Teaching Rape Culture

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column.  Dr. Cat Pausé (@FOMNZ) is a fat studies scholar at Massey University in New Zealand. She hosted Fat Studies: Reflective Intersections in New Zealand in 2012 and Fat Studies: Identity, Agency, Embodiment in 2016, and her fat-positive radio show, Friend of Marilyn, is traveling the world this year.

Across the world, institutions of higher education are being forced to examine whether their policies and procedures reinforce a rape culture. As noted by Marshall University, “rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.” Faculty members can push back against rape culture on their campus by lobbying the institution to ensure transparency in reporting statistics about rape on campus, developing orientation material on consent and advocating for student survivors of sexual violence. They can also push back in their classrooms by teaching about rape culture.

My students balk at the suggestion that rape is normalized, but I have found that asking them to recount the plot of the movie Superbad — young men hunt to secure alcohol so they can get young women drunk enough to have sex with them — is effective in demonstrating how normal rape is, especially among young people. I explain that part of rape culture is our reliance on victim blaming and how we teach people not to get raped rather than teaching people not to rape. These problematic efforts suggest that victims need to take steps to protect themselves from assault and says nothing to or about potential perpetrators.

Image credit: Tumblinfeminist

Rape Culture Activity

I have developed a classroom activity that I have found useful for teaching the concept of rape culture.

I begin by presenting my students with the following scenario, which I borrow from my days working as an undergraduate peer educator for a group now called Healthycats at Texas State University.

Mary and Bob know each other from class, and they decide to go out together one evening. They go to a bar, and each consumes several drinks. Mary goes to the bathroom, and when she comes out she has her shirt untucked and her bra is off. She suggests they go back to her room and order dinner in. They eat dinner and lie next to each other on the floor. Bob caresses her face and kisses her. Mary enjoys it and kisses him back. Bob then carries Mary to the bed and kisses her again. Mary realizes what is happening and says, “No, I don’t want to do this.” Bob removes all of her clothes. Mary mumbles, “No,” very softly and then realizes that she will probably have to give in.

Then I instruct the students to work in small groups to rank this scenario using a Likert scale that ranges from 1 (meaning “not rape”) to 5 (meaning “rape”).

When we reconvene as a class, I ask each group to report their ranking of the scenario with Mary and Bob, and I record them on the whiteboard. The rankings usually range from 2 to 5, with most numbers falling between 3.5 and 4.5. (Oh yeah, students always seem to want a 0.5.)

Next, I ask the groups that ranked the scenario with a score of 3.5 or below to explain why they gave the score that they did, to offer what about the scenario led to that score. As these groups share their decision making with the rest of the class, I take notes on the board. After we have exhausted their comments, I then ask those groups who offered a score of 4 or 4.5 what they would like to add to the list. And then, finally, I invite the groups that gave a 5 to share their reasons for this ranking.

The students who label the scenario as rape usually note that Mary said no (more than once) and explain that giving in does not sound like something she wants to be doing. Those groups prioritize what Mary has said when they gave a score of 5 (meaning rape).

Without fail, the responses given by those groups who offered a score below 5 include references to what Mary has done, what her behavior signifies regardless of what she actually says. Mary took off her bra; Mary invited Bob up to her room; Mary did not physically fight back. Sometimes a student will even suggest that Mary was “asking for it” or question what Mary expected when she acted in such ways.

With those rationales articulated, I then take time to unpack the students’ explanations by asking a few key questions. First I ask, “How many times does someone have to say no before it is rape?” The response is always once, but then I point out that Mary said no twice, yet most of the class fails to label this scenario as rape. The students usually push back, insisting that Mary’s nos were not very forceful or were part of larger mixed messages being sent.

Second, I ask, “Are there different levels of sexual engagement — kissing, fondling, oral sex, vaginal sex — etc.? Does giving consent to one activity, like oral sex, mean consent has been given for all sexual activities?” And always, “Does there have to be physical force for it to be rape?”

Highlighting Rape Culture

I have been running this scenario in my classes for 15 years, across two continents, and the experience has not changed much. Students’ rankings of the scenario between Mary and Bob are largely the same today as they were in the past, as are the justifications. What is different now, however, is my ability to bring the exercise back to the topic of rape culture.

