An Open Letter to My Beloved College Freshman Brother Regarding Consent, Illustrated with Personal Examples

by Kyla Jamieson.

Kyla is a writer in her fourth year at UBC. She is working on a memoir about modeling and can be followed on Twitter @kyjamieson. Kyla originally presented this piece at the March to Reclaim Consent at UBC Campus, unceded Musqueam territory, on November 22, 2013. 


I know how you’re going to react to this—you don’t want to hear about your sister’s sex life. You don’t even want to know I have sex, as you made clear that time you threatened to kick me out of your car for mentioning a sexual partner. But don’t worry, this isn’t just about my sex life, this is about yours too.

You practice safe sex—of this I’m fairly certain, given the condoms I found in the console when I searched your car for parking change. So, at the very least, I know you know about safe sex, which is great. Keep wrapping it up. But do you know about consent?

I’m not here to point fingers or assume. For all I know, you give, ask for, and receive, enthusiastic consent throughout every sexual encounter. But while mom’s “birds and the bees” talk taught me she’s boss at drawing ovaries, it skipped over consent. So a little review seems prudent, especially as recent events in my own bed have shown that there are still some people in the dark about this essential aspect of safe, happy sex.

For example: the basketball player you almost kicked me out of your car for mentioning. He’d unwrapped a condom and was putting it on when I asked, “Aren’t you going to ask me?” He looked up at me, dumbfounded. He thought it was obvious I wanted to have sex, and I thought it was obvious that it is never obvious. It seems problematic that the basics of consent have flown over a few heads, given how essential consent is to not committing sexual assault.

At the very least, failing to ask will reveal you to have poor manners. At the very worst, it will make you a rapist.

“If a girl doesn’t say ‘No,’ I don’t understand how it can be rape.” A kind, gentle, well-intentioned man spoke that sentence in my bed. I found myself at a loss for words. But eventually I was able to explain: not saying “No” is not the same thing as consent. Because as you might imagine, the shock of being sexually assaulted can render one quite speechless.

One more example: my new boyfriend, a geography student. The first time we had sex, we were both a bit tipsy. We both wanted to get into bed, and we both wanted to have sex—the first time. Then he put another condom on, and before I could tell him that I didn’t want to do it again, he was inside me.

If we weren’t already friends, I would have written him off. Instead, I later told him that I’d wanted to have sex—but not the second time, not like that. His face fell; he hadn’t realized. 

The first few times he asked me, “Do you want to have sex?” were a little awkward. You might experience the same feeling, but don’t let it get to you. Keep checking in for consent the same way you keep wrapping it up. If they’re like me, your partners will say, “Yes, oh, please fuck me,” or, “No. Want some ice cream?” and in every case you’ll have established your fine manners and respectful nature.

You might think this is too much information, but until kids learn to ask “Do you want to have sex?” before they practice putting condoms on bananas, it looks like I’ll be teaching Consent 101, one person at a time. And who better than your big sister to offer examples from her own life? Just some things I thought you should know. See you at Christmas.

Love always,
Your sis.


(image courtesy of

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I’m not over it and here’s why you shouldn’t be either

When it first occurred to me to write a post about the pro-rape and anti-Indigenous chants that occurred at various UBC frosh events, my first reaction was to reject the idea on the basis of that topic is terribly last month. The subsequent “WAITAMINUTE” ringing through my head caused me to be disappointed in my own investment in a mass media mindset that a worthy topic has only a couple weeks of shelf life. Especially when that topic relates to the pervasiveness of rape culture, misogyny, racism, and colonialism – how could we ever be done talking about it?

