased entirely. For instance, consider the recent incident involving Academy Award nominee Quvenzhané Wallis, who stood up to an AP reporter who refused to learn to pronounce her name and call her “Annie” (Wallis’ upcoming role) instead. Think about the how the term “slut” is part of a deep history of the sexualization of racialized women, and the precarious politics of the attempted reclamation of that term. Think about how women who suffer sexual assaults are referred to only as “Jane Doe,” or, in the case of victim-blaming, as “that whore, that walking mattress, that skank.”
I want to be very clear: I am absolutely not suggesting that there ought to be a radical policing of language, nor do I want to assert that “sexy” or “beautiful” as adjectives should be completely erased from conversations with and about women. Given how often women are shamed for confident, assertive displays or articulations of their sexuality, I think that it is important to recognize sexiness and beauty of all kinds. I think it’s important for women to be able to use those words in order to describe themselves without being shamed or seen as objects. I consider myself to be sexy. I consider myself to be someone who embraces her sexuality. I enjoy it when people recognize it in a positive and kind way, whether they are acquaintances on Facebook or friends or otherwise. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with exchanging a knowing glance or a smile with a stranger. Flirting isn’t off-limits.
But I also think that an awareness, especially in interpersonal relationships that take place in private (whether online or offline), in dating, and in flirting, of the histories of oppression that many women have faced with regards to certain naming practices, is equally important. I believe that it is important to recognize that women all have different experiences with street harassment and sexual assault, and that treading lightly at first, finding different phrases to express a thought, or being up front in asking if it’s okay to use certain language is thoughtful, valuable, welcomed, and necessary. I can’t be the only one who thinks that asking for consent and having discussions about things is a super-mega-turn-on. I’ve had male friends and acquaintances who have asked me. It’s wonderful.
Having read through the various stories featured on the @EverydaySexism Twitter account, having followed the #streetharassment hashtag, and doing the research that I do regarding sexual violence and sexuality, I know that while many women have different experiences of naming practices, there are a large number whose experiences have been similar to mine. Sometimes, you never know when that “hey sexy!” hollered at you from across the street is going to turn into someone grabbing you, following you, or assaulting you. I was stalked on my old university’s campus several years ago, and I can tell you first-hand that what seem like “compliments” that women should just “take lightly” from strangers can quickly escalate into terror.
While Shakespeare suggested that “rose by any other name” may still be a rose, a woman by any other name is often made to feel that she is not still a woman. She’s made to feel like an object. And that’s not okay, because as we know, such practices of harassment and dehumanization often lead to other forms of violence.It reinforces an environment where it’s seemingly okay for those things to happen. It’s really fucking not okay.
I still struggle all of this myself, and I certainly don’t pretend to speak for any woman other than myself. However, I wish so badly that those words I’ve called, those names I’ve been assigned, could become precious again, saved for the mouths of people I feel safe around, and loved by. But they’re not. And I can’t pretend that “words can never hurt me,” because sometimes they still do. I can’t pretend that it sometimes feels strange to hear those words from a partner or a lover. I can’t erase their history, and I won’t, because as so many of us know all too well, the line between terms of endearment and terms of endangerment is a very fine one.
For more information and stories about street harassment, visit: