Designing against Rape Culture

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The phrase rape culture has been increasingly prevalent in conversations about sexual assault. It is important to define rape culture and understand that it is not labeling all men as rapists, or claiming that our society outwardly promotes rape. Rape culture can be defined as A society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse (Definition of Rape Culture, n.d.). Rape culture happens when society accepts sexual violence as a normal occurrence, teaching that rape is inevitable. Campaigns are too often targeted towards victims of sexual assault, rather than the perpetrators themselves. Instead of teaching people not to rape, people are taught to take measures to avoid it. Rape culture teaches women that they need to be cautious how they dress, where they go, who they go with, what time they go at, what they drink, what they say, how they carry themselves, etc. If they are sexually assaulted because they were not being careful and taking extreme measures, it is their fault. The attitude that rape is inevitable is problematic because it treats rape as a normal occurrence, rather than a series of values and attitudes that can be changed.

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Rape culture is also more than just an attitude; rape culture is the things we consume. It is the music, jokes, TV, words and imagery, and advertising that makes sexual violence seem ordinary (What is Rape Culture, n.d.). Once I started paying attention, I was appalled at some of my own consumption. From the TV shows I binge watch on Netflix to the songs I listen to on repeat, references were everywhere. I was angry, angry that even though I consider myself to be aware of and adamantly against rape culture, I still found myself supporting it through my own consumption. It made me want to educate others about the prevalence of rape culture in everyday life. Through the process of creating my anti-rape coaster campaign, I learned that as a graphic designer, it is also my responsibility to prevent rape culture’s messages from spreading.

Socially Conscious Design

There is a difference between good design and doing good with design. As designers, we have a choice whether to use our knowledge and skills to communicate truth or manipulate and deceive. Noah Scalin says socially conscious design is, a commitment to making conscious choices and realizing how all the decisions you make as a designer affect other people and the planet. It’s about being awake instead of sliding by with the way things have always been done (Scalin, 2012). As designers living in a digital age, we have access to resources that are cheaper, easier, and uninhibited. Our access to resources combined with our skills allow us to communicate messages effectively to widespread audiences. Thanks to the internet, messages can be spread instantly and simultaneously. This increases the need for caution when communicating more than ever before. One small slip-up can convey an entirely different message. It is our responsibility to make sure that we are constantly consciously aware of what we are doing, who we are working for, and how our work affects others.

Design is a powerful visual communication tool that should be used for the greater good of society. Unfortunately, not all design is good and not all design decisions will be unanimous. In a perfect world, all design would be socially conscious. People would always feel good about the products and messages they promote with their design work (Design Activism, 2014). However, there is a business side to design. Clients have needs they want met that come with rules and restrictions. While clients do get to decide what we make, they do not get to choose how we work. As Erik Spiekermann says, We alone decide how we work. Whatever the restrictions and limitations of the commercial world that buys our services, we create our own processes (Berman, 2009). It is on us to decide how we treat the people we come in contact with through our design work. We alone choose how we interact with other designers, peers, and clients.

The way designers communicate and interact with other people can set apart good and bad design. Designers belong to a professional community. The way we handle ourselves when we work impacts other designers. We are also responsible for choosing whether to design ethically and honestly when creating our own processes. A good designer understands this and seeks to strengthen the community rather than tear it apart.

We also get to choose what projects we feel comfortable taking on. Therefore, we are responsible for the work we put out in the world. Although we are not always able to control how our work ends up being used, we are still held accountable for the aftereffects. Work produced hastily and ignorantly can harm others. That is why it is important to always consider the possible ramifications of our work before setting it free. Once we set our work free, it speaks for us. We must always examine the messages we may be sending, intentional or unintentional. This is what it means to design socially conscious.

Problem with Victim-Targeted Ads

Almost a third of college men admit that in a consequence-free situation, they would act on intentions to force a woman to sexual intercourse. However, only fourteen percent said they had intentions to rape a woman if there weren’t any consequences (Kingkade, 2015). That is an alarmingly high number of men who say they would force a woman to have sex, but would not rape a woman. However, forcing someone to have sexual intercourse is rape. With statistics as high as one in four college women are raped (Sexual Assault Statistics, n.d.), the lack of knowledge surrounding the definition of rape and consent in college men alone is concerning. Yet, sexual assault prevention is still commonly focused on the measures women can take to prevent becoming victims of sexual violence rather than the definition of rape. Discussions about sexual consent need to be encouraged to prevent rape; prevention methods themselves are only so helpful. Potential offenders need to be held responsible and targeted to end the violence.