So, why shouldn’t we be over what happened at UBC in those first weeks of September? Why, when student leaders have already stepped down and when UBC has promised us change? We should never be over the trivialization of sexual assault and colonial violence that was implicit in the chants because this isn’t just about the chants. This isn’t merely an issue of a handful of students making bad decisions and a dark mark on the UBC brand. As easy as it would be to scapegoat Sauder or pretend this is all UBC’s problem, to do so would be to overlook the reality that this is about the world we live in – a created culture in which we are all complicit in a public forgetting of colonial history and a social blindness in the face of violence and rape. In a statement made by the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice, the Institute points out that,

since it is 3rd-year undergraduate students who oriented the Sauder first-year students into singing the YOUNG chant, it is also the case that the older students both learned this chant as part of their UBC education, and have demonstrated that they have not learned anything that would have provided them with the understanding, knowledge and know-how with which to refuse to sing the YOUNG chant… It is also the case that we can rightly conclude there has been a failure of public education in the fact that the C.U.S. 3rd year students did not appear to take responsibility and intervene in – contest or otherwise resist and refuse – the routine socialization of students into anti-aboriginal actions and chants.

Yes, students made bad decisions when they decided to engage in and encourage the chants, but what about the likelihood that they didn’t truly understand how harmful these actions would be? Whose fault is their lack of education?

To draw from a statement released by UBC’s Centre for Feminist Legal Studies (CFLS), we have to ask what made those UBC student ill-equipped to connect the sentiments of the “YOUNG” chant with the fact that

sexual violence against women and girls is unfortunately commonplace. While the exact incidence of sexual assault is difficult to measure, a conservative estimate is that at least 1/3 women will be sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lifetime. Rates of sexual violence are highest for adolescents and young women.

Given the pervasiveness of sexual violence, the likelihood that there were women and men sitting on that bus at UBC who have been sexually assaulted is significant. Instead of welcoming them to UBC as a site of critical reflection, safety, and well-being, the “YOUNG” chant made a joke out of what so many understand to be real and long-lasting trauma. To continue borrowing from the CFLS statement, jokes or comments that eroticize young women as “jailbait” or as “tight,” are actions that contribute to the construction and bolstering of rape myths that are mobilized every day to justify, ignore, or diminish the severity of violence. Let us compel universities to be locations where these actions are understood and condemned as displays of rape culture, where we can expect that students are learning to value respect for each other over getting a laugh.

(image courtesy of:

We can’t ignore the connections between the “YOUNG” chant and the anti-Indigenous “Pocahontas” chant. In the words of Daniel Justice, “when white people sold the land, they raped, butchered and dispossessed human beings… Pocahontas is a figure used to justify men’s claims over land and women… It’s not only racist, it’s also misogynist.” Not only did the anti-Indigenous chant make light of colonial violence, but it also functions as part of a glamorization of the story of Pocahontas, given that is what the group’s “theme” was. Despite the hold that the Pocahontas story has had within a North American cultural consciousness, the reality is that

the real Pocahontas was likely no older than fourteen when the middle-aged John Smith wrote his fabricated account of their supposed romance in what was probably a ritual adoption ceremony (Pocahontas would later be kidnapped by English colonial authorities to force her father into political negotiations, finding freedom only through conversion to Christianity and marriage to another colonist, John Rolfe.)

Romanticized versions of her story sit at an intersection between a disregard for the gravity of colonial history and a trivialization of the sexual assault of young girls and women. The statement by UBC’s First Nations Studies program asserts that

combined with the earlier rape chant, the use of the stereotyped Indian Princess version of Pocahontas as a frosh mascot demonstrates just how deeply sexism permeates anti-Aboriginal representations in popular culture, as such figures are routinely used to exoticize and eroticize colonialism through debasing Indigenous women’s bodies. The [anti-Indigenous] chant is not disconnected from the rape chant; they are not isolated incidents, but are instead intersected and mutually reinforcing issues of violence…

Let us also not forget that the anti-Indigenous/Pocahontas chant came to light on the same morning of Vancouver’s national Truth and Reconciliation Commission event, the same morning that UBC students had the day off school in order to educate themselves on residential schools, colonial violence, and the legacy of such violence on Indigenous communities. The irony that the chants, which highlight a lack of education and thoughtful engagement, surfaced on a day dedicated to such engagement is suggestive that there is still so much missing from education on colonial history and Indigenous issues.

