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Making an impact?: Feminist pedagogy and rape culture on university campuses.

Shortly before St Patrick's Day 2012, an incident occurred in Guelph that made me question the effectiveness, value, and impact of our teaching about sexual violence. It was yet another example of the endemic problem of rape culture being perpetuated on university campuses, a problem that is acute across the country from St Mary's and UBC, where frosh week pro-rape chants were defended as being "traditional" to the University of Ottawa, where the student union president Anne-Marie Roy was the subject of sexually assaultive email exchange among her colleagues. Indeed, the recent allegations against Jian Ghomeshi, who gained a Women's Studies minor at York University in the early 1990s, all too clearly raise the spectre that liberatory, feminist pedagogy encourages ventriloquism as often as transformation.

Pedagogy on the representation of sexual violence is inherently a tightrope walk. On the one hand, one has to approach the topic without reinforcing the patriarchal systems that make rape possible, such as fear, and, on the other hand, one has to avoid eliding the lived experience of a large portion of our student population. Fear doesn't allow students to bear witness to the fact that the way that we see rape working in a given text is largely influenced by our own culture's expectations and beliefs regarding this particular gender relation, and, at the same time, ignoring the anxieties that attend the topic risks trivializing the experience of students who have been assaulted. I teach Shakespeare and my research focus is the representation of the rapist on the Renaissance London stage, so I inevitably end up talking in my classes about the myriad ways in which expectations of sexual entitlement within a patriarchal culture work to dehumanize the individual, constructing gender in a toxic manner that is predicated upon violence. It is not just that Jonson, Middleton, and Shakespeare are dead voices, speaking a dead language, about a dead culture, but that the things they said can be used both to reinforce rape culture and to dismantle it today. That is, studying these authors and the representations of sexual violence within their works gives students the opportunity to see how sexism in that literature can be used to perpetuate a system where masculine sexual violence is sometimes overlooked, sometimes condoned, but always present. These texts can be read as both resistive of and complicit in hegemonic patriarchy, and if we want to upset the patriarchy we have to recognize how in our own critical readings we have the power to either problematize or reinforce the type of predatory masculinity we find on the Renaissance stage.

These classes are always the most emotionally draining for everyone involved. I cite my own position as one who benefits from, yet works to subvert, patriarchal privilege as a way to encourage students to interrogate their own relationship to patriarchal violence. The recognition of privilege, trauma, and the mechanics of gender-based violence can be transformative for certain students, who--at least within the confines of the academic setting--come to acknowledge themselves as participants in the systematic dehumanization of others and themselves. However, in order to create a classroom that is genuinely liberatory, we must speak to those who do not recognize that the system of gender relations to which they subscribe perpetuates a culture of violence and hatred. Behind the gowns of the academy, students, faculty, and administration can try to hide their sexist biases, yet when rape culture erupts in the "real world" as it were, we really have to question what kind of effect--if any--such liberatory pedagogy has. Is it possible that the same student who insists in an essay that the rape and mutilation of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus was horrific would then go out and sing a song about raping and mutilating a woman for sheer erotic pleasure?

Well, maybe. The story goes like this ...

On Facebook there is a group called "Overheard at Guelph" devoted to "overheard bits of conversation around campus where we just want to laugh out loud" (Wittig). On 13 March 2012, a student put up a chant overheard while on the late night public bus. The call-and-response chant was a violent male fantasy about rape:
   I wish that all the women
   Were statues of Venus
   Cuz then they'd have no arms
   To push away my penis


This spawned an entire raft of extra verses, added on by literally dozens of people, each with their own take on how to best degrade women. As I was reading the comments and the likes during the unfolding incident, I realized that some of the students who were participating in the conversation (both pro- and contra- the chants) were former students of mine who had sat through my discussion of the rape and mutilation of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus.

Inevitably, whenever any of us face a classroom and teach about rape and rape culture, we face a divided audience. Statistically speaking, anywhere between 10 to 40 percent of our female students will have been raped while, if Helen Lenskyj's research is correct, up to 60 percent of the male students would commit actions that meet the legal definition of sexual assault if they were certain that they wouldn't get caught. Another more recent survey by David Lisak and P.M. Miller asked 1,882 college men if they have ever engaged in forced sexual activity, wherein 6 percent of those surveyed admitted to having done so, provided that the question didn't use the word "rape" In other words, we are teaching those who have been assaulted, but we are also teaching those who do the assaulting. They come to our office hours. They sit in our lectures. Not all of them are monsters. They are misguided and they accept a system of gender relations that says what they have done is not only not wrong, it is the expected action of a man. Further, sexism exists on all sides of the gender divide. Many of the "likes" on the Overheard at Guelph post were given by women, and women promote and police rape culture as much as men. Whatever their gender, many students will simply "turn off" when their views on gender performance and rape culture are challenged by a professor who is creating a feminist classroom. Their sense of identity as individuals is deeply tied to a system of gender performance that feminist professors at the front of the room will tell them is wrong. People tend to get defensive when you challenge their identities and most deeply held beliefs about the world because such beliefs give meaning to their worlds. The easiest thing is to rabbit back the voice of authority, take the grade, and go, thereby missing the entire point of the lesson.

If our measure of success is how many students took the time to see how their own sense of self is informed by/shaped by a hegemonic patriarchy that allows for rape, it is impossible to say how successful we have been or could be. There is no metric for self-discovery nor any rubric for personal liberation. In the sense of producing measurable results, liberatory pedagogy must always already have failed. If feminist pedagogy is about liberation for everyone, then how can we address ourselves to those who, having committed or condoned assault, sit in class nodding politely, while at the same time addressing those who are just finding the voice to speak of their own assaults? Is it even possible to speak meaningfully to such a constitutionally divided audience?

Works Cited

Lenskyj, Helen. An Analysis of Violence Against Women: A Manual for Educators and Administrators. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1992.

Lisak, David, and P. M. Miller. "Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending among Undetected Rapists." Violence and Victims 17.1 (2002): 73-84.

Wittig, Jackson. "drunk bus saturday night" Overheard at Guelph. Facebook.com. 13 March 2012. Web. 13 March 2012.

Andrew Bretz

Wilfrid Laurier University

Andrew Bretz received his doctorate in 2012 and teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University. He has been a postdoctoral researcher with the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project at the University of Guelph since 2013. His recently published chapter on American network radio adaptations of Shakespeare in the 1930s appears in OuterSpeares (University of Toronto Press 2014). His introduction to the Oxford University Press Made in Canada series edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream is forthcoming December 2014.
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Author:Bretz, Andrew
Publication:English Studies in Canada
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Dec 1, 2014
Words:1395
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