Month: August 2013

The Real “Ick Factor” of “Blurred Lines”

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“For an instant she felt them, their identities, almost their substance, pass over her head like a wave. At some time she would be — or no, already she was like that too; she was one of them, her body the same, identical, merged with that other flesh…”

 – Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman

I remember a world before “Blurred Lines,” don’t you?  Before the “hey hey heys” and the catchy walking baseline?  It wasn’t so long ago.  But now, nearly six months after its initial release, you can’t swing a foam finger without running into Robin Thicke’s summer anthem. With a simple three-word suggestion, everybody gets up, bounces, and grinds to the retro beat. 

Robin Thicke has publicly come under fire for his song’s creepily coercive and, as a girlfriend of mine described them, “rapey” lyrics like “I know you want it,” and “The way you grab me / Must wanna get nasty.”  His defense was that “lyrics can get misconstrued” and that he was really aiming to parody the degradation of women in music.  After all, he’s married and has a child, and we all know that married men and fathers are automatically exempt from being creepy.  What Thicke doesn’t acknowledge is that in a world where many listeners readily buy into objectifying messages, the lines between parody and more offensive pulp to add to the stack are, in fact, blurred.

“Misconstrued lyrics” and shameless self-promotion aside (the hashtagged pop-up text got old after about thirty seconds), what really got under my skin about the “Blurred Lines” video (NSFW) was its display of women.  No, not the fact that they’re topless.  Women’s bodies are beautiful.  It was how these women are displayed – as nothing but bodies for the viewer’s consumption next to clothed men – that bothered me. 

Let’s climb in the DeLorean and travel back to 1988, when Robert Palmer released the video to “Simply Irresistible.”  Palmer stands in front of three rows of women whose clothing, hair, makeup, and dance moves are completely uniform.  They are linked together in a chain, moving as one being.  They wear identical expressions of boredom and passivity, rolling their eyes or dropping their lids to appear sleepy, their lips pursed in flat, indifferent pouts.  The camera frequently cuts to specific sexualized body parts – thighs, breasts, buttocks – whenever the women dance or gyrate in a way that simulates sex.  Male gaze, anyone?

Nudity aside, there isn’t much difference between the women in Palmer’s video and the women in Thicke’s.  They parade in front of their ogling male counterparts, strike mannequin-like poses, bat their eyelashes, and absentmindedly fluff their own hair.  They stick their fingers in their mouths.  They run their tongues across their teeth.  Yet for all this emphasis on the mouth, the women are silent barring the brunette’s brief “Meow!” after Thicke likens her to a “domesticated animal.”  Words, like clothes, are reserved only for the video’s male stars.   

In order for the male gaze to operate most effectively in popular culture, the woman must be disarmed.  The removal of clothing, loss of individuality, and split of the whole into fragmented body parts are all crucial in the transformation from human being to consumable object.  None of these processes, contrary to Thicke’s claim that the objective of his song/video is to “make people feel good,” are gratifying or empowering to a female audience.  You’d hope that a female director would have understood this. 

Of course, music videos are hardly the only medium guilty of disarming women for male pleasure.  Print advertisements, particularly those selling sexualized products like alcohol and weight loss supplements, frequently place products alongside passive, vulnerable women or their body parts.  Budweiser’s beach towel ad features women who have literally fused with an object – the towel – and uses an overhead camera angle to signify dominance.  Syntha-6 protein shakes are perched on buttocks and held between breasts, and I’ll let you guess at the not-so-subtle meanings behind the slogans “Shake Well,” and “Grab One & Enjoy.”

The promotions for acclaimed series Nip/Tuck were famous for featuring an array of doll-like, disfigured, or dead women dominated by the show’s two male protagonists, Christian Troy and Sean McNamara.  There’s the faceless woman in nothing but heels and briefs being stitched up like a stuffed animal by the male surgeons.  The faceless “fallen angel” who lies either unconscious or dead in the desert, skin scarred from where her wings used to be, while Christian and Sean look on from above.  The naked woman draped elegantly over an examination table while Christian and Sean, clothed in suits, rest their hands on her and stare menacingly at the camera, conveying ownership; predator conquering prey.