(for more information about learning opportunities, check out the First Nations Studies Program’s event page)

Finally, let us decide that we are not okay with the coverage provided by UBC’s student newspaper, the Ubyssey, which could have benefited enormously from a more thoughtful and informed discussion of the chants. The anti-Indigenous chant is only mentioned as a side note in an article covering the “YOUNG” chant – it never receives serious consideration on its own. Further, consideration of the “YOUNG” chant itself suffered from a lack of critical engagement. In an editorial published in the Ubyssey and written by Saint Mary’s University professor Mark Mercer, Mercer claims that

No one was harassed by the chanters. That is, the chanters didn’t chant at anyone, and they didn’t follow anyone around while chanting at them. No one said to the chanters, “Stop it, you’re bothering me.” Since one is unable to culpably harass another before that other signals that the behaviour is unwelcome, no one was culpably harassed. The chanters did not discriminate against anyone. All present were welcome to join in. No one was given the cold shoulder, certainly not on account of sex, race or religion.

This argument stands because it clings to a thread of thin logic based on dredged up “technical” definition of harassment. Would it be too much to ask for a more complex discussion of the ideas of harassment and discrimination so that we might see how the existence of the chant operates to harm and intimidate victims of sexual violence in real ways? Where is an understanding that the responsibility to say “Stop it, you’re bothering me” should never have to be on the shoulders of first-year students in the first place – where is an account of the potential for peer pressure to coerce affected students into silence? The Ubyssey staff goes on to assert in another article that money donated by the Commerce Undergraduate Society that is intended to fund a sexual assault counsellor at the UBC Counselling Centre is

a worthy mission, but UBC already runs a well-staffed counselling services program. So does the AMS-funded Sexual Assault Support Centre… it’s not like [receiving sexual assault counselling] is something students weren’t able to do with the services already available.

What the Ubyssey fails to mention is that the UBC Counselling Centre currently doesn’t have any staff members who specialize in sexual assault support and that the SASC, while doing incredibly important and invaluable work on campus, doesn’t have the funds required to hire a registered counsellor. Not to mention, even going out into the community to receive support is a difficult process for students given that chronic underfunding of sexual assault support organizations results in lengthy wait-lists for counsellors. Furthermore, this understanding of sexual assault support fails to understand that counselling is not a preventative solution to rape culture. Adequate counselling options are important to help many survivors in their recovery, however, promoting counselling as the primary response to sexual violence works to individualize rape by placing the responsibility to respond to violence solely on the victim. What gets lost is the reality that preventing rape requires a cultural shift and a commitment to ending sexism, racism, colonialism, heterosexism, transphobia, classism, ablism, and other forms of oppression. 

Colonial and sexual violence are not punch lines to be mobilized for a “good time”. Disapproval of the “inappropriateness” of the chants is not enough when there are so many conversations about education, cultural acceptance, and respect that need to continue being had. Because of that, I’m not done talking about the chants at UBC and you shouldn’t be either.

*Update: As I was finishing this post, it came to light that a 3rd sexual assault has occurred at UBC in the last 3 weeks. These assaults and the chants are not separate issues. As we continue to have conversations about sexual assault at UBC, let us be thoughtful, critical, and aware of the rape culture in which we all exist and let us collectively understand the paramount importance of ending sexual violence.

**Update: In my original post, I made the mistake of referring to the editorial by Mark Mercer as an article written by a Ubyssey staff member. It is important to note that, although it was published in the newspaper, it is not an article written by a Ubyssey journalist. This has since been corrected.

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Men’s Rights Activists and Misdirected Hatred

by Carly Rhianna Smith

Carly Rhianna Smith is a journalism student at Langara College currently completing her practicum at The Tyee in Vancouver. 

I became aware of the men’s rights movement in September of 2012, when a friend showed me an upcoming debate called “Has Feminism Gone Too Far?”

Vancouver slam poet Ruth Mason-Paull organized the debate. Feminist speakers as well as men’s rights activist (MRA) speakers were scheduled, and a public event on Facebook was created. Interestingly, the debate was to be held on Commercial Drive at Café Deux Soleil, a neighbourhood eatery haunted by many feminists, as well as others of the political left.