Toward the end of the class activity, after we have spent a great deal of time parsing out whether Mary consented or was forced, I point out that a definite pattern can be found in their explanations for the rankings they gave. I suggest that they review what is on the board and identify the pattern that emerges. Sometimes they see it. Just as often they do not, and I have to point out to them that none of their feedback had anything to do with Bob. What Bob did or did not do. What Bob’s responsibility is in this situation.

As a class, we reflect on how this pattern is an example in and of itself of rape culture. While considering the scenario, and how to rate it, students paid the role and responsibility of Bob no mind and focused solely on Mary and what she did to bring this upon herself. Once this pattern is brought to the surface, we then discuss the responsibility that Bob has in the situation, but it often feels perfunctory on the part of the students.

For the most part, students do not want to hold Bob responsible for anything in the scenario. He was not the one who initiated the launch sequence, as they seem to view it. Mary initiated the events in question — inviting him out, taking off her bra, inviting him to her place, kissing him back — although they disagree about what exactly started the sequence. Once she started it, it apparently could not be stopped. Sometimes students even express pity for Bob, that he did not realize that Mary was not interested (if that is the case). “Poor guy,” they seem to lament, “she should have given him better cues than saying no twice.”

Every semester, I am reminded that more work needs to be done, but the value of rape culture as a schema, a way to organize various pieces of information and the relationship among them, cannot be overstated. Being able to bring back students’ responses to the elements of rape culture allows for connections to be made between a “real-life” scenario and the political and ideological intersections within rape culture.

While it is disheartening that the responses have not shifted much since the 1990s, I am glad that more of my students are familiar with the concept of rape culture. And I find real value in the exercise itself as it provides an opportunity for students to recognize their own values and beliefs in action — which I imagine they find quite different from their values and beliefs in theory.

Queering Scholarship: Creating Our Own Spaces In Academia

Cat PauséIn this guest post, Dr. Cat Pausé (@FOMNZ) encourages marginalized scholars — especially queer and fat academics — to create spaces for themselves and their communities by publishing.  She reflects on her experience co-editing her new text, Queering Fat Embodiment, and offers tips for others who may pursue such scholarly projects.  Enjoy!

See Dr. Pausé’s  full biography at the end of the post.


Queering Scholarship: Creating Our Own Spaces

In many ways, I am living the dream. I was hired into a permanent faculty position at a university in New Zealand. There is no tenure system here, so as long as I do my job well, and the students keep enrolling, my future as an academic in this role is secure. In fact, I just got promoted to Senior Lecturer.

In my role, however, I find myself often an outsider. In some ways, being set apart is an advantage. The prestige that accompanies an American PhD pedigree cannot be overstated. In other ways, however, the outsider status disadvantages me as a scholar. Both my teaching subject and my research subject are marginal within academia. I found this to be especially challenging when looking for a faculty position. I discovered that only around 50 schools in the world have Human Development programs (and most of those reside in the United States). This often led me to apply for jobs outside of my immediate field. I foolishly spent hours preparing application materials for developmental psychology postings, and post docs in sociology. And I found, as my advisor suggested, that the boundaries between disciplines are strictly defined and difficult to transverse within academia. Even as we extoll inter- and post-disciplinary research as a way of the future, departments continue to reject scholars with the ‘wrong’ PhD. In this way, I was very lucky to find a position in a Human Development program.

My commitment to social justice also positions me as an outsider within academia. It disrupts my pedagogy, challenges my scholarship, and often results in the side eye from many whom believe that there is no room for the political within academia. Many have written on this tension, including some for Conditionally Accepted. My colleague, Sandra Grey, has recently published a piece on academic activists, and I am grateful to have her as a sounding board, sympathetic ear, and – more often than not – someone who encourages me to take risks and cause problems.

As a researcher, my focus on fat studies is dismissed by many. This isn’t real scholarship, they argue, but silliness. Fat people? Pffft! As others who choose to study marginalised populations have found, the research dollars are not accessible, and your more mainstream colleagues may humour your expertise, but it’s unlikely that they will respect it. Choosing to study a marginalised population of which you are a member is even more hazardous, as it leaves you open to criticism that you are simply engaging in vanity projects.

