10 Small Changes You Can Make To Help Avoid Another Steubenville

Enough is enough. Now is the time to do whatever we can to bring an end to rape culture. Here are a few places you can start.

During the past several weeks, as more and more people became aware of what transpired in Steubenville, Ohio, last summer, I have been deluged with messages and questions about what happened and how this was possible.

My contention has always been that if we want to reduce the everyday occurrences of similar events we need to focus on one thing: How 50 kids stood by and watched, even photographed and joked about this girl’s abuse and rape. How parents, coaches, teachers, religious leaders and more participated in the commission of this crime by transmitting traditional values and mainstream ideas. This is what rape culture is: A girl used as a dehumanized object, treated like a sex doll, raped, and abused while people watch, laugh, joke, film, and walk away.

The questions I’ve heard the most though are, “What can we do? How soon can we teach our children not to do and tolerate these things?” I realize that most people aren’t immersed in feminism or interested in the details of how sexualized violence functions to enforce and perpetuate gender inequality, so I tried to think of some everyday habits to share with those asking, things that everyone asking in earnest can change in an effort to dismantle this culture:

  1. If you use the expression “boys will be boys,” think about why and what it means. Then STOP. Yes, boys and girls are different. I’ve got it. But, any two boys are as different from one another as “boys” are from “girls.” That expression reveals a myriad of beliefs related to gender essentialism, binaries, and stereotypes that lie at the root of sex-based hierarchies that subtly cultivate violence and the reduction of girls and women to the value of their reproductive potential. It’s commonly used to excuse behavior that is rude, entitled, and gender-privileged.
  2. Understand and don’t trivialize the effects of stereotypes and media messaging. Stereotypes are destructive and harmful and stereotype threat is legitimate. Examine the ideas you convey, and especially the media, toy, and entertainment purchases you make for kids. Additionally, words do matter: When you call girls “Princess” or boys “Little Man,” for example, how much are you affectionately conveying in terms of stereotypical ideas about gender, race, ethnicity, and more. In particular, if you have boys, really look into how masculinity is constructed in the U.S. and think hard about what you want for your children. Whenever possible, deconstruct media messages and talk about sexism, racism, and violence openly. There is no escaping them in media. It’s like the air we breathe. And, a lot of the movies, TV shows, and games kids play are really fun. So, if they’re going to consume these media—which is almost unavoidable—talk to them about how to understand what they are consuming.
  3. Challenge authority, especially authorities that derive power from systems based on complementary roles for men and women. These too are based on stereotypes and their expression is benevolently or ambivalently sexist. Yes, this means…religion. Religious organizations provide great community, comfort, and structure to life. However, they do so at great cost, especially when unexamined. The least violent, most egalitarian, happiest people in the world live in secular countries for a reason.
  4. Don’t sugarcoat sexualized violence, don’t laugh at it, and don’t repeat well-debunked rape mythologies. Rape jokes aren’t funny, though we’ve grown up laughing at them. Comedians tell jokes that make people laugh
  5. Don’t slut-shame girls or stud-bait boys. Kids make mistakes, they experiment with clothes and they act in ways that they think are socially sanctioned and will be rewarded by culture. So, if your 10-year-old daughter starts dressing in ways that make you uncomfortable, it’s probably not her fault—all she has to do is wake up and be in possession of a brain and eyes to see what society thinks the role of women is and what is valued. If she doesn’t, but her best friend does, don’t call her a “slut,” but consider talking to them about double standards. Likewise, being the proud parent of a boy who “plays the field” or encouraging one to “sow his wild oats,” is equally problematic and reflects a whole range of ideas about who should be and “gets” to be sexual and aggressive versus sexy and passive. 
  6. If you have kids, boys and girls, make them do domestic work—the exact same kind of domestic work. Sounds silly, right? But, here’s the thing, when children do domestic work they value it, they understand what unpaid labor is, they are better at empathizing and they grow up to be more egalitarian. It’s small but significant.
  7. Teach boys to cross-gender empathize. We have a serious problem with boys and empathy. If that wasn’t evident from what happened in Steubenville, I don’t know what is. Everything about mainstream culture is geared toward a) stripping boys of any ability to understand what it’s like to be a girl, and b) telling them that being a girl is bad. Girls have to cross-gender empathize every day in untold ways. It’s a survival skill if you are a female human.
  8. Speak openly about bodies, consent, rights, and autonomy. We need a small consent revolution to be a BIG consent revolution. You can do this in everyday ways, before discussing sex is age-appropriate. By the time you should and can talk about sex, the fundamental civilizing concept of consent in the matter of other people’s bodies and desires should be a given. As your kids get older, if you really want to challenge the ideas that resulted in Steubenville, make sure your school offers comprehensive sex education to students.
  9. Don’t give your children’s school a pass when they transmit common biased ideas because of “tradition,” or to be “polite.” Schools can do a pretty effective job of undermining what your belief systems about gender roles, equality, and hierarchies are if left unchallenged. Even if the school doesn’t change, your children will see you challenging ideas that demean and undermine them.
  10. Choose your sports carefully. In the United States, sports culture is very important. Our national sport, football, glorifies brute force, physical dominance, violence, and literally marginalizes women, not to mention LGBT people. Whether it can exist without doing this is another matter entirely. In the meantime, there are other sports. I realize this isn’t a popular position, but hey, I’m an anti-racist, anti-colonialist, fundamentally anti-capitalist, secular feminist activist intent on ending sexualized violence, how much worse can it get?

As with rape, many of the items on this list have traditionally been sidelined as “women’s issues.” So, lastly, if you think certain things are “women’s issues,” think again. There are very few things—maybe tampon technology—that are uniquely specific to women. Otherwise, especially when it comes to the Big Issue, there is almost nothing that ISN’T a “women’s issue,” including the economy, war and militarism, state security, global warming, scientific denialism, and abuse of power in every manifestation. The list is literally infinite. Most topics that have traditionally been thought of as “women’s issues”—reproductive issues, sexualized violence, domestic violence, street harassment, etc.—can be inverted and understood as “problems we face involving men with unchallenged power.”

In general, I’d say, don’t idle in neutral. There is no neutral. Standing still in this environment is worse than running backward. It takes affirmative time and energy to change culture. It’s exhausting and demoralizing some days. But, there is a growing and passionate community of people, enabled through technology, enthusiastically doing this work. They’re easy to find and growing every day.

As Laurie Penny so excellently said Tuesday, “This is the moment. This is our test. Before another Jane Doe gets hurt, before more young rapists can tearfully claim they ‘didn’t know,’ it’s on us all—men and boys and everyone who loves them—to stand and be counted.”

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role/Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.

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