The Facebook event exploded with venomous discourse between the two camps, and the event was cancelled. According to an article on feminist website dated September 10, “Mason-Paull canceled the debate … after receiving what she said was an overwhelming barrage of comments and threats.” On Mason-Paull’s Facebook page, she said “I come from a middle class belief that people can discuss things and work it out through logic and reasoning. I understand that this is at best delusional when applied to certain members of our society.”

Around the same time, in the same neighbourhood, posters from the Men’s Rights Movement (MRM) Vancouver group began appearing, and were soon torn down. The posters said things like “Rape Culture. Men Can Stop Rape. All Men Are Rapists. Had Enough of This Shit Yet?”


Journalist Derek Bedry, who soon came under fire from MRAs, reported on this in a story on Open File. They accused him of “creating the news” by tearing down the posters himself. They posted pictures of a man (who didn’t look much like him) and publicly vilified him in comments on the article. Comments were patronizing, saying things like “So how did you become a reporter again Derek? Do you receive a pat on the back from some ladies at work for this? Or do they throw some more bones at you?” All this was too juicy and I did some further research into the MRM.

The most active website I came across was They have over 1,200 featured articles separated into categories like “misandry,” “sexual politics,” and “feminism.” They also put out radio shows on a multitude of topics pertaining to the MRM.

But what, exactly, do they stand for? And what do they hope to accomplish?


At best, the MRAs look to correct what they see as a series of social injustices directed towards men in a society that caters to female dominance. At worst, they are misguided, angry people with a chip on their shoulder using feminism as a scapegoat for the problems they face in their lives.

“You have a group in a privileged position in society and they’re claiming to be the victim; it’s either a strategic maneuver or else it’s just a misguided perspective,” says Nicole Deagan, a member of The F Word feminist media collective. Deagan encountered a lot of resistance from MRAs when she worked as a legal advocate for women who were going through the court system in the 1990s. “Either it’s people who have power and are uncomfortable with the idea of losing their power or they’re uncomfortable with somebody who’s typically not had power trying to get some. Or else it’s individuals, especially in the men’s rights movement, who are suffering injustices as individuals and they interpret it as a systemic issue,” she says.

The Vancouver Men’s Rights Activism website states in its FAQ: “The MRM is a true civil rights movement, which entertains no goals of removal of the legal rights of others. Both men and women are members of the men’s movement, which recognizes and works to address the real struggles men now face.” To them, this is in contrast to feminism, which “is now elitist, and prejudiced against men” because “many mainstream feminist organizations define masculinity in their public literature as hostile, violent and oppressive.”

The main antagonist of the MRM is feminism. “I’m of the firm belief that, while no society is perfect, we have pursued, and I think achieved, as much sexual parity as could possibly be hoped for in western culture,” says Paul Elam, creator of A Voice For Men. “If there is systemic discrimination against women, I would certainly stand up and speak against it if anyone could show me where it was. However, what I see in terms of systemic discrimination anymore works against men.”


MRAs are fighting against misandry, the fear or hatred of men and boys. A lot of MRM literature uses examples of men being irrationally feared as sexual aggressors, female-on-male violence not being taken seriously, and the court system’s favoritism of women to illustrate their point. The problem with their approach is that they frequently cite anecdotal evidence to back up their claims, yet provide either no or blatantly false empirical evidence or statistics to back them up.

Many MRAs, such as Vancouver resident Chris Marshall, seem to have become involved in the movement due to a personal hardship. Marshall runs the website A Father’s Story, which documents his custody battle with his wife, who lives in Alberta with their 11-year-old son. The website, to say the least, does not seem to be working in his favour. He has continued posting despite being ordered by a judge to take the site down, saying in a post, “It is still up because it is the only tool I have to get people to understand the 10-year nightmare that I have been through in the Alberta courts.” He posted his entire psychological assessment, in which Dr. J. Thomas Dalby states: “Mr. Marshall has shown, by his past actions, a sense of entitlement that he feels he has the natural right to construct access to his child in the way he sees fit in spite of legal restrictions. He has seen the consequences of this casual disregard of legal boundaries and his conduct can only be described as self-defeating.”

