Investigating misogyny and rape culture
By Halle Wyatt, Feature Editor, Lila Cohen, Associate Deputy Editor, & Savannah Butcher, Associate Managing Editor
Trigger Warning: This article covers issues that could potentially be triggering, such as sexual assault and trauma. Readers are encouraged to stop reading if such topics could potentially be harmful for them. Those in need of support, please reach out to a support system, such as a trusted adult or the Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE. Vashon DOVE Project is also a fantastic resource, and as a youth advocate; find out more at https://www.vashondoveproject.org.
All interviewees in this article are quoted under a pseudonym to ensure their safety.
Although the women’s rights movement and tearing down gender bias have come a long way in the United States, VHS is not in the clear yet. Rape culture impacts everyone in the U.S. today, although a blind eye is often turned when the effects go public. When rape culture is mentioned to students, many either get defensive, triggered, or scared.
Rape culture is the normalization of abuse, sexual assault, and rape ––primarily against women ––in modern society. Misogynistic language, objectifying women’s bodies, and the disregard for boundaries contribute to an often unspoken fear among women.
One out of every six women, and one out of every ten men, in America have been a victim of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Many female VHS students carry protective objects like pepper spray or keys in between their fists in order to feel safe while walking alone.
“I constantly have to be aware of my surroundings and the body language around me,” Nicole, a female student at VHS, said. “As a Running Start student, I had to walk by my rapist’s house to get to my car every day, so I got into the habit of walking with keys between my fingers and watching videos on how to be safe when alone. When we live in a community like this, women can’t zone out ”
Girls who come forward are often surprised at how common sexual assault and rape is at VHS. The culture surrounding these issues on Vashon often leads to such events being kept quiet, which protects abusers.
“When I was in eighth grade, two boys made fun of my body in a very sexual way. Two years later, I was raped and I also talked to many of my friends who had similar experiences,” Nicole said. “There is a huge population of women who have been assaulted and raped by men at VHS, which I was shocked to learn about when I became part of it.”
The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) reports 84 percent of survivors of sexual violence by an intimate partner will experience problems at work or school after the incident.
“I always felt a little unsafe at school, but after I was sexually assaulted during a school event, I realized there was nowhere in the school to turn,” Jennifer, another female student at VHS, said. “It was during a school dance, and I was coerced into leaving, and I wasn’t allowed back in to get to my friends, even though I was obviously pretty distressed. There’s no safety net in the school.”
This lack of protection and acknowledgment on behalf of the administration is frustrating to some students at VHS.
“[I’ve seen the administration respond to some of this type of behavior] maybe once or twice to other situations, but never to mine,” Jennifer said. “In my case, I felt like a lot of the administration looked down on me for the way the boys treated me, instead of looking down on the boys for treating me the way they did.”
Other students believe the staff‘s priorities are not in the best interest of student’s safety.
“I have not [seen administration respond to rape culture at VHS],” Nicole said. “I have seen men use homophobia and racism in front of teachers and there has been no conversation about it. It almost seems to me as if the staff cares more about the dress code than the comfort of marginalized groups.”
Although sexual assault is a large consequence of a misogynistic culture, smaller actions contribute to an environment of discomfort and fear among female students.
Boys mishandling rejection and going on to scare the girls they were originally pursuing is a serious consequence of misogyny.
“He asked me to homecoming and I was like, ‘I’m already going with friends,’” Peggy, a senior, said. “He got all mopey and [for a week] afterward kept texting me like, ‘I’m in a really bad place. I just need someone to talk to. I might hurt myself.’”
The damaging societal norm that girls need to ‘sit still and look pretty’. This often leads to girls being held to higher behavioral standards in the classroom.
“I remember a math teacher I had once… the girls and boys would do the exact same thing and he would always scream at the girls and send them out of class… [then] give the boys a total free pass – even using the term ‘boys will be boys’ totally [excusing] their behavior,” Una, a student, said.
Many girls at the high school report being spoken over and feeling like their ideas are subtly dismissed or unaddressed by teachers.
“The boys, who are outspoken, are so forceful and unapologetic in what they say, and then a girl will start speaking in the same manner and she’ll feel like she has to apologize for being just as loud [and] just as passionate as the boys in class are,” Abigail, a VHS senior, said. “I always try to jump in and hype them up a little bit. I think it’s really important… to make sure girls feel heard in class because guys are so used to being able to speak over girls.”
Another layer of the sexism many girls and women experience at VHS is slut-shaming. In recent years, there has been a lot of pushback against VISD dress codes, as many label them inherently sexist.
Although some students say they have personally felt no change, school administrators have altered the dress code to be more gender neutral and prioritize functionality over the comfort of male students and staff.