And we can’t forget album art.  Metalcore band Asking Alexandria’s From Death to Destiny cover depicts a naked woman trapped inside of a vending machine, an image that leads us to believe she is available for purchase, while a clothed man in the foreground walks freely past her.  Ted Nugent, himself no stranger to controversy, envisioned this image of a bound and gagged naked woman being served on a plate of food as the cover to his 2007 album, Love Grenade.  The picture was later swapped out for a far less offensive cover.  Eminem’s cover for The Slim Shady LP features a clothed man (himself) and a dismembered woman (only her foot is visible) – presumably the body of his ex-wife, Kim, whom he violently kills on the track of the same name.  The Slim Shady cover also bears a striking resemblance to this Jimmy Choo ad, in which a suited man prepares to bury the lifeless shoe model draped inside his trunk. 

At 3:19 in the unrated “Blurred Lines” video, one of the women dons a mask that covers her entire face.  I immediately thought of Pauline Réage’s 1954 erotic novel Story of O, the account of a young French woman bound in sexual service to various masters.  In the novel’s final scene, O is fitted with an owl mask and paraded naked before a crowd of party guests.  When a guest asks O’s master who she “belongs to,” the master responds, “you, if you like.”

The women in Robin Thicke’s music video belong to us, if we like, because they do not own themselves or their bodies.  And despite Thicke’s labeling “Blurred Lines” a “feminist movement,” lyrics like “I’m gon’ take a good girl” and “You the hottest bitch in this place”, not to mention his willing participation in Miley Cyrus’ VMA train wreck, write a far different story.

Want to satirize the degradation of women in popular media, Mr. Thicke?  Shoot a video that shows clothed, autonomous women reacting with disgust to the advances of their pursuers, not one that reinforces the idea of women as morsels for commercial digestion.  Melinda Hughes has already done so.  Your defense of “Blurred Lines” as parody clearly misses the mark, because no matter how many good intentions this road to hell is paved with, the solution is never found by perpetuating the problem.

Fairy Tale Follow-Up

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Last week, I wrote a piece entitled “Designing Never Land: The Fairy Tale of White Girl Culture,” which appeared on the web magazine Role/Reboot as, “Is This What Straight White Women Really Want?”  In it, I looked at demographic data from the website OKCupid, specifically the fifty most common interests or “likes” of white females, and wrote about the concepts they broadly represent to me in the context of consumer culture: Pastoralism, innocence/domesticity, and affluence.

A lot of strong reactions followed from both sides.  Many women expressed appreciation, identifying with feeling different from dominant white culture (With you all the way.  I don’t want that typical stuff either!) or enjoying the take on image branding in social media (As a marketing strategiest, I thoroughly enjoyed your piece).  There was also a storm of personal offense, which I should have anticipated.  I like horses!  And flip flops!  And riding horses while WEARING flip flops!  (Just kidding about this last one – not something I’d recommend.)

If you’re a white woman, or any kind of woman, chances are you like or do at least one thing on OKCupid’s list of fifty terms.  I love getting dressed up.  Sometimes, the only way for me to unwind after a grueling day of teaching is to take a bubble bath or sip a glass of wine.  The ending of The Time Traveler’s Wife made me run for the tissue box and pint of Ben and Jerry’s.  And two days before reading comments from those who were personally offended at my characterization of country culture as “pastoral,” I was lounging with friends around a bonfire at what we jokingly deemed a “hootenanny,” a farm picnic and tailgating party that featured…you guessed it…a live country band.  I had a blast.  Let’s be real.  If you take yourself too seriously, no one else will.

I wanted to write a follow-up to this article because there was so much I didn’t have the space to include in <1200 words, and after reading and listening to all sorts of feedback, I was left thinking.  A lot. 

Identity and Culture

Identity is a hotly debated subject.  Is there such a thing as “personal identity,” is identity fluid or permanent, and who or what shapes our identity?  No one wants to imagine that their interests and goals may not entirely be their own, but one way or another, in consumer culture, “everyone belongs to everyone else.”  Collective consciousness is a thing.  Symbolic interactionism – the “self” as social product – is a thing.  We are all, in various ways and degrees, influenced by the fiction we read, the lyrics we listen to, the movies we see.  In other words, popular culture. 