In an interesting turn of events, Marshall was to co-host a new debate after the first one at Café Deux Soleil was cancelled. John H., MRA blogger at A Voice For Men named only as “John The Other,” would also host. I intended to attend the debate and interview some of the MRAs in person. It was going to be held at the car dealership in East Vancouver, CC Motors, of which Marshall was the manager. I showed up not realizing this, and walked around in confusion, looking for the master debaters. I could see signage out in front of the dealership being taken down but not much other activity. I asked someone and they told me, “The guy who was supposed to run it never showed up.”

I found on the Facebook event page that police had escorted Marshall off the premises and that his position at the dealership had been terminated due to an entirely separate issue. I got his contact information from his website, and he seemed eager, if not overly so, to share his story with me. He expressed worry in our conversation that I was going to “use him” to get to other MRAs and defame their movement. After some reassurance, we arranged an interview time.

I showed up at the coffee shop we’d arranged to meet at 10 minutes early. I waited for him for over 45 minutes and placed several calls to him that remained unanswered and unreturned. He later replied to one of the emails I sent him, but never got back to me about re-scheduling an interview. This was perturbing; isn’t their goal to have their voices and points of view heard by the public? The opportunity was there and gone.

I soon found that MRAs are an elusive bunch outside of the realms of the internet. I managed to get ahold of Paul Elam after several emails over the course of two weeks or so. He admitted to me that the only reason he ever called me back was because I was “so persistent.” I also attempted to contact John The Other through the website, through Paul Elam, and through Facebook, to no answer.

This seems to be an MRA tactic – they control what information they’re putting out and the slant with which it’s communicated. If they don’t cooperate with media, then there is less of a chance of media scrutiny. In many articles, media has been unkind to MRAs, but this has been as much their own undoing as anything else.

Firstly, to get to the heart of the matter, a majority of claims made by MRAs are false. In a video made by Men’s Rights Edmonton, they say, “Women and men initiate domestic violence at similar rates. Over 250 scholarly studies demonstrate that women are as physically aggressive or more aggressive than men in their relationships with their spouses or male partners.” This assertion is widely purported in the MRA community. Notice that the “scholarly studies” are not named, nor are they cited anywhere. Another poster put up on Commercial Drive in September said, “Stop Violence Against Women. But not against men. Because men do not matter, and despite being more often the victims of violence, male victims are no good for fund raising, so screw them.” However, according to Statistics Canada, “In 2010, 7 in 10 (70%) victims of police-reported family violence were girls or women. Looking at rates, the risk of becoming a victim of police-reported family violence was more than twice as high for girls and women as it was for boys and men … The main factor behind females’ increased risk of family violence is related to their higher representation as victims of spousal violence. Women aged 15 years and older accounted for 81% of all spousal violence victims.” In addition, the Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project says in its Clemency Manual, “Currently, there are approximately 2,000 battered women in America who are serving prison time for defending their lives against their batterers. As many as 90% of the women in prison today for killing men had been battered by those men.”

MRAs make claims that sound true or based in fact, when in actuality, they’re based on assumption, anecdotal evidence, or a complete misunderstanding of the issue. “Domestic violence against women is much more likely than domestic violence against men to be life-threatening,” says Jarrah Hodge, who runs the blog Gender Focus. “If MRAs want to address violence against men they should also look at male violence against men and address the stereotypes and pressures that unfortunately tells many men that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflict and necessary to prove masculinity.”

Most perturbing are their claims regarding sexual violence. In the “Facts” section on A Voice For Men, they claim “Men are the overwhelming majority of rape victims.” However, none of the following statistics they present prove that. All the statistics have to do with the percentage of female aggressors in cases of child abuse, correctional facilities, or the inmates who report prison rape. These are all misleading. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, nine out of every 10 rape victims were female in 2003, while statistics show the over 80 per cent of sex crime victims in Canada are women.