One way of moving forward in this, I have found, is through publishing. Colleagues can say what they like about my field of research, but they cannot ignore the growing length of my CV. Now that there is a Fat Studies journal, the likelihood of my scholarship being published in a peer reviewed arena has increased substantially (although there are feminist journals that will publish in this area as well). Edited texts are another avenue for my scholarship; within fat studies, edited texts such as The Fat Studies Reader, Fat Studies in the UK, and Bodies Out of Bounds, become the textbooks of our classrooms and the artefacts of our discipline. (I’m looking forward to the publication of two upcoming texts, The Fat Pedagogy Reader: Challenging Weight-Based Oppression in Education from Peter Lang Publishing, and Fat Sex: New Directions in Theory and Activism from Ashgate). And many scholars have taken to blogging and other forms of social media to disseminate their work and promote the knowledge production.

I recently had the chance to co-edit a fat studies text for Ashgate. Working with my co-editors, Jackie Wykes and Sam Murray, we pulled together a collection of essays that consider how fat embodiment may be/is being queered. Our text, Queering Fat Embodiment, was published earlier this year.

Queering Fat Embodiment

The challenges of editing a scholarly text are similar to editing a scholarly journal. Working within deadlines, chasing up academics for revisions, ensuring style and formatting across a range of writers – these are all common challenges of editing. Editing a text, however, is unique from a scholarly journal, in that you do not have the support of peer reviewers until the text is complete. Yourself, and co-editors if you are lucky enough to have them, are responsible for the vision, the quality control, and the end product.

The process, while challenging, is also very rewarding. Each of our contributing authors brought a unique perspective to the central theme of the book. The chapters introduce different ways of thinking of fat embodiment, and draws from different fields and disciplines. I am confident in the contribution this text makes to the field of fat studies, and I am very proud of this cool accomplishment.

I’ve given some thought to what I’ve learned in the process, and thought I would share it for others who may be interested in editing an academic text in the future:

  • Have a great publisher. Working with Ashgate was a dream. Our editor, Neil Jordan, was the perfect combination of firm and flexible. He also supported our vision for the text from the very beginning, and that made a huge difference.
  • Have co-editors. I had never edited a book before; neither had my co-editors. But we all brought different strengths to the process, and our book was stronger for this. Having co-editors also meant that we could draw support from one another, and work through tricky revision requests as a team.
  • Accept that it will take more time than expected. The process of completing Queering Fat Embodiment, from writing the proposal to having it hit the shelf, took almost four years. This is much longer than what I expected going into the project. I think this timeline can be reduced, if you have at least one editor who is working on the book as a priority across the entire project. We had three working academics that focused on the book for periods of time, but often put it back on the shelf when immediate needs arose.
  • Be willing to laugh. There are a lot of absurdities when editing an academic text. Trying to conceptualise how the contributing chapters will fit together in a larger narrative can be giggle inspiring. As is staying up an entire weekend because you decided to index yourselves. (Pro-tip: Let the professionals do this part.) I found that I had to let go of my annoyance when colleagues assumed the title of the text was Querying Fat Embodiment, instead of Queering Fat Embodiment. Reminding myself to enjoy the process, rather than just obsess and stress about the work, is something I tried to do often.
  • Embrace social media. As our contributing authors came from all other the world, we decided to launch the book using Google Hangouts on Air. This allowed many of those involved in the book to be involved; it also let anyone watch the video live and engage with us (and now we have it captured in YouTube). After the launch, we embarked on a social media book tour (which this piece is a stop on; wave!), wanting to reach as many individuals of interest as possible. We have stopped on blogs, online magazines, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, etc.

If you find that traditional structures aren’t making space for your scholarship, create your own. Edit a collection or a special issue of a journal. Host a conference (hosting it online makes it available to even more participants around the world). Start a blog, or guest post on an established blog. Your work is important, and there are many avenues you can pursue to ensure that your voice is part of the conversation.


Biography: Dr. Cat Pausé is a Lecturer in Human Development and a Fat Studies Researcher at Massey University, New Zealand. Her research focuses on the construction, revision, and maintenance of spoiled identities and its effects on health and well-being of marginalised populations, specifically fat individuals. She has published in top journals such as Human Development, Feminist Review, HERDSA, and Narrative Inquiries in Bioethics, and her co-edited book, Queering Fat Embodiment, has just been released by Ashgate. Dr. Pausé hosted the “Fat Studies: Reflective Intersections” conference in 2012, and guest edited an issue on intersectionality for the Fat Studies Journal. Her work has been featured on The Huffington Post, Yahoo, NPR, and 20/20.  She also writes at her own blog, Friend of Marilyn, on fat acceptance and activism.