Monthly Archives: August, 2014

An Open Letter to Campus Rape Prevention Training Videos

Dear Campus Rape Prevention Training Videos,

You’re so slick with your semi-pro actors and your use of hip language. We think the companies that made you will really get a lot of mileage out of you. You’ll prove profitable long-term investments now that universities across the country are anxious to comply with federal mandates to offer all incoming students some kind of rape prevention education.

You do a great job explaining what consent looks like. For example, one of you has this whole “can I use your cell phone” analogy. Powerful. I mean, you really get to the heart of the matter when you show the difference between coming up to a guy who’s sleeping and pulling his cell phone out of his pocket versus sitting down next to a guy and asking to use his phone, followed by a back-and-forth about which things on the phone he’s ok with another person playing with. That’s exactly like sexual assault versus affirmative consent.

Also cutting edge are the culture-changing bystander interventions you espouse. Watch how we stop a guy who’s about to go rape a girl. “Uh, Joe, that’s, um, not cool. Let’s get something to eat instead.” We totally get how getting a guy something to eat will fundamentally change the rape culture. And we totally totally agree that committing a felony is “not cool.” Fer sure.

We all want young people to go to school, party, and have sex in an environment that is free from coercion. The problem is, videos, you mostly seem to think that the only way that can happen is if some men step in when other men are coercive and violent, right? Like, “Don’t worry, baby, if someone is trying to rape you; some knight in shining armor will come along and…um…ask the potential rapist if he wants a snack.”

How do you think the women viewing you now feel, as they hope that the cell phone analogy is powerful enough to stop rapists, as they hold their breaths wondering if Joe will, in fact, decide to have a burger or shoot some pool or play beer pong instead of assaulting the woman he’s been targeting all night?

The real question is, videos, what do you have to say when bystanders did not intervene on behalf of the girl? Pretty much nothing, that’s what.

Is there some reason you are so averse to telling a woman what she can do to intervene on her own behalf?

As videos, you could easily show what it looks and sounds like to shout “NOOOOOO!” and “BACK THE FUCK OFF!” and (because not all guys listen in such circumstances) to grab the testicles and twist them, and how a guy typically reacts to that kind of pain. You could show exactly how to land a kick to the groin or head, and how to make a sharp beak with five fingers to poke the eye of one’s assailant.

Oh, feeling squeamish? Imagining the men viewing you now saying “oooooch” and grabbing their crotches protectively? They probably would do that when they watch you. And getting men to imagine THAT might be an effective rape prevention strategy.

Indeed, that would be a whole lot more effective and specific than the clip of the local campus police specialist at the University of Montana who says you can “come and see him in his office to talk about the self-defense courses that he offers.”   (Although a step in the right direction, University of Montana video! Now, show us a knee to the groin.)

What do you imagine women would feel and do if they had the opportunity to watch women like themselves respond powerfully and effectively to enforce their bodily boundaries? We’re women and as we watch you we’ve been feeling frustrated that we only see women as damsels in distress.

Campus rape prevention training videos, it’s time to change your tune. By all means, stay slick, stay hip (although know that if you’re actually thinking things like “slick” and “hip”, you might be stuck in 1974) – just get it right.

Sincerely yours,

Martha McCaughey & Jill Cermele


An Open Letter to the NPR Weekend Edition Staff and the Parents of College Students You Misled


Dear NPR Weekend Edition Staff and the Parents of College Students You Misled:

The August 24 program “Weekend Edition” produced a story on how some universities are “tackling sexual assault before parties start”, which underscores how important it is for parents, as well as colleges and universities, to prepare students in advance, and to remind them of the risk while offering them strategies to reduce it.  This broadcast featured a clip of a conversation between a father of an incoming University of New Hampshire student, who is a doctor, and his daughter, “Kelly”.  When Kelly asks her father specifically for advice (“What should I know about consent and assault and rape?”), Dad offers Kelly the following advice:

  1. Anticipate a situation before you get into it
  2. Always travel with friends
  3. Have a planned list of activities, night and day
  4. Avoid isolation
  5. Avoid substances

Kelly feels better, and Kelly’s Dad, who is clearly educated, informed, and appropriately concerned about his daughter’s safety and well-being, has done his job.  And yet, what has she been told, really?  Don’t ever be alone, don’t ever drink or use drugs, and keep yourself on a preset busy schedule.  In other (vague) words, avoid, curtail, limit, distract, and then hope for the best.  She might as well live at home and take all her courses online.