Even more dangerous are their attitudes toward rape and rape culture. John The Other was quoted in Bedry’s Open File article as saying, “Maybe it’s a mistaken accusation, she doesn’t remember who she had sex with because she was drunk at the party or whatever. Some make accusations that have nothing to do with being raped; they’re angry, or they got stood up, they wanted to have sex with a guy but he said no. The fact that our society doesn’t have a balance for this is a major problem. I’m not suggesting every woman you meet is a loose cannon, but every woman you meet has the potential to be one, because for those few who are nutty, there’s no disincentive for them to go, oh, I was late for work. I know, I’ll just say I got raped.” This is speculative and revealing that, while MRAs say they are not anti-women, their attitudes are misogynistic at the core. The belief that women can and will falsely accuse men of rape in order to further their own ends is another symptom of the rape culture that MRAs claim does not exist.

“[They] definitely seem to see feminists as enemies. And so these men are in a position of power but are rallying people against their supposed ‘oppressors’. But since those aren’t real oppressors with real social power then it just ends up feeding into the same discrimination that women experience already,” says Deagan.

The clash between feminists and MRAs is tempestuous. “In my experience, their approach is quite reactionary as opposed to pro-active; I find they are more interested in smear campaigns against feminism rather than making a case for issues they think are important to men,” says Megan Karius, who maintains the Feminist Edmonton website. “They generally blame feminism for what they consider men’s issues and that ultimately detracts from their arguments.”

There seems to be a group of them that are quite vocal and quite aggressive so when they see something, specifically when they see women’s activists or anyone who’s trying to look at women’s issues, they kind of come in for the attack and so it’s very hard to have a reasonable conversation,” says Deagan.

I recognize that patriarchy is not only oppressive to women, but functions to oppress men as well. The term “patriarchy” is not some sort of imputation against all men, identifying them as oppressors of all women. Patriarchy is an institution; it functions at the cultural level and, while it does avail men with privilege, this does not mean that males are not also detrimentally impacted by patriarchy,” writes Jasmine Peterson in an article on the blog Gender Focus. This spurred a mocking, hateful response video from MRAs. The background of the video is a photo of someone in a gorilla mask with superimposed text that reads “Feminist sans makeup.” The men read her entire post in a mocking tone and present their own unsubstantiated facts, then go on to invite people to attack her.

The ones who have engaged me have generally taken one of two approaches: outright hostility and total dismissal of feminists as “cunts” or “feminazis” who are bent on bringing down men, or arguing more civilly that they don’t believe feminism is necessary because, in their view, society actually discriminates against men,” said Hodge.

They are just the latest trend in the ongoing backlash to the gains of the feminist movement we’ve seen in the past few decades.  While individual men may face structural inequality due to other aspects of their identity, such as race, class, sexual orientation, or ability, they still derive privilege from being male; I think the majority of MRAs are reacting to seeing some of their previously unquestioned privilege eroded and they are threatened by that,” says Karius.

One begins to wonder whether MRAs hate feminists, or are just rattled by women asserting themselves and challenging traditional modes of behaviour. Elam believes that the over-sexualization of women in the media is simply “recognizing women’s sexual power in this culture. Their sexual power gives them access to men economically.” He says that “sexuality generates a lot of financial generosity in men,” and some women are not only aware of this, but use it to their advantage. “We’ve been skewed by feminist ideology – we don’t see the power women have in our society,” he says. For how often MRAs accuse feminists of misandry, it’s incredibly ironic when they rely on arguments such as this one.  That statement is more insulting to men than anything feminists could come up with,” says Karius.

All this is not to say MRAs don’t have any valid claims. “We can and should absolutely talk about how our rigidly gendered society hurts men, but we can’t stop talking about the ways that women have been unequal and the ways in which women still suffer because of their gender,” says Hodge.

The issues MRAs have qualms with are basically class or social issues and have little to do with gender.

