The Roger Hadfield Honors College offers seminar courses ranging from Global politics to classic lit. One course is an eerie reminder of the role rape plays in modern American life, especially on college campuses like LSU.
Assistant professor of communication studies Ashley Mack uses the lens of communication to consider how American culture frames sexual violence in both media and institutions in a course titled Rape & Consent in American Culture.
“We’re interested in understanding how rape and consent are culturally constituted,” Mack said “[It’s about] how we use communication to make sense of what we understand something like rape or consent to be.”
A major question that drives the class is parsing out why rape is tolerated despite a majority of people seeing rape as the worst thing to ever happen to someone, Mack said.
“Why is it that we still condone rape? Why is it that people who are victims of rape feel that people don’t believe them? Why do they feel that they can’t come forward?” they said. “All those things are communication problems with how sexual violence is symbolically negotiated in culture.”
A large part of the course’s content is centered around understanding how the conversation on sexual violence is framed in all facets of American life. Understanding the intersections between inequities like racism, sexism and heteronormativity are essential to understanding how sexual violence is communicated, Mack said.
“And we have to understand the ways that those public framings about sexual violence impact how social institutions like LSU, the federal government, the criminal justice system and religious bodies attempt to stop sexual violence or cover it up,” Mack said.
Mack’s course has been offered in one form or another on campus since spring 2016 when they taught it under the department of communication Studies before transitioning it to the Honors College for the fall 2020 semester.
Some students who have taken Mack’s class in past semesters found it eye-opening to see how pervasive the issues the course highlights are. One student found the course to be more than just an honors credit when she took it during the fall of 2020.
“The way that Professor Mack designed this section helped me realize all the times that I’d experienced these in real life and also helped me to stop blaming myself for harassment that I’d endured,” political science junior Delaney Ferrer said.
Ferrer originally had another course in her schedule but when the class she wanted was full, she took Mack’s class despite feeling there was nothing else she could learn about the topic. That notion was wrong, she said. “Even though I thought I knew a lot about the subject before, I came out of the class with loads of information that I have since shared with my friends and basically anyone who will listen to me,” Ferrer said.
Students taking the course a year later during this semester have experienced a similar desire to educate themselves on real issues such as these, even just a week into the semester.
“As women, we see, read and hear about sexual assault and rape happening so frequently that it is really scary,” mass communication sophomore Piper Naudin said. “I hope to some degree that by further educating myself, I can also better protect myself in a physical, mental and legal sense.”
Students have also praised Mack’s ability to make uncomfortable conversations about sexual assault and harassment easier to have. Mack’s classroom is a safe space to discuss these issues in a constructive manner, Ferrer said.
“It is such a prevalent issue worldwide, and I don’t believe we talk about it enough,” Naudin said. “I am hoping that this class will help me and others learn to talk about a very difficult and heavy topic that I think most people are very uncomfortable talking about.”
The course is taught in the heart of campus in Coates Hall following a series of scandals that left the LSU community questioning their own culture of rape and consent.
Mack found that a good number of their students relate the class to what’s happening on campus through their own personal experiences or through people they know.
“Students know that it’s happening here, even if LSU prior to the past year haven’t publicly admitted that it was a problem here,” Mack said.
Even after the highly publicized Husch Blackwell investigation into the university’s Title IX violations, Mack wants their students to know that rape isn’t an issue unique to Baton Rouge.
“It happens here and in very specific kind of ways. But it’s also happening at Tulane, Loyola and LSU Shreveport in very nuanced and specific ways to those communities,” Mack said. “It’s a prevalent and substantial social problem.”
LSU’s issues with rape and consent were brought to the forefront during last year’s investigation. They are emblematic of Greek life and drinking culture on college campuses across the country, Mack said.
Both Mack and their students feel the course is just as important in the wake of Husch Blackwell as at any other time. Some believe a course like this should be a requirement for all students.
“Most students, every time I’ve taught it, said they feel surprised to see a class like this at LSU but feel it’s needed,” Mack explained. “Others have said things like that it should be a required course at LSU or that they have learned so much about how to communicate about some of these issues and how to challenge claims that people make in response to rape.”
Mack hopes their course, if nothing else, helps students better understand the inequality and communication problems inherent to the conversation about sexual violence. They feel learning about these issues is an important first step to change but until the culture responsible is dismantled, no lasting change will come.
“Nobody would ever say rape is okay, yet we seem to say it a lot in the way that we act,” Mack said. “So why does that happen? That’s the important question for students to consider.”