I mentioned in my piece that “white culture” is rarely pinpointed, much less discussed among whites themselves.  In comparison to minority cultures, it is seldom “otherized” and, in America, acts as a kind of default structure.  Christine Garvin of the Matador Network notes that “where you settle often ends up being the culture you take on,” and in an American context, her statement seems reflective of the battle racial minorities face in assimilating to the dominant culture while retaining their own.   Look no further than Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” for an example of this – in Walker’s short story, young Dee changes her name to “Wangaro,” hailing to her African roots in alliance with the ‘60s Black Power movement.  What Wangaro doesn’t realize, of course, is that she is rejecting her personal family history (still “heritage” despite its white influences) in the process.  And that’s the great struggle, isn’t it?  How do we maintain our “self” – our “I” – without letting all that pesky social influence get in the way?

Because white heritage in America is often ignored, it’s only natural for whites to adopt the culture of where they’ve settled.  This is probably why so much of white culture is tied to American nationalism: baseball, fireworks, guns, cookouts, and the red, white, and blue like.  White female culture, specifically, is a mix of materialistic and romanticized consumer culture.  Consider popular sites like Pinterest: Hairstyles, (low-fat) recipes, body obsession of all kinds, and quotes from Marilyn Monroe.  Look at the themes present in Nicholas Sparks novels: A sweet preacher’s daughter softens and woos the school rebel, and though she is dying of cancer, love metaphorically “saves” her boyfriend (A Walk to Remember); A woman flees her abusive husband and is “saved” by a kinder, warmer replacement (Safe Haven).  The second novel-turned-movie in particular rubs me the wrong way – something about the implication that an abused woman needs to be rescued by another man, and that abuse itself should be romanticized.

I’m not advocating for the banning of Nicholas Sparks novels.  And no, I don’t believe that Pinterest is “killing feminism,” though the article by Amy Odell is an interesting little read.  But I do believe that even after the bra-burning, Pill-popping crusades of the sexual revolution, there is still a tremendous push in popular culture for women to be, well, innocent, domestic, and pastoral.  And above all, coupled.  Discrimination against singles in our society (especially single women) is everywhere.  You are not enough.  You need a partner; a spouse.  Why else have dating sites become so popular?

OKCupid and Age

I was asked if OKCupid’s study really qualifies as “research”?  Of a sort.  To me, “The Real Stuff White People Like,” is meant to be entertaining, although a lot of the comments on it are just as divided as they were on my article.  One commenter notes: Most of the disagreeing comments seem to be either “I don’t like the results and the conclusions I think people will use them to reach,” or “I’m not the norm!”…For goodness’ sake, this is a study that, while done in a very scientific manner, isn’t meant for academic research. It’s meant to be fun things to do for the nerds running the site, and fun reading for the nerds using the site.  Though it wasn’t conducted by tenured Harvard professors or Time magazine, this research is reflective of the interests, hobbies, and descriptions of the people on a particular dating website. 

The objective of dating websites is to partner up their users, meaning that the list of data for each of OKCupid’s racial groups is influenced, in whole or in part, by what they believe the opposite sex will desire.  Dating websites also notoriously attract a younger userbase, which is probably why sites like OurTime and SeniorPeopleMeet now exist.  This age graph, included in a separate blog post from OKCupid, shows that the age of its male and female users spikes at 24, then sharply declines after 28-30.  The fifty “likes” I examined made even more sense to me after viewing that graph, as did all the affirmative comments I received from women older than me.

It wasn’t long ago that I was 24…or 23…or 22…and you get the idea.  And from middle school (the first years adolescents become really aware of gender) on, I rarely felt like I belonged to the dominant culture.  I had female friends, but was always the black sheep – the one who didn’t understand why everyone spent their paychecks on polo shirts from Aeropostale or loved The O.C. so much.  Not identifying with a lot of the things girls were supposed to like – romantic comedies, pop music, even the color pink – meant that I either felt left out of or was deliberately not invited to certain activities.  And the challenge of being seen as “one of the boys,” when I truly did want the kisses and dates and relationships that seemed to come easier to more feminine girls, often made me wonder if I was doing something wrong. 

Feeling “different,” especially during the teenage and young adult years, is a difficult experience in many ways and for many women.  But there is something else that, through much observation, appears to be much more difficult – buying into the promise of the white dress and the man who will make it all go away, and ending up piecing together the broken fragments of a failed relationship or marriage because life wasn’t what you were sold.            