Unsuccessful Campaigning and Advertising

In 2011 the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board launched a state-funded ad campaign called Control Tonight aimed towards teens drinking (Figure 1). The posters all said, When your friends drink, they can end up making bad decisions. Like going home with someone they don’t know very well. Decisions like that leave them vulnerable to dangers like date rape (Stebner, 2011). The campaign was intended to bring attention to date rape, but instead placed blame on rape victims by suggesting that they should not drink to begin with. In the end, the campaign was pulled due to the amount of outrage it sparked. As protestors pointed out, rape is not just a bad thing that happens as a result of drinking too much; rape is a deliberate act. Although these ads were meant to raise awareness, rather than blame victims, the message was not communicated properly. As society becomes increasingly aware of rape culture, so must designers. If designers are not socially conscious, the intended message can be misconstrued.

In 2015, Bloomingdale’s released an ad in their holiday catalog featuring a man staring at a beautiful woman, who is staring the opposite way and smiling. The caption reads, Spike Your Best Friend’s Egg Nog When They’re Not Looking (Figure 2). People were quick to call the ad out on social media. One woman tweeted in response: Rape culture at its finest. Well done, #Bloomingdales. You are garbage (Whaba, 2015). Other similar reactions followed. With drug rape being one of the most common sexual assault crimes, an ad jokingly promoting drink spiking is unacceptable. Within a few days, Bloomingdale’s issued an apology, In reflection of recent feedback, the copy we used in our recent catalog was inappropriate and in poor taste. Bloomingdale’s sincerely apologizes for this error in judgement (Whaba, 2015). Bloomingdale’s did not comment on how the ad gained approval for printing. The creative team responsible for the ad were likely not consciously promoting rape. However, the ad shows how common these attitudes about sexual assault are, and how easy it is to design things without being socially aware.

Successful Campaigning and Advertising

Vancouver Police launched the first Don’t Be That Guy campaign in the summer of 2011, consisting of posters aimed at decreasing alcohol-related assaults. It featured blunt messages paired with graphic images. Posters had phrases like, Just because you helped her home…doesn’t mean you get to help yourself. Sex without consent = sexual assault (Figure 3). The campaign addressed potential perpetrators by educating them on the definition of sexual assault, rather than educating victims on how to avoid it. Within six months, the rate of reported sexual assaults in Vancouver fell about 10% (Matas, 2017). The Edmonton Police Services and the Sexual Assault Voices of Edmonton (SAVE), launched a second Don’t be That Guy campaign in 2013. This time, they expanded the campaign by including sexual assaults of all types, including same-sex assault (Butterfield, 2012). A new poster released has a picture of two men on a bed, with one man pushing the other away as he grabs his leg (Figure 4). By again placing the responsibility on the perpetrators, and including same-sex assault, the posters reached an even broader audience. The campaign was praised rather than scrutinized for its inclusivity, and thus highly more effective. It is clear it was consciously and socially designed.

In 2016 MTV began circulating fake internet ads containing messages about rape culture and sexual assault. The ads were designed to look like normal banner ads, easily ignored and dismissed (Figure 5). One explicitly says, Ignoring rape culture the way we ignore banner ads doesn’t make it go away. The point illustrated is that rape culture hides everywhere, from advertising to social media, but the effects are not negated (Warner, 2018). These ads effectively communicate the message that ignoring the issue will not stop the cycle of sexual violence. This is the message that needs to be spread to fight rape culture.

Our Role as Designers

With sensitive topics such as sexual assault, it is of the utmost importance to practice socially conscious design. Otherwise, as failed campaigns have discovered, they can do more harm than good. Socially conscious design keeps us aware of the messages we are spreading. It encourages us to communicate positively and seeks to build up rather than tear down. Practicing socially conscious design when creating sexual assault campaign prevents unintentional victim-blaming by placing the responsibility in the hands of potential assaulters.

Victim-blaming can cause even more trauma to survivors by implying it is the victim’s job to prevent violence committed by others. As designers, we must always strive to hold ourselves accountable for the work we put out. If we do not challenge ourselves and consider the possible messages we are sending, we are designing ignorantly. Designing ignorantly can cause real harm to others. Regardless of our intentions, if we are hurting people we are not doing good with design.

Our work is reflective of the design community as a whole. Designing morally and ethically is part of our role as a member in the community. By understanding the value of design when it comes to issues such as sexual assault, we can help end the cycle of violence by encouraging conversations about the definition of sexual assault and consent. I have unintentionally supported rape culture through my own personal consumption, but I refuse to let it manifest itself in my design work.

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Designing Against Rape Culture. (2020, Mar 06). Retrieved January 29, 2023 , from
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