As feminism continues to be misrepresented and seen as some sort of hate movement, the goals feminists pursue become all the more relevant.

I think attacks by Men’s Rights Activists can be distracting from the issues and campaigns we’re involved in around women’s equality. It’s frustrating but I think most people who look at the issues can see MRAs tend to be pretty out-of touch,” says Hodge.

That being said, when I was waiting for Marshall’s interview, a man noticed I had been waiting for someone with a notebook and recorder and asked me about it. 

“I’m going to interview someone for an article,” I said.

“Who? And what is it about?” he asked

“I’m writing an article about the men’s rights movement,” I replied.

“Men’s rights! Ha! That’s a laugh! There’s no such thing these days!” he said as he walked off, guffawing.

Their attitudes may be outdated and misinformed, but many men agree with them. Examining gender inequality equipped with the wrong information can lead to some very troubling conclusions. MRAs create such noise in their political lobbying that they are bound to influence change. For example, a group called RADAR (Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Abuse Reporting) claims they have blocked four federal domestic violence bills in the United States. These are not the first legal implications MRAs have had, nor will they be the last if MRAs are taken seriously and feminism continues to be painted in a negative light. 

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Using Rape as a Plot Device

by Caity Goerke

[Content warning: discussion of sexual violence]

A plot device “is an object or character in a story whose only purpose is to advance the plot of the story.” While plot devices are necessary to move the action of a story forward, sometimes writers neglect to realize that there are some experiences that should always be handled with thoughtfulness and care – issues which shouldn’t be tossed around lightly as a simple means of moving from one plot point to another. Earlier in my semester, I read Titus Andronicus for my Shakespeare class and it got me thinking a lot about what it means to use rape as a plot device.

In Titus Adronicus, Titus’ daughter is brutally raped and mutilated. Lavinia’s rape is important to the play for exactly two reasons. Firstly, it allowed Shakespeare to increase the shock, gore, and horror factor of his play. Secondly, it provides motivation for Titus’ later acts of revenge. Lavinia’s rape is not important as a means of providing a platform to discuss sexual violence nor is it important to develop Lavinia as a character herself. In fact, Lavinia actually becomes less of a character after her rape because she becomes reduced to only her body. After reading Titus Andronicus, I started thinking about the ways that this is an all too common theme. Taken, I Saw the Devil, Death Wish, and Django Unchained are just a few examples of films where violence against women is used as a fundamental motivator for the story’s protagonist. Like Titus Andronicus, these films aren’t about the women who have been kidnapped, beaten, abused and raped. Both the women and the violence against them are merely important to move the plot of the story forward.

It is easy to see how using rape as a plot device in this way functions to erase women, as characters, from films and drama. Yet, the use of rape as a plot device also works in other harmful ways. Firstly, it can contribute to the sensationalization of violence against women. Violence against women is sensationalized when it is used to shock, horrify, and/or intrigue the audience. In an article called “The Bigger Picture: What happens when we find ‘The Line’ as viewers?,” movie critic Drew McWeeny speaks to his experience of watching rape being exploited for entertainment in film. He says,

what scares me most about it is that the vast majority of the scenes are directed so poorly that they become, in essence, titillation, and there is something immeasurably sick about including a scene in your film that involves rape just so you can sneak a little nudity into the movie.

The sensationalization of rape occurs in Titus in the way that Lavinia’s body, after her rape, is displayed as an object to be gawked at by other characters in the play and, subsequently, by the audience. In addition to the actual visual effects that would have been used to display the violation and mutilation of Lavinia’s body, she is described by both her rapists and her uncle in explicitly graphic ways. Not only does the repeated description of Lavinia’s appearance reduce her to her body, but the fact that she cannot speak because her tongue has been cut out further highlights her importance as a body, not as a character. The exploitation of rape is emphasized by the nature of the rape being used as a plot device. Because Lavinia’s rape is just a plot device, and her experience is never taken up and engaged with in any critical or thoughtful way, she is only important because she is a raped body – her character exists for no other purpose than to be raped. She functions only as a victim of violence and that violence is sensationalized so as to “justify” the equally sensationalized acts of violence committed by Titus in revenge.