There is a fine line between attacking products of the dominant culture and the women who value them, one that I admittedly may have crossed.  I’m not saying by any means that horseback riding or decorating is evil.  What I am saying is that in order to be a good consumer in a capitalist culture, it is important to recognize romanticized media packages as not necessarily representative of reality.  Read your Glamour and your Allure – I’ve got a few dog-earred on my magazine rack at the moment – just be discerning while doing so.  Third-wave feminism teaches us that there’s no wrong way to be a woman, but I’m advocating against what Jodi Picoult’s Change of Heart was, according to Janet Maslin’s review – “lacking any distinguishing characteristics.”  And I’m not alone.

Designing Never Land: The Fairy Tale of White Girl Culture

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This article was published under a different title by Role/Reboot on August 18, 2013. You can view it here.

Every once in a while, I experience a moment of cultural awareness so powerful that I can do nothing else but write about it. My latest epiphany came last week in the form of research from the dating site OKCupid, compiled in a post entitled “The REAL ‘Stuff White People Like'” by Christian Rudder.

Like any dating site, OKCupid is interested in the demographics of its users, and so they took a random sample and divided everyone, by race and gender, according to what words and phrases were most common in user profiles. You can view the groupings of the top 50 things each racial group “likes” here, starting with white people.

The cultural uncertainties I’ve had for years were immediately resolved once I read this post. Why, as a white girl, I’ve rarely been able to identify with other white girls. Why most of my friends, save about a half-dozen close girlfriends, are male. I could easily relate to much of the white male list: Hockey? Go Pens! Robert Heinlein? Amazing sci-fi writer. Van Halen and “Breaking Bad” and The Big Lebowski? Yes, yes, and yes! But when I looked at the female list, the only thing I could really get excited about was…eh? Something about mascara or mom?

I now understand why I feel very out of place when the girl next to me belts out the latest country-pop song or raves about Pinterest. But new questions are raised and worthy of discussion, which, I guess, is why OKCupid published this research in the first place. How do white women market themselves in order to attract a partner? And what do these selections tell us about whiteness and privilege?

In order to better understand the data, I had to group it. Almost every item on the “white girl” list fits nicely into one or more of the following categories:

Pastoral Escapism

An overwhelming number of items on this list have to do with what Christian Rudder calls a “pastoral self-mythology,” meaning that white women, often living in urban settings, idolize the calm simplicity of rural life. If you’re looking for a reason why country music is so popular among white women, this is it. “Kenny Chesney,” “Tim McGraw,” “Carrie Underwood,” “a country girl,” and “country music” all appear on this list alongside emblems of the rural pastimes featured in country songs: “horseback riding,” “bonfires,” “summertime,” “flip flops,” and “thunderstorms.”

There’s an idea of escape here: life’s a beach (or a nice piece of farmland); the man of your dreams is going to hold you during romantic thunderstorms and build you bonfires, and you’ll live happily ever after. Flip open any Nicholas Sparks novel or Eat, Pray, Love, and you’ve got a full-blown white pastoral fantasy—or at least a lot of urban white girls pining away for one.

Innocence and Domesticity

I paired these two concepts together because some men desire these two qualities in the same individual—or at least white women seem to think they do. Men crave childlike innocence (think of fashion trends that infantalize women: the babydoll dress; the “sexy schoolgirl”) in order to feel like the “protector,” but they also want to know that dinner will be on the table when they get home.

Many items on this list reflect the cultural push for white women to be both youthful and nurturing. “Toes” are tiny, dainty body parts associated with babies. “Horses” and “horseback riding” are every little girl’s obsession. Domesticated pets are a staple of any “animal lover’s” childhood.

And of course, there’s “mom.” The domestic side of the coin is represented by items like “new recipes,” “cookbooks,” “baking,” “decorating,” and “flea markets.” “Wine,” the only alcoholic beverage on the list, is light, fruity; not rough and masculine like hard liquor. Wine is also associated with affluence, which brings me to…

Affluence

The white female list reeks of high-cost and/or superficial items, and I wish Robin Leach were still around to narrate this part. There’s “boating,” “skiing,” “baths,” “getting dressed up,” “mascara,” “yoga,” “Pilates,” and “Ireland”—the only item on this list outside of America, most likely there for its pastoral landscape and extremely white population.

