“Honk” if You Want to End Rape Culture at Brock University (and the Rest of the World While We’re at it)

Originally posted on A Feminist Critique on September 6, 2014.

A fantastic article that provides oversight into the world of rape culture in universities, which is particularly rampant during frosh week. A Feminist Critique has offered some context and history about the subtle and overt actions that make up a university rape culture.


“Honk” if You Want to End Rape Culture at Brock University (and the Rest of the World While We’re at it)

We hear about it all the time. Another teenage woman was sexually assaulted, which was caught on video and circulated on the internet. Another female student was slut-shamed for breaking the school dress code. Given such a context, when students from Brock University first moved into their residences last Tuesday, Sept 2nd and were greeted by this sign:


it was another reminder to females that we are susceptible to harassment and other forms of sexual violence merely because we are women.

Although this sign was probably intended as a “harmless joke,” it is loaded with meaning and must be put into context.

Safety and Sexual Violence
Alex Drag, a second year student in Concurrent Education said it best:

“This is sexist because this sign inherently reminds women that no matter where, even at school, even in their dorms, they are not safe. This sign is a reminder that men claim the space around us and even on an exciting day like move-in day, women are seen as “fresh meat” and “prey”. This sign even though it seems harmless to the naked eye is actually extremely objectifying and dangerous…” Alex wrote this message as a facebook comment in response to an article that was posted about the sign on A Safer Brock’s page.

Alex’s comment about women’s lack of safety evokes the recent art project by Emma Sulkowicz in which she carries around her mattress everyday to represent the after effects and trauma she experienced from being raped. She was later re-victimized by the police and Columbia University administration when they did not take her case seriously, and the perpetrator continues to attend the same campus as her. Emma was sexually victimized in her own dorm room, which is common, because rapes are most likely to happen when survivors’ guards are down in places that they thought were safe. Rapes are also most likely to be committed by perpetrators who the survivors trust and know.

It’s hard to think that men who are our acquaintances, friends or partners could be “rapists” because men who commit violent acts towards women are pathologized and dehumanizedand incidences of sexual violence towards women are often treated as individual, isolated acts. However, rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic abuse, the sexual objectification of females and other acts of violence towards women occur most often, not because of individual psychopaths, but because of systematic forces and cultural behaviours and beliefs that uphold these forms of violence. The incident on Sept 2nd at Brock is an example of how sexism and sexual violence towards women are sustained and perpetuated daily by trivial acts committed by ordinary people. Folks, this is “rape culture”.

Rape Culture
“Rape culture” is embedded in sexist language, gender constructions and gender stereotypes which legitimize, normalize and rationalize systematic violence towards women and girls. It is sustained and engrained by dominant attitudes and behaviours about women and men and upheld by institutions.  Using the term, “rape culture” is important when discussing the “droppin’ off your daughter” sign, because it acknowledges that all forms of violence towards women are linked together and also supported by “benign” acts and sexist language that downplay the severity of such violence. Many rape jokes, for example, while they may seem harmless reinforce women’s positioning as marginalized beings and continue to normalize and trivialize the rape of women. “Cat calls” remind women that we are continuously expected to accept being desired objects that exist solely for men’s pleasure and degradation.

I’d like to make very clear that when I talk about this incident in a rape culture context, I am not intending to argue that all forms of violence towards women are experienced equally, or that the after effects of witnessing this sign are equal to the after effects of rape. I am also not intending to suggest that the male students who held this sign or students who may have laughed at it intentionally support rape or will commit rape. I am suggesting, instead, that we must recognize how everyday behaviours and attitudes that seem trivial and harmless sustain the marginalization and oppression of women and continue to create and uphold the conditions that make violence towards women possible.