The take-home message of that list of rape avoidance strategies — inadvertently offered, perhaps, but communicated nonetheless — is that once danger is imminent, the outcome is a given.  If one’s avoidance measures fail, there is no advice provided, implying that women do not have the option of fighting back.

And yet research has shown that girls and women are capable of safely and effectively resisting rape and sexual assault.  Self-defense training is one critical way to teach, and allow for the practice of, active and clear strategies for things you can say and do in a potentially dangerous situation, where someone is trying to rape or assault you.  And the research tells us that these strategies make women feel safer, make them more empowered to set and assert their boundaries in a range of situations – including social and dating situations – and can effectively prevent an assault or a rape from occurring.

So NPR and parents, please have these conversations, and please include not only a guy’s legal obligation not to attack but a gal’s legal right to defend herself. Here’s our script for daughters:

If someone tries to rape or assault you, one thing you need to know is that you have the right to protect yourself – verbally or physically.  You have the right to tell someone that what they are saying to you, how they are touching you, is not what you want, is not okay, is a crime; you have the right to yell and scream and call for help and make a scene to attract the attention of someone who might be able to help you.  And you also have the right to physically resist – by pushing, shoving, hitting, kicking, with any part of your body that you can use – hands, elbows, hips, knees, feet – and against any part of their body – testicles, face, abdomen, arms, legs.   And, you need to know these are all things you can do, and have the right to do, but that if you are in danger, we trust you to make the best decision for yourself that is going to keep you feeling as safe in the moment as possible.  And that means that while we want you to know that it is okay for you to do these things, it doesn’t mean you have to or you should.  You do what’s best for you, and we will love and trust and support you, no matter what.

Not that anyone asked, but here’s our script for sons:

If you want to do something physically intimate with someone, tell them and ask them. If the person you’re with has been drinking or using drugs, consider them incapable of offering meaningful consent and move on.  If the person is reasonably sober and makes it explicitly clear that the desires are mutual, great. Do not assume you can pick up signals or hints.  Do not ever attempt to impose yourself or your will onto another person.  It’s neither sexy nor legal.  Don’t treat anyone as an “easy lay.”  If you don’t understand these principles, you just might get your ass kicked.

That’s the way to tackle sexual assault before the party starts.


Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey

“Clear Communication” Must Include Self-Defense


If you’ve been following the hilarious Tumblr site, “Confused Cats Against Feminism,” you’ll have seen this dog who says “all cats love being chased, you can just tell.”  This joke is funny precisely because we know that what the dog believes is wrong, and it mocks the attitude through which a man might dismiss the feminist insistence that women actually have sexual boundaries. If a guy thinks — no, knows — that, deep down, a woman “wants it” and is certain that he “can just tell,” then our rape prevention strategy of telling people to “communicate clearly” is not enough.

Given what a common problem date, acquaintance, and party rape is on college campuses, students are routinely told to “communicate clearly” so that their dates aren’t left to read facial expressions and eye movements. Of course, this presumes that a guy is sexually assaulting out of just “not realizing”, or being insensitive to, the fact that the woman doesn’t want the same thing he wants, and that if he had only known he’d have backed off immediately. While this might be true in some instances, we know this is not necessarily the case, as evidenced by victims’ – and some perpetrators’ – reports that saying “NO” does not always stop an assailant.

Our culture teaches, and therefore some guys learn, that guys’ opinions and ways of defining situations are more important than those of the female persuasion. To take a hypothetical example, if a guy’s buddies (and his men’s magazines, and most TV shows, movies, blogs, and news reports) all convey that when a woman is eating chocolate, she gets so excited that she’ll want sex with whomever is in her company, then this guy will be reading, understanding, and even thinking empathically about this chocolate-consuming woman (or at least his idea of women), as wanting to have sex with him.