Money, decadence, and status bind these items together. Interestingly enough, the only two careers appearing on the list are “nursing school” and “waitress,” which are both working class, service-oriented professions. Filet mignon taste on a hamburger budget? Maybe that’s where the man is supposed to come in.

The only sport appearing on the list is baseball. Though a baseball game is not expensive to attend, the environment is more relaxing than that of harder contact sports, only passive observation is required, and it takes place in the “summertime,” making it perfect for a romantic outing. The only two teams listed are the Yankees and the Red Sox—both bandwagon teams associated with wealth (New York City) and whiteness (New England).

As white girls, we are conditioned to believe that we have no culture, but the collective consciousness revealed in OKCupid’s data indicates otherwise: I’m urban, but I romanticize anything having to do with the country. I’m sweet and youthful, but I’ll pamper you with home-cooked meals. I am high-maintenance and have expensive taste, but at least you won’t have to worry about my career overshadowing yours.

White female culture is a mash-up of privilege, fantasy, and meekness, and furthermore, it’s a culture that deviates from the less self-involved interests of other races. OKCupid’s black female sample focused on religion and prolific black writers like Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, while the Latino set prized education, independence, and ethnic traditions in cuisine and dance.

Twitter accounts like Common White Girl and First World Pains satirize white privilege and its trivialities, but OKCupid’s findings suggest that white girls themselves aren’t in on the joke. Instead, their marketing strategies are more a reflection of what they think white men desire and less an accurate representation of how life and relationships really work. Unsurprisingly, the Common White Girl avatar is Disney’s Cinderella—a perfect symbol of the starry-eyed perceptions largely unshared by more self-assured women of other races.

At 26, I’m no stranger to the cookie-cutter followers of Generic White Girl Culture, and if I had a dollar for every time I’ve been romantically rejected for one of these girls, I could probably put myself through college again. Interests like hockey and Robert Heinlein haven’t gotten me very many dates, after all.

So maybe these women are on to something. No judgment here if you savor a glass of wine in the bath or enjoy getting lost in the occasional Disney movie, but if you are constructing an entire identity out of satirized stereotypes, you may want to ask yourself: How authentic is this image, and who is it really for?

Infidelity and Powerful Men: What the Anthony Weiner Scandal Teaches Us About Cheating and Power Dynamics in America

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This article was published by The Good Men Project on August 14, 2013You can view it here.

Americans are no strangers to the unbreakable bond between male power and sexual prowess – especially when it comes to our celebrities and politicians. With great power comes great ego, and with great ego comes selfishness, indiscretion, and overt disrespect for one’s spouse and family. Being forced to step down from Congress should have been humiliation enough for any philanderer, but two years later, New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner is up to his old tricks while his wife, Huma Abedin, experiences “déjà vu all over again.” Even worse, Weiner estimates the count of women he has texted at “six to ten, I suppose,” meaning that he doesn’t even know the number of women with whom he has cheated on his wife. This is not the romanticized affair of Tolstoy or Flaubert; it is a 21st century politician stroking his ego, among other things, in front of a cell phone screen as countless women he barely knows sit transfixed a world away.

What can we learn about our own relationships from watching the breaking scandals of politicians like Anthony Weiner? Plenty. Weiner descends from a long line of political womanizers – FDR, JFK, Bill Clinton – all of whom are valued as “great men” despite their wandering eyes because they are products of a society that largely overlooks and often rewards such activity. And while plenty of women also engage in rampant and reckless affairs, there seems to be a different set of rules set for men by those in positions of power. Our culture’s glorification of “great men” like JFK who run a lengthy list of women alongside their achievements sends a distinct message to men all over the country: Success is synonymous with the ability to get any woman, or as many women, as you want.

On the July 19th edition of Andrea Mitchell Reports, MSNBC analyst Melissa Harris-Perry noted that as a society, “we reward women who are rule-followers, and we tend to reward men who are rule-breakers,” in reference to the Anthony Weiner scandal. What is political power for Weiner or celebrity power for Tiger Woods translates to perceived power for ordinary men. Not only do they see that the actions of high profile public figures are without consequence, they are bombarded by media renderings of the old ladies’ man vs. slut double standard – male ensemble comedies based around a goal of sexual conquest, commercials depicting a swarm of hot blondes around the holder of the desired beer or body spray, reality shows like The Jersey Shore where the characters Mike “The Situation” and Angela are respectively praised and ridiculed for the same promiscuous choices. “Rule-breaking,” then, becomes synonymous with avoiding responsibility for one’s sexual behavior.