Not only does using rape as a plot device contribute to its sensationalization, but it also functions to desensitize the audience to the issue of violence against women. McWeeny explains that “I must see 30 films a year where somebody needs to have ‘something bad’ happen, and the go-to impulse in almost every case is rape.” When rape is reduced to simply “something bad,” the reality that it is a traumatic experience that occurs in pandemic proportions is completely ignored. In Titus Andronicus, Lavinia’s rape is only important because it is a crime against Titus’ family, it’s simply “something bad.” Depicting rape in this way desensitizes us because it erases the experience of the victim and, therefore, ignores the grave reality of rape. We become further desensitized because rape is used in this way in film, television, and literature time and time again. You only have to turn on Law and Order, CSI, or any of a variety of crime dramas to see rape being used as a platform from which to launch the episode’s plot. While these shows occasionally take the time to engage with larger social issues related to violence (Law and Order SVU is perhaps the best example of this), the vast majority of the time the issue of sexual violence isn’t the focus of the episode. Instead, it’s the successes of a talented investigative team that takes the spotlight. Using rape again and again as nothing but a plot device causes us to forget what rape really is: a traumatic and violent event perpetrated against an individual as a result of a variety of intersecting and oppressive factors such as gender, race, sexuality, class, and ability.

Why is it so incredibly dangerous to ignore the reality of rape? Well, for starters, because we know that, in North America, 1 in 4 women will be raped in their lifetimes. 1 in 4. That’s 25%. And that’s only people who identify as women. How can we sensationalize and desensitize ourselves to the issue of rape when we understand the pervasiveness of it? When we use rape as a plot device and when we neglect to engage with the issue of sexual violence in thoughtful ways what are we saying to our classmates, to the person three rows behind you in the movie theatre, to the dorm-mate sharing the couch with you during your Saturday CSI marathon? What are we saying when these are people for whom rape is a reality, not just something that happens on screens, on stages, and in books? While these questions can’t be easily answered by a simple solution, there are things we can do to speak up. Efforts like Miss Representation’s #NotBuyingIt campaign allows us to bring our voices together to demand more responsible media. Donating our time and/or money to front-line organizations like Women Against Violence Against Women, Battered Women’s Support Services, Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, and UBC’s Sexual Assault Support Centre contributes to the provision of community-level support for victims of violence. Participating in events like the February 14th Women’s Memorial March and the March 23rd Community March Against Racism raises awareness about lived experiences of violence and oppression. Most importantly, we have to remember that using rape as a plot device isn’t just about lazy writing and the exploitation of trauma for “entertainment value.” Using rape as a plot device contributes to a culture where violence, trauma, degradation, and oppression go unquestioned in all forms of media. Moving from this point requires much more than just volunteerism and Twitter activism and, instead, requires a shift in our collective consciousness.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: worth it?

Guest post by Anna Wynveen

Bort (a.k.a) Anna Wynveen fills her free hours playing synthesizer with Kill City Kids and Lamontasaurus, and shouting to the wind at


I sat down to write a quick review of the film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  I soon realized that, not only is a quick review impossible, but I’m definitely not qualified to handle a discussion about this movie.

The story centres around Lisbeth Salander, a bisexual goth-geek private investigator.  She is hired by an excommunicated reporter to help solve the case of a missing woman.  Lisbeth is the victim of abuse (a long painful history is implied but not shared with the audience), and the film contains a graphic scene of her being raped by her social worker.  Did I say graphic?  I meant GRAPHIC.  It was definitely not an overtly sexy, Eminem-Rihanna depiction of violence against women.  But is it ever possible to portray sexual violence without it being sexualized?  And is this just the latest in a line of stories, written by men, which aim to titillate viewers with graphic depictions of men raping and murdering women?

Ugh.  I just don’t know.  But I would caution anyone who is sensitive to graphic depictions of violence to avoid this movie.

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