Beans, Beans, the Tragical Fruit

This video is not an advertisement for Haynes Baked Beans (which don’t exist) but for Cinesite, a movie effects company based in London and Montréal.  Cinesite has contributed visual effects to many well-known films, including Skyfall, Iron Man 3, World War Z, and the Harry Potter movies.  This short film, entitled Beans, is their first in-house animated feature.  One can easily see the production values that made them a force in the world cinema market.

I don’t have a problem with the first-class visual effects, but  I do have a few quibbles with the scientific details.  You may accuse me of pedantry.  That’s fair, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t pick a few nits.

The action in the film appears to take place on Earth’s Moon.  The Moon has no atmosphere (okay, a negligible atmosphere), so there is no medium to transfer the sound of the monster’s roaring and stomping, the astronauts’ screaming[1], or a fart.  That last part is what bothers me most about this film: the zinger at the end is entirely dependent upon the monster’s ability to hear the astronaut’s flatulence.

Now you might argue that the monster’s feet are sensitive to vibrations traveling through the lunar regolith.  Since the farting astronaut is also in contact with the lunar surface, the vibrations of his unfortunate gas could travel through his spacesuit and then through the lunar soil, eventually being detected by the monster.  That seems unlikely.  First, a fart is generally not very loud (certain exceptions apply).  By the time the vibrations of the fart reached the astronaut’s boots, they would have been greatly attenuated.  The loosely packed regolith would deaden the sound even further (I assume…it’s remarkably hard to find scholarly papers about the acoustic properties of moon soil).  The monster’s feet would have to be incredibly sensitive to detect the astronaut’s flatulence from that distance.  I’m not sure I can buy into that.  Even if the monster could detect low-level soil rumblings, it seems like the noise would be drowned out by the monster’s own footfalls.  No, any way you look at this, it doesn’t work on the Moon.

But maybe the film is not set on the Moon.  You never see Earth in the background.  Perhaps the action is taking place on some other world – a world that resembles the Moon in topography but which bears an atmosphere thick enough to carry sounds.

No, that hypothesis doesn’t fly either.  The Sun is clearly above the horizon, but the sky is black.  Any world with an atmosphere thick enough to transmit sound would have a colorful sky during the day, thanks to Rayleigh scattering.  This may not be happening on the Moon, but it’s definitely an airless body.  The monster could not have heard the farting astronaut.

There are a few other issues.  We see some dust billowing around the monster’s feet, but dust only billows and lingers in an atmosphere.  In a vacuum, any dust kicked up during the monster’s rage would follow a tidy parabolic arc until it hit the ground again.

Also…four astronauts on the lunar surface?  The Moon-landing Apollo missions carried three men each, only two of whom descended aboard the Lunar Module.  Landing four men at a time would require either the simultaneous launch of two Apollo-style missions, or the development of a much larger Lunar Module.  A larger LM would be heavier, which would require a bigger, more expensive rocket to get it to the Moon.  The Apollo program was already enormously expensive.  I can’t imagine NASA springing for the unnecessary expense (or risk) of sending two extra astronauts.

Scientifically, the film doesn’t work.  I know the film was not intended to be a science lesson, but I don’t see why the producers had to thumb their noses at science in the process of making their film.  The special effects are great, but I kind of lose a little respect for the film when I notice a huge and easily fixable plot hole.


1. I couldn’t tell if they used the Wilhelm scream sound effect when the monster threw the second astronaut. Anybody else?

Save the Cashew Would Have Spent On Prozac

Cashews

This one is hard to evaluate, because the effectiveness of Prozac is itself controversial.  Let’s start by looking at what Prozac is, and how it is supposed to affect the brain, then we’ll see if we can abandon the drug altogether in favor of Trail Mix.

Prozac is an anti-depressant (Generic name: fluoxetine) that (probably) works as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI.

