By Jayme Lozano
For many, it’s a hard word to see and an even harder conversation to have. Ignoring the topic, however, only leads to confusion and a disturbing trend called rape culture.
The most significant aspect of rape culture is victim blaming, meaning the victims get blamed for putting themselves in situations they should have presaged as “risky” before anything happened.
Skylar Hernandez, a recent graduate from South Plains College, experienced this firsthand when another student and a roommate of her boyfriend at the time sexually assaulted her.
Hernandez said she was watching movies at her boyfriend’s apartment. When his roommate came home, they talked as they normally would.
“We had a conversation, and he asked me if I wanted another Dr Pepper, and I didn’t think about it at the time, but he gave it to me open,” Hernandez said. “I drank most of it until I started feeling weird and couldn’t keep my eyes open.”
Hernandez said she remembers feeling her attacker carry her and trying to tell him to put her down, but her words came out as mumbles. After that, she said it felt as though she went to sleep. She has no memories of what happened.
“When I woke up, all my clothes were on the ground, and I felt disgusting,” Hernandez said. “Then the guy I was dating called my name because I wasn’t in his room or the living room, and his roommate told him I was in his room. He came in there and threw my clothes at me, called me names and pushed me on the ground. I got dressed as fast as I could and ran out.”
Hernandez went to a friend’s house afterward but would not talk to anyone about what happened. In the time that followed, her then-boyfriend and her attacker would send her threatening text messages and phone calls. She tried to explain what happened, but he would not believe her.
“He never stood up for me and never asked what really happened,” Hernandez said. “I tried every single day that he called to harass me. He would never listen, or he would say ‘He would never do that; that’s not how he is.’”
Hernandez said it took her almost a year to tell anyone what happened, and the only reason she did was because one of her friends noticed her attitude changed.
“I was really grouchy and quiet, kept to myself, and didn’t like to be in large groups,” Hernandez said. “I love being around my big group of friends all the time so she didn’t understand why I was acting like that.”
Hernandez said she did think about reporting what happened to the police but decided against it because she thought she could just forget it happened. Plus, she did not know who she could trust to go with her.
The attack still affects Hernandez. She says she has nightmares often and is on antidepressants. But she also believes she is stronger because of it.
“I won’t let this consume my life and will never let him win,” Hernandez said. “I will live a life that is somewhat normal, and he won’t ever take that away. That’s why I stayed in school. He wasn’t going to take my education away. I wanted that, and I won in the end.”
Jennifer Huemmer, a doctoral student in the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University, has studied sexual assault on college campuses with Lindsey Blumell, who recently completed her doctorate in journalism. The two decided to interview survivors and turn those interviews into a film, “Good Girls Don’t Tell.”
“We worked with the theater department and some of the actresses there played the role of the girls so that we could really hear their stories without putting them on camera,” Huemmer said. “They were free to talk about the pain and healing without having to put their face on camera.”
Each survivor Huemmer spoke to said she blamed themselves for what happened.
“A lot of them were making sense of it as far as what led up to it and what their role was,” Huemmer said. “A few of the girls mentioned the fact that they know they shouldn’t do the self-blaming process, but it almost gives them a little bit of power back because you lose so much power when you’re raped.”
While making the film, Huemmer and Blumell found that all the survivors wanted to use their experiences to help others and raise awareness.
“Some of them wanted to further their education to figure out how to change the media dialogue,” Huemmer said. “For some, it was more personal, like, ‘I want to help people around me so they don’t have to experience this, and if they do, they have someone who can help them.’ Every single one of them expressed a desire to use what they had gone through to help someone else on some level.”
Changing this way of thinking is going to take a lot of work and honest conversations, according to Huemmer.
“I think we need to hear more from women and men who have experienced this instead of a talk-down, clinical approach to education about this,” Huemmer said. “We need to hear … how they processed it and how to heal from it.”
Autumn Shafer, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon who helped start Define Your Line at Texas Tech, along with fellow professor Rebecca Ortiz, said they encountered many misperceptions about sexual assault that implicitly blame victims for being raped.
“Some of the big ones are things like if the victim was drinking, what they wore, whether they knew the perpetrator, basically anything that blames someone other than the perpetrator,” Shafer said. “That creates a general atmosphere where victims are less likely to report and sexual assault is more likely to occur.”
While Shafer’s research is not focused on victims’ experiences, she has found people are less likely to support a victim if they believe in rape culture.
“They are more likely to blame a victim and want to comment on what he or she was wearing, where they were at, and how it could have been their fault,” Shafer said.
Kylie Cowley, one of the students who works with Define Your Line, has also studied sexual assault by looking into how people respond to social media posts on the subject.
“The posts that have more interaction don’t say rape or sexual assault,” Cowley said. “There was one post where it was a meme just of a dress and every time it said ‘Still not,’ it was cutting the dress off. It got a lot of interaction because no matter how short the dress got, the person still wasn’t asking to get raped or sexually assaulted”
According to Cowley, dealing with rape culture on college campuses requires normalizing the conversation and not being afraid to talk openly about sex.
“People say it’s awkward, but yet, you kind of talk about it with your friends,” Cowley said. “I think that the more students understand they aren’t alone, they aren’t the only ones who feel this way, and that having the conversation is actually pretty easy and doesn’t have to be awkward, it would break down the walls behind it.”
Ortiz, an assistant professor in the College of Media & Communication, said the term “rape culture” gained popularity in 2013 but remains a new concept that many people do not fully understand.
“Unfortunately, whenever you use the term rape, it evokes emotions in people,” Ortiz said. “Either anger at the idea that this is happening or that certain people are blamed.”
Ortiz said part of why rape culture exists is because of narrow gender roles. This includes men being raised to be assertive and even aggressive and women being told they are not supposed to initiate sex.
“That confuses sex, sexual empowerment and sexual decisions,” Ortiz said. “Both sides are hearing bad ways to handle it instead of communicating about what your actual needs are because there’s a stigma.”
According to Ortiz, Define Your Line is important because it addresses the topic in a way people would listen to instead of being defensive. It also offers resources to victims, even if they are not ready to report.
“That’s something great here at Tech and other campuses; there’s anonymous reporting and confidential reporting, so you can report and not even put your name, just let them know it happened,” Ortiz said. “Of course, we want them to report because then we can catch repeat offenders, but it’s up to the individual. We have to change the culture around reporting and make it safer for the victim to report and not be re-victimized.”
The most important thing to remember about rape culture is that it is hurting everyone, not only women, she said.
“It is affecting all of us,” Ortiz said. “People see rape culture as … women trying to rally against men, and that’s not the case at all.”