Pepe le Pew

The 1960s Warner Brothers Pepé Le Pew cartoon humorously illustrates this point. In that cartoon, a male skunk chances upon a black female cat who has unfortunately had a stripe of white paint spilled across her back. Since we know she’s a cat, we understand that she finds the skunk repugnant. Pepé Le Pew is comically clueless as he chases the nonverbal kitty and repeatedly attempts to capture her. At every turn, the skunk interprets every act of resistance on the cat’s part as a further invitation to him to pursue her. When she attempts to run away from him, and when she resists him by hitting him over the head, he construes her as “flirting.” He concludes that “she wants to play hard to get” and that “she is shy” at other points when she shows what we know is opposition to him. At one point, the skunk expounds, “She thinks that by running away, she can make herself more attractive to me. How right she is!”

Now, in the world of cartoon skunks, we might assume that a female skunk would indeed desire Pepé le Pew, simply because she too is a skunk, and we recognize that Penelope does not want Pepé because she is really a cat. However, in the world of human beings, as Virginia Tech sociologist Neal King’s analysis reminds us, there is no category through which a guy can assume or presume a woman is sexually interested in him. Yet in a rape culture that constructs women as sexually available to men for the taking, a guy might arrogantly  (mis)interpret any number of things – a woman’s race, social class status, college Greek house, academic status, level of attractiveness, gestures, and behaviors – as a desire for sex with him.  But none of those things can, or should, provide a guy any assurance whatsoever of his desirability to a woman.  Sadly, though, as Prof. King (p. 874) puts it, “[M]en can interpret anything that women do as signs of desire.”

Given the all-too-common tendency of guys interpreting, Pepé le Pew style, women’s behavior as signals of sexual interest, Dr. King concludes that no amount of telling men or women to communicate better will necessarily bring about sexual encounters that are truly respectful and consensual. If the problem is the default assumption, “She wants to have sex with me!”, then telling men and women to communicate more clearly won’t reduce the number of sexual assaults on dates and at parties. King (2003: 874) argues that the rape prevention strategy that emphasizes the victimization of women “may be the least constructive part of our project.” Further, he argues that affirming women’s vulnerability (as opposed to emphasizing their willingness and ability to resist rape) and encouraging men to know women more, and more deeply, are bound to backfire on us.

A good way to challenge men on their sense of certainty is to get them to question how they “know” what they “know” about women, to make them feel less certain than they may already feel.

Furthermore, if we teach women the techniques that allow them to back up their verbal communication with physical resistance, then we do two things: we give them the practical, in-the-moment tools to thwart a sexual assault, and we provide to men a series of behaviors and words far less likely to be (mis)interpreted as sexual interest.  Teaching women to defend themselves, publicizing their ability widely, and pressing the point that women resist might just challenge men’s sense of sexual certainty.

Postscript: We regard it as no coincidence that Neal King has cats

Top Ten Links Jane Loves

Ever feel like putting down the reading and just watching something funny?  Well, look no further!  Below are links to some of our favorite videos inspired by smart, nuanced, tongue-in-cheek feminist critique.  And they say feminists don’t have a sense of humor!  (Q:  How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?  A:  THAT’S NOT FUNNY!).

So get out your popcorn, put your feet up, and enjoy!