Okay, that didn’t help much.  Let’s back up a little farther.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger that is released and absorbed by your neurons, or brain cells.  When one neuron needs to send a message to another neuron, it releases a flood of serotonin molecules, which drift across the tiny gap like submicroscopic messages in submicroscopic bottles, then bind with special receptors on the receiving neuron.  The receiving neuron “reads” the message, and this changes how it behaves.  The activity of your entire brain is regulated by the release and capture of these messenger molecules.

Serotonin in particular works to regulate your mood, your appetite, and your sleep cycles.  It’s a very important biomolecule; if the levels of serotonin in a person’s brain get too far out of whack, it can have significant repercussions for the person’s mental well-being.

That’s what happens in the brain of a person suffering from major or clinical depression[1].  For the record, clinical depression is not the same as temporary sadness, or “the blues”.  Most people feel sad from time to time, but clinical depression is a serious mental condition that affects almost 7% of Americans over the age of 18, according to WebMD.  The symptoms vary from person to person: generally they include persistent fatigue, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, the inability to focus or make decisions, loss of interest or pleasure in activities one might otherwise enjoy, significant weight loss or gain, and, in the most dire cases, suicidal thoughts.

Although clinical depression can be caused by a variety of factors (often working in conjunction), it is almost always associated with an imbalance between a few key neurotransmitters, serotonin among them.  The goal of Prozac and other SSRI anti-depressants is to adjust the levels of serotonin in the brain by preventing serotonin from being reabsorbed by the neurons.  In other words, it increases the concentration of serotonin in the chemical brew surrounding our brain cells, which (theoretically) helps to stabilize a person’s mental condition.

Does it work?  Maybe.  According to a meta-study published  in the peer-reviewed, open access journal PLOS Medicine, and another one in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Prozac and its ilk are little better than placebos for people suffering from mild to moderate depression.  Only in the most severe cases of clinical depression does the drug confer a significant improvement in patient health.

But the blog Science-Based Medicine, my go-to guide for sorting medical mythology from pharmacological phact, points out that one must be careful when considering the conclusions of a meta-study.  The sources from which the meta-study is drawn are sometimes not as broad and diverse as one might prefer, leading to one-sided conclusions.  In fact, many studies have been published demonstrating that SSRIs are effective for moderate and even mild cases of depression, particularly in cases of chronic mild depression.

One thing’s for sure: all parties involved were remiss in that they made no mention of the efficacy of cashews as an anti-depressant.  Big Pharma strikes again!

Or not.  Before we can evaluate the alleged anti-depressant properties of cashews, we must have a mechanism.  According to cashew propagandists like Men’s Journal, tryptophan, an amino acid found in cashews, is converted to serotonin, and can help to boost serotonin levels in the brain, staving off depression.  Could it be so simple?

Unfortunately, no.  Nothing is that simple.  Yes, cashews are rich in tryptophan, but consuming tryptophan is not the same as taking a drug designed to block your brain’s cells from reabsorbing serotonin.  That’s not how your body works.

Of course, I’m willing to be proved wrong.  I scoured the ‘net looking for even one clinical study showing that cashews had a significant therapeutic effect on depression.  While I did find lots of alternative medicine and home remedy blogs that repeated the Cashews = Prozac myth almost verbatim, I found little in the way of corroborating evidence.  I could find no links to peer-reviewed medical journals, no quotes from actual doctors, no proposed mechanism by which a cashew-delivered tryptophan dose is meant to be converted to serotonin and delivered to the brain.  Surprisingly, I couldn’t even find much anecdotal “evidence”.  Lots of people are advising cashew therapy, but few people seem to be trying it (or if they are, they’re not talking about it much).  This relative silence is bizarre; when I researched the supposed ability of baking soda to cure cancer, I was easily able to find reports by people who thought their friends and relatives had been saved by sodium bicarbonate.  Where are the people who’ve extricated themselves from the grips of depression by downing a couple handfuls of nuts each day?

