Rape Culture on Campus

It’s finals time at my college, and one of the ways that our student gov helps us de-stress is to fund various fun activities. One of these was massages. However the posters for these massages were highly offensive in my opinion. This is a cross post of my response to them on our campus political blog, and an explanation of why rape culture can be so harmful (without ever using the word rape culture and putting off every non-feminist in the world!) I’m posting it here because I think it’s good for us all to remember that the little things that happen in our day to day lives are just as important as calling out Rick Perry for his horrific ad or making birth control more readily available. I also hope that it can be an example for those younger skeptics and feminists on how you can address serious issues without coming off as a nutjob, and show how things like rape culture exist in concrete ways. Enjoy 🙂

Walking around campus recently, I’m sure you’ve probably noticed the fact that there are some posters for “massages for finals” plastered around like any normal PR campaign. I’m sure you’ve all noticed the fact that they include a somewhat racy tagline: “Do you like to be touched?” Now I feel as if the vast majority of this school would look at those posters, chuckle a bit, and move on with their day. I have to admit that I looked at those posters and was infuriated.

Before you all tell me I’m overreacting and that they’re just a joke, I’d like to make one thing very clear: oftentimes we joke about things that are incredibly harmful. Those jokes tell the people who have suffered from those things that their suffering can be made light of. And when we say that it’s an overreaction to get upset about a joke, we tell sufferers that when they have legitimate problems, they should not be allowed to voice their complaints. When someone is made uncomfortable by what you’re joking about, it is not their responsibility to “get over” whatever makes them uncomfortable, but rather it’s your responsibility to try to understand why they’re uncomfortable. Certainly there are instances of people being too uptight, but when a joke plays on a cultural meme of a creeper, or someone who makes inappropriate and overly forward advances on unwilling women, this is not a case of being too uptight.

One additional point: I am not trying to attack anyone here, not the people who made the posters or designed them or found them funny. We live in a culture in which these kinds of jokes permeate, so we can hardly say that one person is in the wrong for living out that culture. We also cannot expect one single person to correct those mistakes or feel guilt about them. What we can expect is that the community as a whole will take responsibility for what is going on, start a dialogue and address what the problem might be. We can expect that people might be open or willing to change their attitudes.

So with those caveats out of the way, I’d like to address why I feel these posters are harmful and in bad taste. First and foremost, the tone of the posters (a picture of a pointing finger and a suggestive face) makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Particularly females. These are the sorts of comments that we have to live with day in and day out (possibly not so much in Nice Minnesota, but it’s still present). Women are expected to be comfortable with men making advances on them in any and all situations, and often those advances come off in the kind of tone that the poster does. It can make life extremely stressful and uncomfortable.

Second, these are the sorts of comments that people make when they are sexually harassing another person. As someone who has had jobs where I have had to put up with comments like this on a regular basis, it makes you feel uncomfortable. It makes you feel as if your existence has been sexualized and it means that no matter what your behavior is, you have to be careful not to say or do something that could be interpreted sexually because it will be noticed and commented upon. While I realize that a mere sign cannot do all of this, for any person who has had to deal with similar situations, or who has had to deal with street harassment, the sign brings back all of these memories and all of the uncomfortable feelings that go with them. And perhaps more importantly, it does that on purpose. The joke is meant to remind us of those sorts of situations. That means that it makes your campus an unfriendly place to be, and it contributes to the idea that it’s ok to say inappropriate things as long as you phrase it like a joke. I think we owe more to our fellow students than to condone the idea that they should have to accept cheap come ons as long as it’s meant in jest.

Additionally, I’d like to comment on how a phrase like that might feel to someone who has been raped or sexually abused. Now I think it’s bad enough that when I walk down the hall I have to hear the voice of some creep who harassed me ringing in my head. But imagine if that was the voice of my rapist. Again, this poster uses words that are like what a rapist or a sexual harasser might say and that give off the general feeling of someone else pushing into your space in a sexual manner. Remembering things similar to a situation of trauma, reading words similar to those spoken, or feeling things similar to what you felt can result in a person being triggered. I know many people who hate the word “trigger” because they think it’s just a way for some people to make the world overly sensitive to their needs and desires. I’d like to offer some evidence that (at the very least in the case of rape or sexual abuse victims) triggering is a real thing.

There are numerous studies (like this one from Yale or this one from Harvard) that show that abuse changes the way our brains process emotions, fear and pain. Although this includes things like physical, emotional and child abuse, it also means sexual abuse. That includes rape. These studies mean that if you have been a victim of these sorts of situations, you are highly sensitive to emotions like fear or panic, and anything that could be viewed as a threat will be viewed as a threat. If you have a memory associated with those or similar words, or even the intent and feeling behind it, you may be triggered to feel emotions that you cannot control: usually panic, fear and anxiety. Being triggered is a real and painful thing. It is out of your control and can be embarrassing and debilitating. These posters pose a real risk to trigger rape and abuse victims.

As a community, we have a responsibility to those around us to be sensitive. Most sources indicate that 1 in 4 women on a college campus are rape victims (there is some debate…some numbers go as low as 2%, although those discount alcohol and drug related rape). These numbers show that there are women on our campus who have had to deal with this issue. This is real and it affects the people around us. We would not put up posters with jokes about cancer, about PTSD, about eating disorders or other, supposedly more serious sources of trauma. I believe that these posters and the fact that there has been no comment on them is a sign that our community is not sensitive to the real repercussions of things like rape and sexual harassment, and I believe that this is a place for us to start to address that issue.

Previous post

Homeopathetic: Part 2

Next post

Teen Skepchick's Reality Checks 12.12



Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at


  1. December 11, 2011 at 7:34 pm —

    Are those posters in every university in the country? Because I never noticed them in my university. Either that or I really didn’t care and I instantly forgot about them the moment I set my eyes off of them. Anyways, what a weird bunch of posters. How are they supposed to help for the finals? Nothing will help me in the electricity and magnetism exam. Nothing. Darn it, I should be studying.

  2. December 12, 2011 at 12:15 am —

    Perhaps I am privileged in the fact I have never experience rape or sexual harassment, but before reading this I would have never thought about that poster in light of rape. Mildly sexual, yes, but not like a person that is forcing himself upon you. In fact, I would say the poster is allowing you to make a choice; if you want physical contact you have an opportunity for it, and if not, you can walk away and forget about it.

  3. December 12, 2011 at 2:10 am —

    I saw a billboard outside my local shopping centre the other day, and the message was something like ‘You don’t want to wake up to a nightmare’.

    I was so incensed at the blatant victim-blaming, that I can’t exactly remember what it was meant to be advertising. It was probably about safe drinking, but ugggghhhh.

    • December 12, 2011 at 2:14 am —

      Just now I’m realising that my comment makes no sense.

      The image was a picture of a young woman passed out on a bed or a couch or something. That coupled with the message made me jump to the victim-blaming conclusion. Not just the message.

Leave a reply