Sexual assault isn’t funny—and it shouldn’t sell t-shirts

Over the weekend on Facebook, I saw a photo that made me furious. It showed the storefront of a local Spencer’s store, which included a display of Trump t-shirts. One in particular—pretty sure you can guess which one—was so offensive that went on the offensive.

I tweeted, talked and shared with anyone who would listen or read the following message:

Sexual assault isn’t funny, and using it to sell a t-shirt is disgusting.

Sexual assault isn't funny. Calling out sexism and rape culture is our duty as citizens. Ten Thousand Hour Mama

If it’s a joke, it’s not funny

According to the store’s web site, “Spencer’s knows funny.” The thing is, joking about sexual assault normalizes the violence forced upon women (and men).

What’s more, seeing messages like this re-traumatizes people who have actually survived sexual assault.

When I posted on Facebook my horror at the Spencer’s t-shirt, a friend messaged me.

“It is hard for me to see things like this as I am a survivor of rape,” she wrote. “This just makes me sick to my stomach and feel so disgusting all over again.”

(Side note that’s not relevant but other people might think it is: I did not know about this friend’s history. And for anyone rolling their eyes at so-called liberal PC-ness, this friend and I do not share the same political views.)

Joking about sexual assault tells survivors that their past—and the pain, humiliation, fear from their attack—is wrong. Making sexual assault into a punch line tells survivors, “Get over it. It’s not that big of a deal. We’re laughing, why can’t you?”

Bottom line: sexual assault isn’t funny.

When this Facebook post went viral, a t-shirt and gag store had to confront its sexist products that condone sexual assault. Ten Thousand Hour Mama

A minor victory

The Facebook post with the photo of Spencer’s went viral over the weekend. Thousands of people shared, commented and spoke out to the Spencer’s customer service and to the management of the mall.

In the end, the Spencer’s manager moved the t-shirt from the front window to the back of the store, facing the wall. Other stores have done the same. A friend in Eugene, for example, spoke to the manager there, who had moved the shirts to the very back of the rack. You’d have to hunt to find them.

In fact, employees at the Lloyd Center Spencer’s later removed the shirts from the floor altogether—without direction from company headquarters. Yet an attorney from Spencer’s said that individual stores can’t pick and choose which products to sell, since those decisions are made at the corporate level—meaning any change to get the offensive shirt permanently removed will have to be made from Spencer’s headquarters.

A good start—but not enough

I was incredibly encouraged by the responses I saw on social media to the offensive shirt. The original Facebook post had more than 11,000 shares as of this morning. And friends from both sides of the political spectrum commented on my share, agreeing that joking about sexual assault on a t-shirt for profit is repugnant.

Agreeing that sexual assault isn’t funny should not be a matter of party affiliation, and I’m glad that it wasn’t—at least in my circle.

I’m glad that so many people didn’t stop at commenting and posting that Facebook angry face. Folks called, emailed, tweeted and even protested the Portland store (which had removed the shirt already).

But this isn’t where the fight ends.

The shirt represents something larger in our country. Rape culture is so strong that this t-shirt design made it through brainstorming, product design, production and review without someone standing up and putting a stop to a piece of clothing that jokes about grabbing women against their will. Satire or not, the shirt was dangerous, and no one in Spencer’s stopped it.

I wonder if that’s because they wanted to profit from controversy—controversy that rightly asserts that sexual assault isn’t funny. (The shirt is sold out online.)

To the eye-rolling trolls out there, hold onto your pants.

Because this tone-deaf shirt is one representation of a culture that says it’s ok to laugh about assault (just think of the millions of times you’ve heard horrible jokes about “soap on a rope” in prison showers—rape is never funny).

And that culture not only implicitly (or explicitly) condones rape and sexual assault; it teaches that some people have less value than others, and it is ok to attack people you see as different from yourself. That culture is worsening—in large part because a man who brags about sexually assaulting women is now our president.

His election to the highest office in the United States (despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes) legitimized fringe politics and gave voice to angry, hateful voices that had previously lacked a microphone.

Before you brush this statement off, consider that hate crimes skyrocketed in the days following the November 8 election. The Southern Poverty Law Center tracked 867 cases of in-person hate crimes (so excluding online bullying, which would have made that number astronomically higher) in the ten days after the election. Also sobering: The most common site for these crimes was schools.

Also consider that hate crimes are vastly underreported, so the actual number of people being targeted, harassed and attacked for their race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or family background is surely much higher.

Don’t stop at a t-shirt

This is a blog about motherhood and family. Readers may notice that I’ve been writing more about current events and, yes, politics. (I swear that isn’t a dirty word!)

I’ve hesitated to wade into political discussions here. Politics—so often said as if the taste of the word were bitter—are divisive, unpopular, polarizing.

But each day that passes makes me come to the late conclusion that I am political—I must be political.

Womanhood is political.

Motherhood is political.

Life is political.

The people in power are making choices that affect us all. They have the potential to cause serious, long-term damage—whether that’s repealing key elements of the Affordable Care Act that prevent pregnancy and other health concerns from being considered a pre-existing condition or appointing a secretary of education who has advocated eliminating public school funding in favor of a voucher program.

So it is my responsibility as a mother, a person of privilege and a citizen to stand up and speak out and act when I see something unjust.

This is part of my journey in becoming—and staying—”woke.” I know I’m late to the party, and that’s largely because of my privilege. But I won’t shut up or “get over it.”

I’m a nasty woman, and I don’t want to apologize for that power anymore.

So I’ll call out clothing that advocates sexual assault. I’ll march. I’ll exercise acts of kindness big and small in my community.

And I won’t be silent.

2 thoughts on “Sexual assault isn’t funny—and it shouldn’t sell t-shirts

  • January 18, 2017 at 5:11 pm

    LOVE this post, Catherine!! Life is, indeed, political. We are all affected by politics, in pretty much every aspect of our lives in some way. It’s not a dirty word. And these shirts… ugh. What I still don’t understand is how some argue that the action suggested by our PEOTUS and printed on this shirt is not sexual assault… THAT is what rape culture does. It normalizes sexual assault to the point that citizens don’t even recognize it as such, and that is absolutely not okay. Thank you for this post!

  • January 19, 2017 at 5:54 am

    Thanks so much for blogging about this. I appreciate you putting it out there and generating attention to this topic. This is why many women are so disturbed by this election – how could America have elected a man who engages in such behavior? We need to keep talking about it, blogging, posting on social media. We can’t let these things slide and thanks again for calling this out.


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