The only way this meme carries water – the only way it bears any resemblance to the truth – is if Prozac has little to no effect on mild to moderate cases of depression (as some people claim).  In that case, the meme is accurate: Prozac and cashews are therapeutically equivalent.  But if Prozac does benefit a clinically-depressed person, even one with mild depression, then this meme is like so many other alt-med claims: utterly false and unworthy of further attention.


1. The “chemical imbalance” model of clinical depression is hotly debated, as is the mechanism by which SSRIs help depression patients.

Mars Madness

Two Moons

Yes, I’m tardy to the party – in more than one way.  First, I’m writing about this after August 27, and also, this particular bit of foolishness has already been debunked about half a billion times.  So why bother writing about it?  I’ll explain, but first let’s address the history and details of this hoax (and it is a hoax).

Earth orbits the Sun in about 365.24 days, at an average distance of about 150 million kilometers.  Earth’s orbit isn’t perfectly circular, so during the course of its orbit it moves closer to and farther away from the Sun.  At its closest approach to the Sun (called perihelion) Earth is approximately 147 million kilometers out.  At its most distant point from the Sun (called aphelion), Earth is roughly 152 million kilometers away.

The orbit of Mars is outside of Earth’s orbit, and also more eccentric – meaning Mars’s orbit is more oval-shaped than Earth’s orbit is, and there’s a bigger difference between Mars’s perihelion and aphelion distances.  The average Sun-Mars distance is about 228 million kilometers.  Its perihelion is about 206.6 million kilometers, and its aphelion is more than 249 million kilometers.

Earth, being closer to the Sun, completes its orbit faster than Mars does.  Every 26 months, Earth overtakes and passes Mars on their respective trips around the Sun.  When this happens, Mars is at a point in the sky directly opposite the Sun.  We call this opposition.  During an opposition of Mars, the two planets are as close as they’ll get until the next opposition occurs.

The Earth-Mars distance at opposition varies from one occurrence to the next.  If Mars is near aphelion or Earth is near perihelion, the distance will be great.  If Mars is near perihelion or Earth is near aphelion, the distance will be smaller.  The closest possible approach of Earth to Mars would be during a super-rare concurrence of three astronomical events: opposition, Mars perihelion, and Earth aphelion.  During such a passage, Earth and Mars would be a little less than 55 million kilometers apart.  Unfortunately, Earth’s aphelion is not currently lined up with Mars’s perihelion, nor will it be at any time soon; ergo, this remains a theoretical minimum for the extended future.

Still, there are isolated local minima – points in the orbits of both planets where the distance between them shrinks to a relatively small number, if not the smallest possible.  On August 27, 2003, the Earth-Mars distance was about 55.8 million kilometers, the closest the two planets had been in nearly 60,000 years.  There will not be a closer approach between Earth and Mars until 2287.  The 2003 opposition is where this hoax began.

At some point prior to the 2003 close opposition, somebody shot out an email alerting people to this upcoming astronomical rarity.  The email contained a line to the effect that through a modest 75-power magnification telescope, Mars would look as large as the full moon looks to the unaided eye.  This distinction was quickly lost, however, and it was soon being reported that Mars would look as large as the Moon…period.

Okay, an honest mistake, right?  Maybe it was a mistake in 2003, but the message appeared again in 2005.  It has circulated every year since then, either as an email or as a meme.  Each time the message claims that on August 27 of the current year, Mars will look as big as the Moon in the night sky, despite the facts that (1) the opposition of Mars has not occurred on August 27 since 2003, (2) the oppositions that have occurred were not particularly close, and (3) during none of them would Mars have appeared as large as the full moon.

Just how large does Mars appear during an opposition?  Let’s pause for a minute to use a small-angle approximation formula: θ = 206265*(d / D).  In this formula, θ (theta) represents the apparent angular diameter of Mars; in other words, how wide it seems to be when pasted against the sky.  The lowercase d represents the diameter of Mars (6779 kilometers), and the uppercase D is the distance between our planet and Mars.

