by Will Greene
Written for Diversity and Difference (LARTS 221, Fall 2013)
Institutions of higher learning have long acted as forums for students and faculty to engage in critical discourse, to respectfully challenge not only others’ beliefs, but their own as well. What happens, though, when the student dialogue leaves the classroom and campus altogether, and lands in the arms of online social media? David Hookstead, a political science major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently had a letter to the editor published in the student publication The Badger Herald, entitled “Rape Culture Does Not Exist.” The misinformed and arguably misogynistic letter attempts to do away with the notion of men’s accountability for the pervasiveness of rape. Touching on a delicate topic that is being increasingly discussed and made visible on college campuses, the letter provoked a barrage of online responses from various outspoken adversaries and supporters. David Hookstead’s letter to The Badger Herald reveals men’s troublesome sense of how their responsibility and privilege relate to the prevalence of rape in our society. However, Hookstead’s opponents’ use of social media begs the question of whether or not Web 2.0 provides a practical framework with the conditions necessary to increase awareness and provoke action against a rape culture.
Hookstead’s frustration with the placing of blame for rape’s prevalence embodies an unfortunately unenlightened side of the conversation about community responsibility vs. individual responsibility, and its relationship to gender. Claiming it unfair for women to antagonize men as a group, Hookstead argues that we should be focusing on “stopping evil people when we can.” Despite acknowledging the fact that far fewer women commit acts of sexual violence and far fewer men are the victims of these acts, Hookstead places men as the victim of not a rape culture, but a culture of male hatred, where “women are so desperate to demonize men that they’ll lie about being raped” (Hookstead). He has good reason to focus only on false accusations of rape instead of the many men who will never serve a punishment for their actions. Larry May and Robert Strikwerda argue that all men actually “benefit from the prevalence of rape in that women are made to feel dependent on men for protection against potential rapists” (148). Arguably, Hookstead, whether conscious of this or not, would like to see himself remain in the dominant position, where, as a man, he is the only one who may decide if a woman was raped or not, and the only one who can do anything about it. This argument is the basis for May and Strikwerda’s claim for men’s “collective responsibility for rape” (134). Hookstead says we “can’t always stop criminals,” suggesting that illegal activities such as rape will always exist because inherently evil people will always exist; therefore, there is no need to single out men in placing blame and responsibility. In opposition, May and Strikwerda would charge that males, from very early childhood, are “given mixed signals about misbehavior . . . [and] are treated as if (it) is expected, even welcome” (138). Rape, unfortunately, is a logical extreme extrapolation of this idea, because, at its root, it is male misbehavior. Thus, through the patterns in which they are socialized, men have also come to expect this misbehavior from their own kind, explaining Hookstead’s apathy and aversion towards focusing on male behavior.
The concept of male privilege and the normalization of the attributes of privileged groups offer another filter through which to examine Hookstead’s letter. To ground understanding further, “male privilege” refers to the concept that men are placed higher in the social hierarchy and therefore receive “special rights, advantages, or immunities” and consequently an unequal amount of influence and power (Oxford Online Dictionary). The term “rape culture” “aggressively paints men as dangerous, as the root of evil,” an offensive notion to Hookstead. However, any “culture” significant enough to encompass an entire society is the product of male behavior. This is, as Stephanie Wildman puts it, the “normalization of male privilege”: “Members of society are . . . measured against the characteristics that are held by those privileged” (32). Yes, men are dangerous because they established the standard against which all behavior is judged. As long as men are the privileged group, they bear responsibility for upholding a higher standard. The courts men control must work towards bringing rapists to justice, the families men control must raise their children in an environment where a respect for women and their bodies is enforced, and the entertainment and advertising industries that men control must produce material that doesn’t condone sexual violence.
Even though Hookstead’s letter demonstrates the kind of thinking that contributes to rape normalization, we must examine the equally significant nature of the response to his widely circulated letter. Whereas in the past this letter to the editor would most likely be contained to the University of Wisconsin campus, the advent of Web 2.0 allows for the conversation to spread quickly to a global scale. And the response has been fiery, with 1,106 comments on the original online post, and thousands more from other college publications, the blogosphere, and mainstream sources like the Huffington Post. Many of the responses are in opposition to Hookstead and his opinions, ranging from angry comments such as “I am ashamed to go to the same school as this guy” (Shut Up Hookstead), to open letters attempting civil discourse. Therein the question lies: does all this publicized outrage contribute to the dismantling of a rape culture? Is it effective in improving our social environment? Suzanne Pharr would say no, “suggesting that we . . . learn how to include the long-term work of transforming people as we work for social justice” (96). The communication and interactions that social media fosters are decidedly short-term, where confrontation comes all too easily and each cyber-challenge made is as effortlessly ignored. Hookstead even acknowledges the futility of the impending online backlash, by saying in his letter, “this last part is likely going to blow up my news feed with hate tweets.” He carries on anyways, implying he doesn’t give a second thought what people online think of him, already numbed to the effects of wifi-activists.