“Historically, dress codes have unfairly focused on what girls are or aren’t wearing, and have put undue burden on girls for the reactions of others,” Tara Vanselow, one of the high school counselors, said. “Several years ago, the dress code was changed to reflect more current understanding and practices around dress codes. The revision of the dress code took gendered language out of the code so the rules apply to everyone, regardless of gender.”
However, the harmful culture of sexualizing women is still alive and well, and girls are still inappropriately objectified in what is supposed to be a “safe space.”
“People tell me I can’t wear certain pants… It makes me feel like I’m a slut because I wear leggings, and that happens pretty often,” Angelina, another student, said.
Female students are not just shamed for how they dress, but many have experienced it surrounding their sex lives.
“Sometimes [male students are] very respectful, but a lot of times, they just kind of didn’t respect boundaries … When girls were deciding what to do with their bodies, being sexually active, they were really, really slut-shamed for it,” Una said. “It makes girls feel like they’re doing something bad, … choosing to do what they want with their own bodies.”
One male student has vouched there is significant disrespect of women and their bodies at VHS, especially behind closed doors.
“There’s definitely a lot of objectifying language,” August, a male senior at VHS, said. “I feel like there’s a lot of pent up sexual anger but it doesn’t excuse talking about women in derogatory and objectifying ways. I think there’s definitely a lot of that even in people who would consider themselves respectful of women.”
Although many male students may consider themselves feminist, their actions and attitudes sometimes do not align with their self perception.
“I don’t really feel like [male students] understand how they see the world is completely different from what a female would see and how a female would move throughout the world,” Rose, a Running Start student, said.
This mindset applies to racism and homophobia as well as feminism.
“All of Vashon is like, ‘We’re so progressive, that could never happen here.’ So when it does happen there, they don’t address it and it just festers, so it is actually like that,” Peggy said.
“Everyone on the island needs to reevaluate themselves and their community.”
Some female students noticed they are not the only ones being impacted by the misogynistic behaviors of boys, and it appears their female teachers are also receiving less respect than their male colleagues.
“Male students will walk over female teachers,” Rose said. “[For example, a female teacher] is so nice that people think that they can take advantage of her and walk all over her and kind of treat her poorly. But they wouldn’t do that to… another male teacher.”
Abigail echoed this statement. She has seen female teachers at both McMurray and the high school be called misogynistic nicknames and insulted for being as authoritative as any male teacher.
“I feel like a lot of times with a male teacher, if they’re kind of blunt and [joke] around with the students or if they’re strict… they just demand respect from all the male students,” Abigail said. “The moment that it’s the exact same personality in a female teacher… they just don’t like her.”
Many of Peggy’s experiences with sexism have come directly from male teachers, such as unwelcome pet names, comments about her genetics and ‘future children,’ and directions to ‘smile.’ Some students feel even if a teacher is not directly inflicting sexist actions, they often allow male students to do so with little to no consequences.
“In seventh grade, every time after a club after school, there was this senior who would always come and almost sit on me, ask me to read to him, ask for my number,” Peggy said. “I would make eye contact with a [currently employed] VHS teacher on the [metro] bus, [and I was] obviously uncomfortable as this senior who was at least six years older than me was… breathing down my neck. [The teacher] would make eye contact with me and look down at their phone and not look back up.”
Students have noticed the culture of misogyny and toxic masculinity have hurt male students as well.
“I had a teacher who wouldn’t let a male friend of mine go to the nurse until he was actually like losing it and shaking violently,” Peggy said. “[The teacher was] saying he should tough it out before he almost fainted.”
August agreed toxic masculinity is a problem among his male peers.
“Especially in freshman and sophomore year, there was a lot people calling each other p***** for whatever reason,” August said. “I feel like that [language occurs] a little less now that people are a little more mature, but… I’m sure it’s still happening in other circles that I’m not a part of in the school.”
While male students might not be entirely aware of the extent of sexism, their female peers are.
“I think the boys definitely aren’t taught to be respectful,” Una said. “I know a lot of girls are very self-conscious, and a lot of girls, if not sexually assaulted in the school, have been sexually harassed in the school. So they are affected negatively [by boys’ attitudes toward women]. ”
Some female students believe the disrespect they receive from the male peers stems from a lack of sex education, specifically in matters of consent.
“There has been no [classroom discussions on] rape,” Ruth, a freshman, said. “We’ve covered drugs, alcohol, STDs and pregnancy — basically a whole bunch of things that sometimes boys have to [deal with], but [a] majority [of] girls have to handle that when it comes to their sex lives. And there’s been nothing about rape yet.”
Although there is no clear solution to solving the problem of sexism in the island’s schools when the patriarchy continues to exist, many students agree school needs to be doing more.
“There’s still a lot of racism, there’s still a lot of sexism, there’s still a lot of sexual assault that happened on the island that is both reported and not reported,” Rose said. “I would just hope that as a society being where we are now, it would be easier to talk about these things, and it’s sad that it’s not.”