“Oops! Don’t touch me there –
That is my no-no square!
R! A! P! E!
Get that penis out of me!
Don’t rape! (Clap, clap)
Don’t rape! (Clap, clap)”
– Rape Chant, 2010
I recently found myself in the stands of a soccer game when a chant began. Muscle memory suddenly and violently recalled the Rape Chant to my mind, where it has lurked uneasily ever since.
In 2010, I was a sixth grader at a small private school in New York City. One day at an assembly, my friend Sarah and I were sitting with a male peer, Miles. Miles and Sarah had an on-again, off-again relationship in that way a few socially adept middle schoolers are able to, and they were flirting before the presentation began. Sarah pushed Miles, who pushed her back; their shoves got increasingly powerful (and, perversely, flirtatious) until Sarah, giggling, said, “I’m going to tell the teachers that you raped me!”
She then repeated it, in a hushed scream, cackling: “MILES IS RAPING ME!”
To shut her up, Miles pushed her again, and said, “Well, you raped me first.”
This interaction was normal at our school, for a brief moment in time. It reflected perfectly our collective knowledge of rape, which was largely based on the popular question, “Did you know that if you touch someone’s belly button for longer than five seconds, that counts as rape?” (The question would normally be accompanied by a finger to the belly button and unflinching eye contact, which devolved into giggles immediately afterwards.) Rape was not a serious transgression, but rather a minor sin, humorous to bring up in the midst of flirtation – more akin to the taboo of masturbation than of incest. We didn’t know there was anything wrong with it, so the rape references continued: the Rape Chant was sung in the hallways, people would touch each others’ belly buttons during quiet moments in class, an uninhabited locker outside our classroom became known as the “Rape Locker.” Eventually the teachers caught wind of the trend and held an assembly with the intention of educating us, but we laughed it off.
Looking back on these events now provokes horror in me. How did we all have the concept of rape so thoroughly confused?
In the world outside of my middle school, 2010 marked a moment when the public began to recognize rape as a real and prevalent issue. This is proven by the number of rape reports filed per year, which have skyrocketed since the turn of the century. This statistic does not signify that rape is more common now than before; rather, it points to a large-scale change in the way the conscience collective views rape. For a long time, mindsets condoning rape and supporting domestic abuse were so accepted that they were written into marital law: as late as 1840, rape was only recognized as a reasonable reason to file for divorce in less than half of American states. Recently, feminist movements have begun working to place a spotlight on society’s tendency to blame victims of rape (evidenced by systems of power refusing to believe survivors’ tales, supporting perpetrators of crimes, and allowing favorable media portrayals of rapists), and make a conscious shift towards blaming the actual criminals. Collegiate rape has arisen as a hot issue because of continuous media publicity. Since 2014, colleges and universities have begun to see a massive increase in reports of Title IX violations, significant in conjunction with the #MeToo movement as more and more young women reclaim negative sexual experiences and attempt to push the onus onto the perpetrators of sexual violence. These advancements have largely occurred during my lifetime as a student.
While all this political shift was occuring on the outside world, us sixth grade students were left stranded, completely confused as to what rape was. (To be fair, many people still disagree on the strict parameters of what constitutes rape – and how consent can be given successfully – but no one is likely to giggle about being raped anymore, and that seems like collective growth.)
We certainly did not understand rape, but the world around us was beginning to change its perspective, and – here’s the important part – that change was feeding into our schoolyard politics. Yes, we were dealing with the issue in an entirely insensitive manner, but it was still being addressed, and rape was indeed being established in our prepubescent minds as criminal. “Oops! Don’t touch me there, / That is my no-no square” seems at first glance to be minimizing the issue and turning it into something laughable, but it establishes a few important precepts of the newly popular school of thought: that one’s body is one’s own possession, and that there exists a “no-no square” (the crotch) that no one else has a right to touch. The chant furthermore does not fall into the ever-cited trap of blaming the victim: “Don’t rape,” it calls, not “Be careful,” or “Wear less provocative clothing,” or “Don’t drink.” This chant, and our other juvenile ways of dissecting rape, were certainly not the most pleasant way to forge a better collective understanding of the issue. However, they acted as tools in our quest for understanding without us even knowing it.
This summer, when a few students trickled into my camp classroom at the beginning of the day, one boy tackled another boy into a massive hug. The boy responded, “Ouch,” squirmed against the hug, then protested, saying, “Stop that,” but was not extremely bothered after he was released and ran to go play with the blocks. In response, the mother of the first boy called her son over and stooped down to his level, looking into his eyes.
“Remember what I said about respecting other people’s space, Matthew? What are we supposed to do when someone doesn’t want us to touch them?”
The boy begrudgingly said, “Stop.”
“That’s right, because that’s his body, and he’s allowed to choose what to do with it. And he’s always allowed to tell you to stop touching him, even when you’re just trying to give him such a sweet hug.”
That boy is not going to grow up to flirt like Miles and Sarah did, shoving one another to communicate their barely-formed attraction. He’s not going to need a Rape Chant to figure out what makes rape bad. He has already begun the process of internalizing respect for others’ bodies and of choosing when to share his body with others. He is of the new generation – therefore he is currently metabolizing #MeToo, digesting Trump’s presidency, and pondering Kavanaugh’s appointment, in ways he doesn’t understand yet.
Looking back on the Rape Chant, I’m not proud. It makes me uncomfortable to read on paper, and it’s shocking to think that children used to sing it in the hallways of a school without shame. Yet in many ways, when the youth pick apart tough concepts such as rape, it is indicative of societal progress as a whole. And despite the impious tone of our discussion, us sixth graders managed to get the message.
Hannah Berman, Fall 2018
artwork by Ava Bradlow