“Rule-breaking” as it relates to cheating in relationships reflects the attitudes of promiscuous men in power in two ways: frequent exploits/high number of partners, and lack of discretion. The first is a matter of quantity over quality – a man sending lewd pictures to multiple women using a convenient group message function, or simply not caring enough about his wife or girlfriend’s feelings and integrity to knock it off after the first fling. Weiner’s uncertainty regarding the number of women on the receiving end of his messages indicates that he is not emotionally invested in any of them, either; they are “six to ten,” they are numbers and not people, much like the numbers of the teenage boy pressured to increase his amount of sexual partners while the respective girl struggles to keep her own number modest and low.

Lack of discretion, much of which is fueled by advances in 21st century technology, signifies a marked change in attitude toward secrecy. Affairs are now documented in written and retrievable electronic forms – text messages, e-mail, webcam footage and chat transcripts – and are often uncovered in social media spaces. Anthony Weiner’s remarks, “I said that other texts and photos were likely to come out, and today they have,” and “I’m responsible for this behavior that led us to be in this place, but in many ways, things are not that much different than they were yesterday,” suggest indifference, a verbal shoulder-shrug that reads less as an admission of guilt and more of a stand that, after an obligatory apology, the matter of his infidelity is somehow others’ and not his own problem to deal with.

Women as “rule-followers” in relationships are often encouraged to and even rewarded for turning the other cheek to affairs, acting as the “the dutiful wife” and salvaging the marriage. Many girls and young women still grow up believing that the man holds the power in the household and that divorce is an abomination – growing up in a partially Catholic family and working for an evangelical Christian school, I have seen plenty of women in unhealthy relationships who feel that it is their duty to stay (rule-following) and not his to change (stopping the rule-breaking). Huma Abedin is referenced in her husband’s press conference comments as a kind of savior, offering guidance and benediction, but the problem with all of this generosity is that it offers no real incentive for cheating spouses to stop their behavior. When one partner in a marriage prioritizes commitment more than the other and to the point that their integrity falls by the wayside, disappointing results can leave them struggling to hold together a relationship in which they are continuously disrespected.

Unfortunately, in the public sphere, a woman’s power is often compromised by leaving the relationship – particularly in politics. Elin Nordegren, former wife of Tiger Woods, faced little obstacle in returning to a life without her golf pro partner and is currently enrolled in psychology courses at Rollins College, but the wives of former U.S. presidents face a different challenge. Because political “power couples” require two to tango, the woman’s power is inextricably linked to that of her husband’s. Eleanor Roosevelt wanted a divorce after discovering Franklin’s affair with secretary Lucy Mercer, but these plans quickly evaporated as soon as the Roosevelt family threatened to shun her husband and subsequently disinherit their children. Hillary Clinton chose to stay with Bill (who famously carried on an affair with Monica Lewinsky “because he could”) and has since been elected a New York Senator, run for president, and served as Secretary of State. These decisions send a clear and disheartening message to women all over the country: “Rule-following” by ignoring or accepting infidelity is often the best method to maintain power and achieve personal gain.

The standard of rewarding men and women in the same way for different sets of behaviors offers no solution to a cycle that simultaneously raises the man’s ego and lowers the woman’s prioritization of her own value. This norm is kept intact by cultural trends like the “sex addict” myth, which perpetuates the idea that men are not in control of their own sexual behavior; they are compelled by some outside force and therefore not responsible for their conduct. A woman who excuses or even pities her husband’s sexual compulsions may enjoy the resulting power and security, but what of the untold damage to her self-worth? Eventually, she will be left going along to get along or, in the case of Huma Abedin, left awkwardly smiling beside him at yet another press conference.

Image Credit: Flickr/zennie62

Five Years Later, Ben Roethlisberger Rape Jokes are Still Not Okay

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This article was published by Role/Reboot on August 12, 2013.  You can view it here.

As a second-generation Pittsburgher who bleeds black and gold, my favorite time of year is the six-month block when I can cheer on the Steelers. It’s early August, football season is just around the corner, and recently I had the pleasure of attending my first Steelers training camp practice. The best part about the practice, other than meeting the head coach and getting him to sign a pair of black and gold knee socks I bought earlier at the merchandise tent? The complete absence of Ben Roethlisberger rape jokes.