θ = 206265*(6779 km / 54,600,000 km) = 25.6 arcseconds

An arcsecond is 1/3600 of a degree, and a degree is 1/180 of the distance across the full sky, so 25.5 arcseconds represents a pretty small piece of sky real estate.  By comparison, the angular diameter of a full moon is about 31 arcminutes, or 1860 arcseconds.  Even at its closest possible approach, Mars would appear nearly 73 times smaller than the full moon as seen from Earth.  It would be a dot – a bright red dot, but a dot nonetheless.

Just for a moment, let’s abandon our knowledge of orbital mechanics and assume that Mars could get close enough to Earth to look as big as the Moon.  How close would that be?  Well, the diameter of Mars is roughly twice the diameter of the Moon, so Mars would have to be about twice as far away as the Moon.  That would put Mars at a distance of about 750,000 kilometers.  At that distance, the Martian gravity would have significant effects on Earth’s tides – more than the Moon, in fact.  If the Moon, Earth, and Mars were roughly aligned at the time of Mars’s closest approach, there would be a fearsome spring tide.  Coastal areas would be flooded by the inrushing water.  Mars would also disturb the Moon’s orbit, possibly sending the Moon careening into outer space (or worse, but less likely, crashing down to Earth).  There would be a significant uptick in the number of earthquakes as the tug of Mars’s gravity released strain in fault lines deep beneath Earth’s surface.

But the worst of it would pass as soon as Mars left the vicinity of Earth, right?  Wrong.  A close passage by a body as massive as a planet would leave a lasting impact on Earth’s orbit.  Depending on the particulars of the encounter, Earth’s orbit could be enlarged (leading to a dramatic and devastating drop in global temperatures) or shrunken (leading to a dramatic and devastating rise in global temperatures).  Whole climate systems would be rewritten.  Humanity, if it survived, would face a radically altered world.  It would take decades, maybe centuries, for us to adapt to our new home.

Needless to say, this did not happen in 2003.  It did not happen in 2005, or in 2006, or in any other year since then.  It will not happen in any year going forward.  The “Mars as big as the Moon” email and meme are utter hoax garbage.  Every year the meme flies, and every year a host of scientifically literate people rush to debunk it.  Why add my voice to the din of other debunkers?

I figure there has to be some critical mass beyond which the debunking will take hold and the hoax will stop finding traction each year.  I don’t know what that mass is – we obviously haven’t reached it yet – but each time a person says “Not so fast!”, I like to think that one more would-be propagator of the Mars-Moon hoax decides to trash the message rather than spreading it.  Who knows: maybe by 2287, when the next relatively close Mars opposition occurs, people will look at the sky and know the truth.

In the mean time, I humbly submit that we move April Fools’ Day to August 27.  We’ll probably have to rename it.

Quick Memes

I’ve had a few memes sitting around for a while that just didn’t seem to merit an entire post.  Enjoy!


Being Offended

Actually, we have to stop this recent culture of people not giving a f*** when somebody else is offended.  You might not understand why somebody is offended, or if you do, you might not agree with their indignation, but the least you could do – the most basic acknowledgement you could afford somebody – is to recognize that they are offended, and perhaps to offer your condolences.  Don’t worry…you can still maintain your tough guy individualist persona without being a total jerk to everybody.


Child and Gun Control

Either this meme is a complete non sequitur, or it’s suggesting that many of the societal issues which are frequently blamed on guns (and the public’s easy access thereto) could instead be solved by a liberal application of parental strictness.  It’s hard to imagine how we might test this hypothesis in the United States, so let’s look to other nations.  A 2010 study assessed the relative toughness of parents in Canada, France, and Italy.  The results showed that Italian parents are the most strict, French are moderate, and Canadians are fairly laid back.  If I’m correctly interpreting this meme’s implied hypothesis, gun violence should therefore be most pervasive in our neighbor to the north, and least common in Italy.  But is that the case?

In a word: no.  A 2012 tally of firearm-related deaths per 100,000 population per year lists 0.51 for Canada, 0.06 for France, and 0.71 for Italy.  There doesn’t seem to be a strong correlation between parental strictness and gun-related deaths, at least among those three nations.

