For the last 24 hours, I’ve been bothered by a story I saw on the news last night. At Saint Mary’s University this week (in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), Frosh Leaders led students in a chant that glorified rape (read more here). A video was released of students reciting the chant. It was shocking to watch. Apparently, similar chants have been created in the past and there is some discussion in the news that similar messages are communicated on other campuses. Disturbing.
Since hearing the story, I have been thinking about the norms, values, and attitudes that were being communicated to new students and reinforced for returning students with that chant. I’ve been thinking about female students on that campus who may have been sexually assaulted at some point in their life or who already had anxiety or fear about being assaulted prior to arriving on campus (women are constantly warned about behaviors they should not do in order to stay safe or precautions they should take to stay safe). I wonder what it feels like for them to walk the campus and be among their peers.
Those who advocate for the prevention of sexual assault and violence against women have indicated that this chant reinforces the rape culture in our society. The “rape culture” has been defined as a culture that normalizes sexual assault and desensitizes both men and women to the issue of sexualized violence. It is a culture wherein the dominant attitudes are ones that tolerate or excuse rapists and puts the onus on victims (or potential victims) to prevent rape from occurring to them.
For years now, in my Gender, Leisure, and Sport course, I have had class discussions about fear for personal safety as a barrier to women’s participation in recreation and leisure pursuits. Some academic research within the leisure studies field exists on the topic (Coble, Selin, & Erickson, 2003; Wesely & Gaarder, 2004; Whyte & Shaw, 1994) . We discuss the research. Then, many women in my class offer their experiences with fear. They share how their fear for personal safety, mainly the fear of sexual assault, influences where they participate in activities they want to do or enjoy and when they participate. They go for runs before dark. They avoid certain trails in the city or paths on campus – “fear zones” as they have been referred to. They plan to go places in pairs or as a group. If they are out alone at night, they talk on the phone so that if something happens to them, someone will know. Before they leave, they inform people where they are going and when they will be back. Some have taken self-defense classes. They avoid listening to their iPod when walking in specific places or at night so they can “stay alert” to any noises that may indicate danger. Fear has appeared to affect many women’s ability to move around campus and town freely – as freely as they would like. It has influenced the enjoyment of activities they do. For example, rather than enjoying a nice solo hike in the woods – taking in the smells and sounds – one student explained how she was hyper-aware of other hikers and was paying more attention to other hikers she met and whether they seemed threatening than she did to her natural environment. Running without their iPod (to “stay alert”) is not as enjoyable as running with music. Some students wonder if their fear or paranoia is over the top and yet, they explain, they have been constantly warned about the importance of protecting themselves and “being smart”. And so, at some level and by some women, there is an acceptance of the culture as “the way it is” and they make an effort to negotiate it so they can still experience leisure they enjoy. I’m always struck by how much planning goes into some women’s leisure activities in order to reduce their sense of fear and/or increase their sense of safety. And sometimes, some women find it’s just too much effort. Their roommate doesn’t want to go to they gym with them or their partner doesn’t want to go for the hike in the woods. Finding someone else to go with can be too much work. So, they don’t participate.
Their stories prompt me to think of the regular reminders I received when I lived on campus during my first four years of university – “don’t walk home from the library alone at night,” “if you’ve had too much to drink, don’t get separated from your girlfriends,” “don’t leave your drink unattended at the bar,” “call the walk-home service if you don’t have someone you know to walk you home”. Then, when something did happen on campus, there were alerts posted everywhere (doors to academic buildings, the dining hall, residences) reminding us of the precautions we should take. At times, it felt exhausting.
Men in my class have also talked about how they have sensed women’s fear of them. For example, many men have watched women they were walking toward cross the street to avoid meeting them on the sidewalk and having to pass by in close proximity. Despite not having any intent to harm the women on the street, or any women ever for that matter, these men have expressed that they feel guilty… for being male and instilling fear in women simply by being a male figure in the dark. Many men are aware of the fear women have – the fear their sisters, girlfriends, residence mates, or classmates live with. A number of them have described roles they have played in facilitating women’s “safe” arrival to or from leisure activities. They go to the gym with their girlfriends or female friends – not necessarily at the time they would prefer to go, but they go as the “buddy” to travel to and from with. They walk women home after events – concerts, plays, evenings at the bar. One male biked on trails with his sister one summer after someone was sexually assaulted. He was worried about her and since she was an avid cyclist, he ended up become quite an avid cyclist as well. Some men have expressed that this is one of the roles they feel that they are expected to play – to protect women. For these reasons, I can’t ignore the impact that the rape culture has on men as well.
As a woman, there is much that disturbs me about this story. As a leisure scientist, the impact of the rape culture on women’s leisure is something I can’t avoid thinking about. Since freedom is a key aspect of satisfying leisure experiences, the fear of sexual assault surely affects the level of satisfaction that women experience in certain circumstances – regardless of whether a woman has ever experience sexual assault or not.
Coble, T. G., Selin, S. W., & Erickson, B. B. (2003). Hiking alone: Understanding fear, negotiation strategies, and leisure experience. Journal of Leisure Research, 35(1), 1-22.
Wesely, J. K., & Gaarder, E. (2004). The gendered “nature” of the urban outdoors: Women negotiating fear of violence. Gender & Society, 18(5), 645-663.
Whyte, L. B., & Shaw, S. M. (1994). Women’s leisure: An exploratory study of fear of violence as a leisure constraint. Journal of Applied Recreation Research, 19(1), 5-21.