  1. Jane Austen’s Fight Club. Jane Austen fan? Us too! (Less so Mr. Darcy, but we will save that for a future post). What happens when Lizzy and Emma start a fight club?
  2. Defined Lines”- Fantastic Music Video Parody of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines Music Video by the Law Revue Girls. Robin Thicke fan? Neither are we! But even if you secretly, or not-so-secretly, like his song “Blurred Lines,” we think you’ll like this fantastic feminist version even better (and if you like Weird Al, you’ll see that he’s met his match)!
  3. Word Crimes” – Equally, albeit differently, fantastic music video parody of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, by Weird Al. Remember: Just like an assertive bodily comportment, grammar should be stressed until it becomes a habit.
  4. The Fault in Our Schools” – courtesy of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Yes, we know, we wrote an open letter suggesting they needed to do “Part II”, but Part I was still pretty damn funny.
  5. Sarah Haskins’s Target Women: Broadview Security. A must watch on the commodification of women’s fear for profit, and laugh-out-loud funny to boot. If you like this one, check out others in her series, ranging from menstruation to skin-care products to Twilight (don’t get us started on Twilight, either).
  6. “The Oppressed Majority” by Eleonore Pourriat: A Typical Day of Sexual Harassment and Assault, but with the genders reversed.
  7. Confused Cats Against Feminism – A parody of “Women Against Feminism” that has been called “willfully ignorant” (we wish we were the first to apply that label to that tumblr site, but The Los Angeles Times beat us to it). We love how this satire site harnesses those apolitical “cute cat” memes for feminist political purposes.
  8. Toddlers and Tiaras with Tom Hanks – All we can say is thank you, Tom Hanks, for this hilarious video about teaching little girls the bodily comportment of femininity. And “Sexy feet! Sexy feet!”
  9. Stephen Colbert and the Health NazisFrom 2011, and disgustingly, at least as relevant now as it was three years ago. We hear the same thing about teaching self-defense that is said here about birth control.
  10. The Misandry Make-Up Tutorial – Part of a new witty, culture-jamming style of feminism known as “ironic man-hating,” this video shows you how to apply cosmetics to achieve the perfect look for the matriarchal takeover!

The Top Five Things You Need to Know Before Heading Off to College

As we head into August, the internet is bursting with advice for the college student.  As college professors, we certainly want students to come to college prepared, and given the news coverage over the last few months about sexual assault on college campuses, we thought, surely, that information about the risk of sexual assault and how to protect oneself, particularly for first-year college women in the first few weeks of the semester, would make it onto these lists.  (Actually, we thought no such thing, but we were hoping, optimistic feminists that we are.)

Sadly, though, we found nary a list that even mentioned assault, let alone one that suggested that the young woman heading off to college might need to know of the risks and therefore offered her valuable information about effective ways to defend herself should someone try to rape or assault her.

But no.  What we found, instead, were suggestions about how to confront the problems of packing, laundry, and the Freshman 5/10/15.

So it’s not that we don’t think that it can be hard to know what to pack when you’re leaving home for 4 months; we certainly encourage you to figure out how to operate a washing machine, and healthy nutrition is always a plus.  In fact, as professors, we’d also encourage you to read your syllabus, do your homework, and proofread your papers.

However, what we really want you to know is that if you are a young woman in college, the risk of someone raping or sexually assaulting you, or trying to, is high; the data (you’re going to hear a lot about data in college, so get used to it) from a lot of different sources says that anywhere from 1 in 5 women to 1 in 3 women will be raped or sexually assaulted during her college years.

What we also want you to know is that there are things you can do to protect yourself.

We trust you’ll figure out what to bring, how to set up your room, and how to declare a major, so we’re not going to give you any advice on how to do that.  Instead, here are (drumroll please)….


