Countering Rape Culture Women, Respect and Relationships: In Grade School and College, Students Hear New Messages

Article excerpt

On an April day during the college spring break last year, a

woman was sunbathing with a friend at Jacksonville Beach.

About 20 men approached. They asked if she would pose with them

for a picture, a police report recounted.

The woman agreed, walking with them to the water's edge.

Suddenly, the young men ripped off the woman's bikini. She was

groped by three of them. Police said they searched for suspects

but to no avail.

Several similar events occurred that weekend. A lifeguard

summed up the situation this way: "Apparently, some of the guys

got carried away."

Consider the nonchalance of this observation.

Or the endless assaults and rapes depicted on television and in

movies.

Or the vulnerable women portrayed in countless magazine ads,

their clothing half-on or half-off, their eyes glazed and

vacuous.

Or the steady stream of college and professional athletes

accused of sexual assault.

While the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office reports rape and other

violent crimes have decreased, an underlying current remains,

described by women's advocates as a societal blessing of

violence against women.

Yet while children are inundated with information that depicts

relationship violence as normal, there are also efforts to

present another view of life.

A refuge for battered women is teaching children to understand

alternatives to violence.

As part of an experimental program backed by the Florida

Attorney General's Office and the Department of Education,

volunteers are befriending students at three Jacksonville

schools and talking to them about healthy relationships.

Beyond education, a lawyer in a landmark case has another

answer, a surefire method to send a message to perpetrators. The

attorney's solution: lawsuit.

`Mistakes of errant youth'

There was a New Jersey case four years ago involving a

17-year-old mentally retarded girl, raped by a group of young men

she knew. Sen. Joseph R. Biden, D-Delaware, who introduced the

Violence Against Women Act, drew upon this case when speaking to

a Senate Judiciary Committee in 1993. "The nonchalance displayed

by the young men during and after the attack reveals the

attitude that this incident does not constitute serious criminal

activity," he said.

After the case became known, members of the community defended

the young men's conduct on the ground that "boys will be boys."

In sentencing three defendants as "youth offenders," a judge

made reference to the attackers as successful high school

athletes who presented no threat to society, Biden recalled.

It is one example, he concluded, of how our system "normalizes

rape as the mistakes of errant youth or negligent men . . .

shaping women's perception that the system simply does not

accept that violent acts against women are serious crimes."

Sexual assault is a crime rich in hatred.

"I think it is easier to do that kind of crime [sexual assault]

when you look at the victim as less than, or not as human as,"

observed Shirley Webb, a coordinator of the Women's Center of

Jacksonville. "It is devaluing a portion of the population."

`They'll hate you stronger'

Judy Schmidt clearly remembers a student who gave her his

interpretation of how a relationship works:

"I told my girlfriend not to wear tight dresses," he said. "If

I get to her house and she's wearing a tight dress, I would have

to put her in check."

He then popped his hands together, Schmidt recalled, "to show

that he would have to slap her. …