I should explain. My father, a Pittsburgh native, relocated to central Maryland many years ago, where I now live—about an hour west of Baltimore. Baltimore is home to the Ravens, and the rivalry between the Steelers and the Ravens is one of the most heated in the NFL. Living in an area where fans of both teams mix and mingle (sometimes hospitably, sometimes not) means there is plenty of opportunity for heckling the opposition, and the “incidents” of 2008 and 2010 involving quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have given Ravens fans no shortage of fodder.

In July 2008, Andrea McNulty of Lake Tahoe, Nevada, claimed that Roethlisberger had raped her in his hotel room and decided to file a civil suit against him. Despite the fact that McNulty’s co-worker delivered a statement swearing that McNulty bragged to her about having consensual sex with Roethlisberger, the insults from Ravens fans began to fly. “Rapistberger!” they shouted. “Stay away from my daughter!” “No means no!” The second sexual assault accusation against Roethlisberger in March 2010, which allegedly took place in a nightclub bathroom in Milledgeville, Georgia, added even more fuel to the fire.

A friend of mine, who is a die-hard Baltimore Ravens fan, made me a T-shirt for my birthday adorned with the phrase “No Means No,” and placed Steelers emblems inside the letter O’s. There is a photograph of me after I slipped the shirt on that night, grinning from ear to ear and giving the camera two thumbs-up. I was 21 years old at the time. Five years later, at 26, I am embarrassed by that picture.

I find that picture embarrassing because, at 21, I had not yet left my college dorm room to give my roommate and a boy I had assumed was her date some privacy. I had not yet come back to the room hours later to discover my roommate missing, and I had not yet been questioned the following morning by a detective from the city police.

At 21, I had not yet heard the shocking and painful stories of sexual assault from female friends and family members. I had not yet been in a situation where I was drunk and could have, depending on the setting and circumstances, been taken advantage of. I had not yet pushed a guy off of me who wanted to go further than I was comfortable with, and I had not yet felt the anger and helplessness associated with having to say “No” many, many times over before he complied.

But at 26, I have.

According to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), someone in the United States is sexually assaulted every two minutes. Many American football fans—jersey-donning, face-painting, chicken-wing-guzzling football fans—are women. So when you see the hulking 6’5” Steelers quarterback parade across your television screen and hurl phrases at him like “No means no!”—phrases often linked to a painful past for many women—whom are you really hurting?

Five years after the first incident, Roethlisberger rape jokes are still everywhere. Hopping off the stool at a sports bar where the Steelers game is being shown, I am often told to “be careful in the bathroom” by male friends who cheer for the opposition. Before trips to Pittsburgh to see my family, I am cautioned to “watch out for Rapistberger—avoid the public bathrooms up there,” especially if I’m “wearing a skirt.”

The fear of rape, assault, and harassment is a constant reality for many women. Dark parking lots, street corners, and enclosed spaces—like public bathrooms—are spaces that carry a threat for women that men simply do not experience. The advice “Don’t get raped,” passed off as a joke all in good fun reflects the central problem with our culture’s treatment of sexual violence: Rather than teaching boys not to rape, we teach girls not to get raped. It’s victim-blaming concealed as playful Sunday afternoon banter.

If the football fans who hurl taunts like “Rapistberger” are truly outraged by rape, they would take a stand against a serious issue, choosing to donate money or volunteer their time at CASA, Inc. (Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused) or to join an organization like MAVAW (Men Against Violence Against Women). They would not use sexual violence as material to propagate a sports rivalry.

I don’t know if Roethlisberger raped those two women; he was never convicted, and I was not personally there to witness the alleged assaults. But one thing is clear to me five years after lightheartedly donning that “No Means No” shirt: Professional sports are not platforms to reinforce sexual objectification, victim-blaming, or other misogynistic points of view. Professional sports should provide occasions for both men and women to socialize and entertain, and to feel safe and comfortable while doing so.

So once football season starts this year, you can find me in a black and gold jersey, cheering for my home team. And if you’re genuinely concerned about what may or may not happen to me in the public bathroom, feel free to walk me there yourself.