The firearm-related death rates of all three nations pale in comparison to that of the United States: about 2.97 of every 100,000 people in the United States are killed by guns each year.  Instead of blaming lax parenting for the United States’ relatively high rate of gun-related violence, maybe there’s another explanation.  If you sort the list in terms of gun ownership, the United States is at the top of the list for which data is available: there are 88.8 guns for every 100 people in the United States.  Let me put that into perspective: there were only about 83 registered passenger vehicles per 100 people in the United States in 2009.

Now I’m not going to preach about gun control this time: you may make of these statistics whatever you like.  But know this: there’s no reason to think that stricter parents will lead to a decrease in gun violence.


Angels

Although the Bible never explicitly states that all Angels are male, it always refers to them in masculine terms, and they always seem to appear as men.  Some argue that Angels are genderless.  While I suppose it wouldn’t be beyond the power of an Angel to assume a feminine form, this picture is not, strictly speaking, Biblically-based.  That’s not a point against the picture, by the way.

Also, here we see another example of the awesome power of Facebook to bend the will of the Immortals.  Zuckerberg be praised!


PEMDAS

Perhaps you remember learning the Order of Operations in elementary school.  You may have learned Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, or PEMDAS, which tells you that when you evaluate a sequence of mathematical operations, you should first heed anything in parentheses, followed by exponents, multiplication and division (left to right), and addition and subtraction (left to right).  If you’re a PEMDAS purist, you get 7 as the answer:

6 – 1 x 0 + 2 / 2

6 – 0 + 1

6 + 1

7

Here’s the trouble: contrary to what you may have been taught, there is no single correct Order of Operations, as this video demonstrates.  In fact, the Order of Operations we’re taught in school is quite arbitrary.  This problem could be correctly evaluated to give several different answers, which means it is ambiguous and therefore useless.  Writing intentionally vague math problems and then demanding that your audience use one particular Order of Operations to get a prescribed answer does not show how smart or dumb your audience is; it shows how much of a pedant you are.


Two Different Bands

Ah, so the message is: Throw your money around and you’ve got a dance partner, but put a ring on it and you’ve got a slave!  Classy.

Now I know there are women who happily make their living as housewives, cooking and cleaning and so on, and that’s okay.  I’m just really uncomfortable with the idea that a marriage band mandates a woman to that kind of life.  I just can’t get rid of this idea that a marriage should be an equal partnership, with each partner able to pursue his or her ambitions.  The view of marriage expressed in this meme is…well, it’s kind of Medieval.

On Police Brutality

Police Victim Avoidance

I’m willing to bet that Justin “Master Chim” Garcia has never been on the receiving end of an unjust police beatdown. Fortunately, neither have I; still, I’m not rushing to lay the responsibility of a beating solely on the shoulders of the beaten.

I have no doubt that this meme was inspired by recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. In case you’ve been avoiding all news, the trouble started with an altercation between an unarmed 18-year-old named Michael Brown and Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Eyewitness and police reports vary regarding what happened next, but within minutes of the start of the fight, Brown was dead with six bullets in his body. The community was outraged, not only at the apparently unnecessary death of a teenager, but also because the subsequent police response may have been tinged by racism. The citizens of Ferguson took to the streets: some protested peacefully, while others erupted into riots and looting.

Since the events in Ferguson are still unfolding, including an investigation, I’m not going to say much more about it at this time (but don’t worry…I’m sure there will be plenty more Stupid Bad Memes about the Ferguson story as it develops). Instead, I would like to address this meme from a more general perspective; to wit: What should one do to protect oneself from police brutality?

Maybe we should start by forming a working definition of police brutality. Police brutality occurs when a police officer uses excessive force or intimidation in a situation that does not require it. I’m not saying police officers should never use force: if a man is running through a crowded shopping mall waving a chainsaw around in an obvious attempt to decapitate innocent shoppers, I want the police to take whatever actions are responsible, nay, necessary to neutralize the threat before more people get hurt. But if a little old lady is jaywalking and a police officer threatens to hit her with his nightstick if she doesn’t clear the intersection immediately, that’s unnecessary and excessive.