Pharr’s idea of “transformational politics” centers around the building of strong communities, and the anonymity and isolation of social media does nothing to help with this. Simply reading the comments posted on the letter sheds light on how the original topic of discussion is abandoned and how quickly the language overflows with the firing of insults (“It is always better when the stupid makes themselves known” [McGee Allianora]) and name-calling back and forth (“reason and evidence are anathema to feminist gender bigots” [Tracheal]). True, Hookstead has lots of work to do in order to remove his veil of privilege and acknowledge the reality of rape culture, but he will not be encouraged to do so by a continuous onslaught of insults and attacks. Pharr writes that “To live in a community requires a deeper level of caring and interaction than many of us currently exhibit in our drive for individualism” (97). This caring and interaction is difficult both to accept and to realize on the internet, even with the best of intentions, so how do we foster a community that allows men like Hookstead to feel comfortable enough to explore their privilege and problematic thinking?
Research done on rape awareness education supports the implementation of transformational, community-based activism, suggesting that meaningful change in the rape culture requires different tactics than those being used to confront Hookstead. Elena Klaw and her associates, in their paper entitled “Challenging Rape Culture: Awareness, Emotion and Action Through Campus Acquaintance Rape Education,” discuss the results of a study in which both male and female college students were put through a semester-long rape awareness course. They conclude that “action against rape emerges from fundamental changes in students’ world view, self-concept, and interpersonal patterns of relating” (Klaw et al. 58). An intensive college-level course provides the right environment to meet these requirements. Inane online comments and Tumblr posts, perhaps not. Through the process undertaken in Klaw’s study, male students were made increasingly aware of their role in the abundance of rape culture, made to confront strong emotions of “frustration and helplessness” and, in some cases, “enabled . . . to take action against rape” (59). However, highlighting what is missing most from the responses to Hookstead, “the supportive environment . . . appears essential to facilitating the rigorous ideological transformations required to challenge rape culture” (Klaw et al. 61). In “Rape Culture Exists: An Open Letter to University of Wisconsin’s David Hookstead,” Krystie Lee Yondoli cites many facts such as, “nine out of every 10 rape victims are female, and only three percent of men have experienced rape or attempted assault in their lifetime.” Assuming statements like this are effective in increasing male awareness of the problems associated with rape culture, the antagonistic tone exemplified by phrases like “you are right about one thing though,” and “here’s to hoping you learn an important lesson,” offers anything but support. Yondoli’s outrage is understandable and certainly acceptable, but does not set up a supportive environment, and is not conducive to the creation of Pharr’s idyllic definition of community. If the goal is the exposure and eventual destruction of a rape culture, we must all feel as if we’re on the same side.
Ultimately, Hookstead’s letter exhibits the problematic thinking behind male behavior in our society, and the response to the letter provides a successful example of the generally unproductive nature of antagonism and quarrel, which manifest themselves so effortlessly on social media. In an age where interpersonal interactions increasingly occur more frequently over social media, we must confront whether or not it is bringing us closer together or pushing us farther apart. Yes, the web can connect people from all corners of the globe, but this requires isolation from one’s immediate environment. The universal access that the Internet provides is a double-edged sword; everybody has the opportunity to let their voice be heard, but many of these voices do not necessarily promote a positive social environment. A simple Google search of “rape culture does not exist” will reveal plenty of writing that agrees with Hookstead’s point of view. The vastness of the World Wide Web allows anyone to find a corner occupied by people who are just like them, and to isolate themselves in this pre-existing community—in this case, men unwilling to take responsibility for rape. This makes it much easier to feel comfortable with ourselves and not challenge our own patterns of behavior and thinking. If we are to fight something as culturally pervasive as rape and privilege, the discussion has to move off the Internet and into the real world, where Pharr’s strategy for building a community can be implemented through genuinely human interactions.
Hookstead, David. “‘Rape Culture’ Does Not Exist.” Letter to the Editor. Badger Herald 4 Nov. 2013. Web.
Klaw, Elena L., Kimberly A. Lonsway, Dianne R. Berg, Craig R. Waldo, Chevon Kothari, Christopher J. Mazurek, and Kurt E. Hegeman. “Challenging Rape Culture.” Women & Therapy 28.2 (2005): 47-63. Print.
Pharr, Suzanne. In the Time of the Right: Reflections on Liberation. Berkeley, CA: Chardon, 1996. 96-99. Print.
May, Larry, and Robert Strikwerda. “Men in groups: collective responsibility for rape.” Hypatia 9.2 (1994): 134+. Academic OneFile. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.
McGee Allianora, Nov. 2013, online comment.
“Privilege.” oxforddictionaries.com. Oxford, 2014. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.
Tracheal, Nov. 2013, online comment.
Wildman, Stephanie M. with Adrienne D. Davis. “Language and Silence: Making Systems of Privilege Visible.” Readings for Diversity and Social Justice. Ed. Maurianne Adams, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Rosie Castañeda, Heather W. Hackman, Madeline L. Peters, and Ximena Zúñiga. New York: Routledge, 2000. 81-82. Print.
Yandoli, Krystie. “Rape Culture Exists: An Open Letter To University Of Wisconsin’s David Hookstead.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 07 Nov. 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.