Today I did not wake up realizing I would begin my week listening to a friend justify sexual assault, let alone in the comfort of my own university.

The day started normally enough: I met two of my classmates, Amy and Mike* for coffee before class. Mike has a preoccupation with buying us coffee. And calling us “sweetheart”.

This bothers me, so I asked him after he initially said it to not to refer to us as “sweethearts”. Later at the bar, I questioned him on how he felt it was appropriate to refer to his female colleagues as such. His response, “because you’re sweet”. I pointed to a male colleague, and friend of ours, and said, “well, he’s sweet too”.

That night, Amy mentioned that I shouldn’t take Mike so seriously – he’s younger than us and just has some growing up to do. I agreed.

So we began discussing our weekends and I asked Amy how the Chinese New Years party she attended went. She explained “it was fun, but I drank quite a bit”. Here’s what happened next:

Mike: How many ounces of alcohol can you handle?
Amy: In ounces? I don’t know, I’ve never really measured that.
Mike: (looks at her) You can probably only do 2, maybe 3 ounces.
Amy: I know I’m smaller, but it’s not really dependent on size. Sometimes I drink a lot, but I only do so with reliable friends.
Mike: So at least you won’t get raped! (laughs)

I was appalled, sickened. Did he just say that?

Me: That’s really not funny, Mike. Even as a ‘joke’.
Mike: What? (smiles) Yes it is.
I mean, it’s not the rapist’s fault if a girl is that drunk.

Sirens went off in head. Big, ugly, wailing sirens. My ears got hot and started pounding. I felt my face flushing red. I was shaking. Sweating. Disgusted. I wanted to cry and scream at the same time. I was absolutely livid.

I retorted angrily. I told him to shut up, that I wanted to just kick him for saying that. How could he think that? I was so furious, I wanted to say whatever I could to wipe the smirk off of his face. In a moment of anger, my otherwise extensive knowledge and research on the subject floated away and I was left with steam coming out of my ears and a reaction I regretted, one that devalued my own integrity and intelligence.

In that moment, I wish I had a clever, succinct response to give Mike after he had justified rape. I wish I could have pulled out a giant pie chart reading “causes of rape” with the category “rapists” filling the entire circle. I wish I could instantly make Mike realize how awful of a statement he just made. I wish it didn’t affect me like it did, that it was as easy as listening to Amy’s advice and ignoring him altogether.

But I couldn’t. Because this wasn’t a stranger. This wasn’t an ignorant or malicious individual coming from a place of hatred, or to purposely anger me. This wasn’t a bad person. This was my classmate. My friend. Someone I trusted. And these were his honest thoughts, or equally as disturbing, his sense of humour.

It disturbed me beyond measure. I wondered if Mike had ever spoken to a victim of sexual assault. Making light of a traumatizing crime only proved how disconnected he was with the very tangible and horrifying reality of rape and of its devastating results.

What did it say about the values advocated in university culture if someone could get away with thinking this was acceptable, let alone saying it aloud? How many other students share his sentiments?

Mike may have been serious or just ‘joking’, but he is far from alone in his views. University campuses across North America perpetuate sexism, female degradation, and rape culture. We’re familiar with the infamous (and vile) “Don’t Be That Girl” campaign that circulated University of Alberta’s campus last year. We’re aware of the rampancy of rape culture, of the 55% of gang rapes associated with fraternities. For Delta Kappa Epsilon, this chant caused Yale’s chapter to be suspended for five years. U of A’s branch was similarly sanctioned as a result of harassment and abuse. A frat was suspended at the University of Vermont in 2011 after it asked the question, “if you could rape someone, who would it be?” in a survey. Meanwhile, Miami U circulated a flyer entitled, “Top ten ways to get away with rape” in 2012. UBC has experienced 6 accounts of sexual assault within the last year.

On campuses, rape is unashamedly and unendingly everywhere.

Even worse, instead of nearing a positive change, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction with social media, and its ability to ensure anonymity and gain support while sharing disrespectful attitudes. For instance, the case of Facebook’s ‘Spotted’ pages for various universities; although they’re created with the purpose of posting funny and/or noteworthy happenings on campus, these groups tend to assimilate into a forum making misogynistic comments about females that are spotted on campus. This normalizes the performance of obscene sexual acts and rape.

In our millennial generation, it’s not only about blatant, old-fashioned sexism anymore. Rather, the everyday microaggressions can be just as harmful but more subtle.

Last year, a coworker asked me how my program was going. He’s in the same department as me, but a year below and interested in graduate studies. His seeking of my advice established that he respected me academically, however he followed it with, “Wow, you are so driven, you are going to be one of those working women who is 40 and her eggs have dried up hey!”

Huh?

In the case of sexual assaults, microaggressions are just as rampant:

“Well you did kiss [your perpetrator]…”
“Why did you wear that outfit if you didn’t want attention?”
“You liked [your perpetrator] anyways so who cares, you were drunk!”

Microaggressions are the subtle, and sometimes automatic, responses that manifest through unwarranted and derogatory stigmas. Rape microaggressions place the blame back on the victim while driving the discussion further away from real sexual violence awareness and education. As Maggie Crain, counselor at Fredericton Sexual Assault Crisis Centre put it, “Universities are petri dishes for both rape culture and sexual assault” – “they’re a microcosm of the way society teaches people how to party and treat women.”

I don’t know about you, but that petri dish seems really icky. Let’s abolish the notion that  victim blaming and shaming is okay. And the first step in doing that is by refusing to condone rape jokes on campus.

As slight, automatic, and unintentional they may be, we’re smarter than that. We should cultivate positivity, respect, and kindness at the U of A. Let’s change the dialogue.

 

*Names changed to protect the identities of individuals.

Image courtesy of Melissa Brewer on flickr.