Opinion: Rape Culture in New Brunswick

Cross-posted from Hub  City Forum

by Jackie Weisser

On April 10, I had the amazing experience of seeing the Office for Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance’s fifth-annual production of The Vagina Monologues. It was an incredibly powerful series of monologues that made me laugh, made me cry, and made me think about rape culture in our society and specifically in New Brunswick.

At the end of the production, we were asked to stand up and take a pledge to do whatever we have in our power to violence from that point forward.

If you’re not familiar with the term “rape culture,” Rutgers University student and BUST intern Abigail Nutter wrote an awesome and informative article you can find here.  Rape goes unreported, rapists are not prosecuted, and the victim is often blamed. “Yeah, but did you see what was wearing?” is the question often targeted at female rape victims as if they were “asking for it.” I shouldn’t have to say this, but no one asks to be raped.

After my empowering experience at The Vagina Monologues, I went to a party and went to get some pizza from PJ’s on Easton — your typical Friday night in New Brunswick. On my way to PJ’s, I saw something that I couldn’t ignore. I walked past a girl being screamed at by a boy. He was yelling vulgar, awful things at her, flipped her off, and walked away. She was left shaken and alone on the sidewalk. Maybe I was all amped up on The Vagina Monologue power or maybe I would’ve done this anyway, but my friend and I chose to break off from my group and make sure the girl was OK.

I approached the girl — we’ll call her Jane — and asked her if she was OK. I told Jane I didn’t want to get in her business, but I wanted to make sure she was safe. She was clearly upset, holding back tears, and seemed thankful that my friend and I had stopped. Jane briefly explained that the guy was her kind-of-ex-boyfriend and that there was a lot of drama that led to that moment. I stayed and talked to her, making sure she had a safe place to go and that she didn’t need us to walk with her anywhere. She was very appreciative but she said she was fine. I offered her my phone number as an emergency contact, because I felt like I couldn’t just leave her hanging in case something were to happen as we walked in opposite directions. She politely said she’d be OK, but as we began to depart, she stopped us and asked if she could have my number. She never called or texted me so I like to think she got home safe and is doing alright now.

The point of this story is not to say “Wow, I’m such a good person! Praise me!” but to point out that this kind of thing happens in New Brunswick all the time. How many girls are left alone and feeling unsafe? How many groups of people walk past and ignore these girls? How many people think it’s OK to mindlessly holler obscenities at girls who are alone (or in groups) walking between parties or pizza places? I’ve experienced this harassment — a major element of rape culture — myself, and I’ve seen it happen almost every weekend and every day. You might argue “girls shouldn’t be drunk and walking alone,” but girls shouldn’t be forced to live in a society where they are automatically put in the position of being the vulnerable victim when they are walking alone, regardless of what they’re wearing or how late it is at night or how much they’ve had to drink.

And you may think my night ends here, but rape culture in New Brunswick society seems to be unavoidable.

After leaving Jane, my friend and I met up with our group and we were all hanging outside of PJ’s waiting for our food like many other groups of people. I overheard a guy mention where he was from and realized we were from the same area back home. We ended up having a casual conversation. I learned that this guy — we’ll call Jim — is 24 and a firefighter a town over from my hometown. While we were talking, his friend thought it would be funny to approach him and say “When’s the court date?” to which Jim responds “What?” and Jim’s friend says, “For the rape!” I could tell his friend was trying to be “funny” and whether it was a “joke” or not, I immediately felt uncomfortable. I told Jim that it’s not cool for him and friends to joke like that  and I had to walk away. Jim replied, “Rape jokes are always funny!”

Rape jokes are not funny. Rape jokes will never be funny. Rape jokes are not “just a joke.” Rape jokes trivialize and normalize something that is serious, traumatic, life-changing, and awful, to say the least. You may not know if the people you interact with are victims of rape. You may not know that your “joke” could make a person feel afraid, uncomfortable, or trigger a number of serious psychological issues that someone who is coping with a trauma could face.  If you’re into poetry, Patricia Lockwood takes on the topic of rape jokes in this extremely powerful piece.

Soon I was with my friends inside PJ’s and Jim was on his way out. We had not spoken since the incident outside. On his way out, completely unprovoked, Jim turned directly to me and shouted “Rape jokes are always funny!” Everyone in PJ’s turned around in shock (which gives me some reason for hope, because yes, this is a shocking statement and people should react) and Jim went outside. I didn’t respond. I didn’t want anything to do with this guy. I didn’t fight back because I didn’t think there was anything I could say to ignorant Jim that would get him to change his mind about rape jokes at 3 a.m. in a pizza place. A female friend of his was completely appalled by what Jim said to me and wanted him to come inside PJ’s to apologize. I told her it was unnecessary and that I really did not want to talk to him. Good thing I didn’t care about Jim at this point, because 24-year-old firefighter Jim stood outside with his arms crossed like a giant man-baby, refusing to come in and apologize to me.

People still choose to argue that rape culture is not a problem in our society. And it is a problem in society and here in New Brunswick, as you can see from this action-packed Friday night of mine. There are a lot of Janes out there, and a lot of Jims.  I can’t walk down the street in shorts or a skirt or almost anything without being stared at or cat-called. I do not feel safe walking alone. I am constantly worried about what’s being put in drinks at parties. I’m nervous when I walk past groups of guys at night or even during the day.  I’ve heard that a fraternity at Rutgers even gained the title of the “rape frat.”

My night started with me seeing The Vagina Monologues, a powerful play that combats rape culture and sexual violence. I don’t know what words to use to describe the events that followed. Ironic? Coincidental? Sad?

We need to make New Brunswick a safer place. Even something seemingly small, like telling a friend that his or her rape joke is not funny or a joke, or checking in on someone who might be in danger, can make a difference.

The university has a lot of helpful resources —  if you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual or domestic assault, the VPVA offers support including response teams and a 24-hour hotline.

Even if you didn’t get a chance to see The Vagina Monologues, stand up and take the pledge to do what you can to end violence.