  1. RAPISTS ARE NOT ALL STRANGERS. Statistically, a person who tries to rape you is going to be someone you know, and quite possibly someone you know and like – a friend, a date, a partner.  So it is important to be aware of the people you know, not just your surroundings, and to pay attention to how you feel when you are around the people you know.  Go with your gut, and trust your instincts.
  2. ALCOHOL IS TRICKY. Alcohol is implicated in an enormous number of rapes on college campuses, and here’s what we know about drinking alcohol:  intoxication can impair your judgment, slow your reflexes, and leave you more vulnerable to dangerous people and situations.  Yep, there are criminals (yes, rape and attempted rape are CRIMES) that will try to get you drunk in order to more easily commit an assault against you.  Know this:  being intoxicated does NOT, we repeat, NOT, mean you are responsible for someone trying to rape you.  No matter what. However, for a variety of reasons – health, safety, GPA, avoiding the Freshman 5/10/15 – we recommend drinking legally and responsibility, knowing your limits around alcohol and other drugs, and being aware of the risks associated with drinking.
  3. YOU ARE ENTITLED TO HAVE AND SET BOUNDARIES. You – not your date, your roommate, your friends, your family, your professors – YOU get to decide what is safe, comfortable, and desirable for yourself, and those get to get to be different for different people, or different at different times for the same person.  And no one has the right to push or override those.  NO ONE.  And what that means is this:  YOU GET TO SAY NO.  And we know how hard “no” can be to say.  Lots of people, but women and girls in particular, often have trouble saying “no” (“NO!”) because they are worried about appearing mean, rude, hurtful, or (gasp) bitchy.  And as college professors, with over 40 years teaching experience between us, we’re telling you it’s okay to say no, and in fact, it’s okay even if someone thinks you’re mean, rude, hurtful, or (gasp) bitchy.  Here’s our best advice to anyone who tells you otherwise:  Fuck ‘em.  (You may quote us on that.)
  4. THERE ARE THINGS YOU CAN SAY AND DO TO STOP SOMEONE FROM RAPING YOU. You may have heard a lot of (perhaps) well-intentioned but (in our humble, data-informed) opinion, stupid advice on this point that says the opposite, like:  Don’t fight back, it won’t work, you’ll get hurt, you’ll make him mad, you’ll make things worse….  In fact, here’s what we know from the data (are you tired of hearing us say “data” at this point?  Too bad.):
    1. YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO RESIST. Self-defense is a human right, and those aren’t just pretty words.  You have the legal right to defend yourself, and that means against a rapist, too.  And it gets even better – keep reading:
    2. RESISTANCE CAN WORK. Resistance means a lot of things:  walking with confidence, telling someone not to touch you, pushing or shoving someone away from you, kneeing someone in the testicles (“Most incapacitating pain EVER,” our male friends tell us), and more.  Fighting back – verbally or physically – against a potential rape or sexual assault makes it LESS likely that the perpetrator will be successful and MORE likely that the perpetrator will fail.  Self-defense can work, even if a perpetrator is male, is larger, is stronger; you can use it to prevent or thwart an assault from happening.
    3. MORE IS MORE. Stronger levels of resistance – both verbal and physical – make it MORE likely that the perpetrator will fail.
    4. YOU CAN’T TRUST LAW AND ORDER SVU AS YOUR SOURCE OF INFORMATION FOR ANYTHING. (We know this seems off-topic, but just hear us out.)  And we say this as huge Law and Order SVU fans, but here’s the sad truth – they just make shit up*.  And one of the things they say that’s not true, which you’ve probably heard before, is that fighting back is a bad idea because you’re more likely to get hurt.    Just not true in most cases – in most cases, there are no difference in injury rates between women who resist and women who can’t or don’t.
  5. YOU ARE THE BEST PERSON TO DECIDE WHAT TO DO IF SOMEONE TRIES TO RAPE OR ASSAULT YOU. One of the things that happens when we talk about self-defense is that people say things like, “When you tell women they can fight back, aren’t you telling them it’s their fault if they are raped?”, to which we say, “No, of COURSE NOT!”  (Then we roll our eyes and mutter to ourselves because we’re really tired of hearing that.)  We want women to know what their options are; we are not telling women what they should and shouldn’t do.  Every person and every situation is different, and we trust women to make the best decisions they can for themselves in any given moment.   Self-defense is an option, and if you know all your options, you can better make the best choice for yourself to stay as safe as you can in any situation – whatever that choice may be.  We trust you.

So that should cover it.  College is wonderful, and we want you to be as prepared for it as possible.  This is the best and most important advice we have for you.  Aside from that, we trust you to figure it out.  Although we do think it’s important to tell you that if you overcook microwave popcorn, it will stink up your entire dorm for a week.

Go get ‘em!

Professor Jill and Professor Martha

*If any producers or writers for Law and Order SVU are readings this blog, the authors are totally available for consultation on scripts and dialogue.  Totally.

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