Focusing the discussion solely on the individuals who created this sign will not address the root of rape culture. Although it took place in another part of Canada, the “rape chants” at St. Mary’s University that were yelled out during frosh week of last year is also connected to this incident. While the media coverage has focused only on the sign being at Brock, this is not the first time this sign has been used. On August 23, 2013, this picture was posted here from www.lolwithme.org:

a blogger posted this photo from The Pantagraph, on August 19, 2005:
and the following photo was posted on radio station FM95.5’s website quoted as taken at Michigan State University during one of their Frosh weeks:
What these photos reveal is that there is a recycling of this sexist narrative and if it goes unchallenged and not unpacked, it will continue to appear across campuses in Canada and the United States.
Brock University’s Response
According to the coverage from the Niagara Falls Review when quoting university’s spokesperson, Jeffrey Sinibaldi, Brock responded within 30 minutes of the sign being reported and had security remove it. Sinibaldi said that “the university does not tolerate this kind of behaviour,” but the consequences would be nothing “punitive” for the students who held the sign. Instead, they would be visited in their homes that are off campus by the Manager of Off-Campus Living and Neighbourhood Relations to talk to them about the incident.
The good thing is that the university campus security removed the sign as soon as they heard about it. The problem is that the discussion about this sign has been framed as if male students were merely “misbehaving.” The news coverage so far, has not discussed how this sign embodies a culturally sustained idea that violence and sexism towards women and girls is somehow hilarious, which should be made known into an obnoxiously large sign. It’s just “boys being boys,” right?
My questions for the university: Has anyone from the institution contacted A Safer Brock (The Brock Student Sexual Violence Support Centre) or CARSA (The Niagara Region Sexual Assault Centre) to run workshops or mandatory training for these male students to participate in? What qualifications does the Manager of the Off-Campus Living and Neighbourhood Relations have to discuss the underlying messages behind this sign? The fact that the university has chosen this individual to speak to the students suggests that the “teachable moment” will be missed and the conversation will be framed as, “please do not make signs and post them on campus when you do not actually live on campus.”
Furthermore, the “non-punitive” action taken against these male students evokes how the criminal justice system too often lets perpetrators of rape and sexual assault off with a slap on the wrist, usually with minimal or no sentencing. This might explain why only 6% of sexual assaults are reported to the police. The issue again, is that sexist violence towards women in all forms is too often not taken seriously and not recognized as an act of systemic oppression and marginalization of a particular group of people. While the university acted quickly to remove the sign, the response from the institution suggests that the university is choosing to ignore how sexist messages embedded in the sign are absolutely connected to many behaviours that occur daily at Brock, but often rendered invisible.
Challenging Rape Culture Discourses
Sinibaldi assured the Niagara Falls Review that this incident “was not a reflection of the students on this campus.” I would argue that the incident with the sign is a reflection of the sexism and the normalization of violence towards women embedded in dominant cultural beliefs at Brock as well as across Canada, but I would also argue that many Brock students actively challenge rape culture discourses and have spoken up against this sign. I pose a challenge to the women and men at Brock University to prove that we do not have to be defined and limited by rape culture narratives.
We have the power to actively resist the prevailing forces of rape culture by thinking about our ordinary conversations and experiences and questioning how they might be linked to the sign. If a friend says that they “just got raped by that exam,” remind them that rape jokes aren’t funny and diminish a survivor’s experience. If someone tells you that they have been sexually assaulted, believe them. If you see a woman at a bar this frosh week completely wasted and alone, help her get a cab. If a friend refers to a woman as a “slut” or a “ho” to shame her for what she’s wearing, remind them that offhand comments that are engrained in our everyday conversations are loaded with cultural signifiers that can perpetuate and support violence towards women.
Let’s also acknowledge that women and men need to be on the same side together to combat rape culture discourses because these narratives hurt women and also men. The male students who created the sign do not represent all men’s views and many men on this campus who I know personally do speak up against sexism and rape culture.
Rape culture is not going to change overnight and it is indeed a process, but if we all participate in little acts to slowly change our consciousnesses, we engage in a form of resistance. If we challenge the cultural narratives that suggest that men must dominate women to be “real” men and women must exist as objects to be dominated, then these narratives that seem to be “truth” can become wobbly and eventually dismantled. Since rape and sexual violence are perpetuated in systems that we are all part of, in the end, it is all of our responsibility to change it.

For more information you can check out:

The everyday sexism project – http://everydaysexism.com/
A Safer Brock – www.asaferbrock.org
Project Unbreakable – http://project-unbreakable.org/
CARSA – http://www.sexualassaultniagara.org/

Photo cred for “Honk if you’re droppin’ off your daughter” sign taken at Brock goes to Nikki Cameron.