Coachella, Rape Culture And What You Can Do About It

04/16/2015 12:27 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2015

On Sunday, THUMP editor Jemayel Khawaja tweeted a photo of a smiling man wearing a shirt that read "Eat, Sleep, Rape, Repeat." The image quickly went viral, spawning a conversation about rape jokes, free speech and whether the whole thing was Photoshopped (unfortunately: no, it wasn't).

One awful t-shirt does not a rape culture make, but it is indicative of the kind of mindset that fosters slut-shaming, victim blaming and the high levels of sexual assault we see at concerts and music festivals. HuffPost spoke with sociologist, sexuality and gender expert Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals to get a clearer look at what social factors allow for rape culture and how we can work to fight it.

What kind of conclusions, if any, can be drawn about Coachella based on that awful t-shirt?
I think the foremost thing it shows, on a critical and thoughtful level, is that we need to speak up. The whole Internet is inundated with images of this shirt, but we don't have an answer for who that guy is or where the shirt comes from. How many people did it get vetted through? Whose idea was it to produce this message, replicate it on a t-shirt and then put it out in the marketplace? And then he purchased it or picked it up, wore it out in public and then walked around and was seen by how many people before someone happened to take a picture or say something, right?

A number of bloggers are saying the shirt indicative of rape culture. That term popped up in feminist literature in the '70s. What's the clearest definition for what it means in this case?
So, rape culture refers to how we as a society think about sexual assault. And sexual assault doesn't just include penetrative vaginal or anal sex, per se. There are all sorts of gradients to it. It also has to do with the way sexual assault is pervasive, unevenly distributed and normalized. Within that, there is variability in terms of gender, sexuality, race, social class, physical ability and age. So, rape culture is a troubling and difficult idea to pin down that is present everywhere. You can see it manifested in things like slut shaming and victim blaming, but also the trivializing and denial of assault.


A view of the ferris wheel at the Coachella 2015 music festival.

How do examples of rape culture, like that Coachella t-shirt, intersect with the free speech?
It's an interesting balance. Does that person have the right to wear whatever they want to wear and say what they want to say? Of course. But the idea with rape culture is to have sort of a critical eye. So, there is this dimension of thinking of things in an artistic free speech way, but then there's also this wider ideology up against it, so that we sort of forget about the severity of the issue and forget about how we casually regard it.

Are you saying we are more casual about rape than other social issues?
Yes. Take racist ideology for example. If a person were to substitute "rape" with a racist statement, our reaction to it collectively as a culture would have been very different. It wouldn't have been about free speech ... I wonder how long he could have walked around [with a racist shirt]. That's the kind of freaky space with rape culture and free speech, all of these concepts work together. When we're talking about rape culture in the context of music or entertainment, it's not so much about limiting speech as it is about our critical assessment of messages.


The crowd during a performance by David Guetta.

Isn't safety part of the discussion? Especially since instances of sexual assault are on the rise at concerts.
Should the festival be limiting people's outfits? I don't know about that, because then you start to get into other limitations and forms of civil rights. In many ways those more repressive ideologies can limit expression of speech. But should the festival perhaps have more security around? Maybe more people out spotting things -- looking for drunk people or people who look like they're in crisis? I guess they should.

Is there something about the music festival environment specifically that you think fosters a culture of sexual assault?
It's interesting, because you can look at any other public space, music or art display, and you can see some of the same things but also less instances of it. Is there more or less assault at a chamber music concert or jazz festival? I don't know. It might have to do with alcohol consumption. It might have to do with drug consumption. It might have to do with people hooking up and things going too far.


A shot of the grounds.

Could part of it be the crowd mentality combined with those factors of drugs, drinking and hookup culture?
The idea that people get into crowds and behave in ways that they wouldn't necessarily behave when they're alone is an interesting one that people think about. I have an uneasy relationship with those explanations. I feel like it is taking the onus of responsibility away from the social actor. For example, there was a Keith Urban concert, where there were something like 20 or 30 people watching a young woman get assaulted. And they were like, "Oh, you know, we were in a crowd." That sort of view is very troubling, but at the same time people use that crowd behavior argument to explain lots of other behaviors. So, it's an interesting one to think about.

There are obviously a lot of structural, institutionalized elements at play, but on an individual level, what can we do to fight rape culture?
Speaking up is important. Beyond that, speaking with your dollar. Rape culture is not the fault of Coachella, obviously. In general, whether you're talking artists, entertainers, advertisers or organizations who seem to participate in this kind of thing, choose not to participate yourself. There's definitely something that can happen with not engaging or actively disengaging ... Even in 2015, the way we talk about sexual assault is so backwards and regressive. It's almost reactionary or embedded in us. We have to acknowledge that this is a collective, social problem. We're talking about the way we as a population think about victimization. We're all culpable within that, and that's the thing that's difficult for us to wrap or minds around.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Coachella 2015
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