Now you might be saying that most of the recipients of police brutality are not little old ladies (although some are), but big strapping teenagers who are on the prowl for trouble. If they didn’t want to have a whole can of pepper spray directed right up their nose, they shouldn’t have been walking around, looking suspicious, right? If this is your mentality, please answer me this: how is this any different from saying “If a woman doesn’t want to get raped, she shouldn’t dress provocatively and consume alcohol”?

That’s what this meme is: victim-blaming. Let’s take a look at Master Chim’s list of brutality bait:

  1. Don’t be a Sh*tbag. This is actually not a crime. If it were, imagine how many corporate leaders would have received beatings from overzealous police officers by now. No, being a Sh*tbag is our right, and certainly not a justification for police violence.
  2. Don’t be WITH a Sh*tbag. Also not a crime, or Justin Bieber’s entourage would have been arrested long ago. (Yes, I took a shot at Justin Bieber…I feel so cheap.)
  3. Don’t run if Questioned This could actually be a problem. If you run from a police officer who has addressed you, it could be seen as suspicious behavior and give the cop probable cause to place you under arrest. Nevertheless, it does not give the officer carte blanche to lump you up. The officer should exercise the same restraint when arresting you as you should have exercised when he first spoke to you. A police officer should always be the “better person”, so to speak.
  4. Keep Your Hands OUT OF YOUR F*CKING POCKETS! Why? This is the silliest thing I’ve heard so far. I would love for somebody to explain to me how the act of putting your hands in your pockets entitles a police officer to throw you a smackdown.
  5. If “Under Arrest”…COMPLY! This is good advice in general – if you resist arrest, you may reasonably expect the arresting officer to use force to subdue you – but this still isn’t justification for him to shoot you dead, particularly if you’re not armed.
  6. Your Volume = Their Paranoia Paranoia is generally not considered to be a positive trait in a police officer. If a police officer is paranoid to the extent that he would harm somebody for loudly exercising his First Amendment rights, then perhaps the loudmouth isn’t the problem.
  7. Don’t “GO BIG” Then Act Like A Victim. I’m not sure what Master Chim means by “GO BIG”, but I assume it means to put on a big display of bravado for the arresting officer – talking trash, becoming verbally abusive, etc. As I said before, being a Sh*tbag is not illegal. Beating or shooting somebody for being a Sh*tbag is.

I don’t want to give the impression that I distrust all cops, because I don’t. I think most police officers just want to protect and serve their communities. I realize that being a police officer can be a stressful occupation, particularly in areas where crime is rampant. I respect and admire the men and women who show almost inhuman restraint when dealing with the worst society has to offer. It takes a special kind of person to wear the uniform. But I want to make this clear, I do not think we should be cutting any slack to the bad seeds who dishonor the civilized society they’ve sworn to protect. And as hateful as the public can be, we cannot afford to excuse any behavior by the police that tarnishes their reputation as the defenders of the public. When you suggest that the victims of police brutality were asking for it because of their (non-violent) behaviors or attitudes, you’re making it too easy to shift the focus away from the real problem that needs addressing. If the police are to be trusted, they must be held accountable when one of them unnecessarily robs a member of the public of health and life.

Anti-Intellectualism

Modern Education

I’m a product of “modern education”, so I take this personally.

A couple of years ago, North Carolina passed Amendment 1, which makes it unconstitutional to recognize or perform same-sex marriages or civil unions. After the vote I was upset, and I engaged (unwisely, perhaps) in a number of debates on Facebook that ultimately led to my unfriending or being unfriended by several people. In one of these debates, a now-former friend told me that I was a prime example of why people shouldn’t go to college: I was just parroting what the liberal propaganda machine told me to say. This was not my first brush with anti-intellectualism, but it’s the one that remains strongest in my memory. Whenever I read a meme like this, I think back to that heated discussion and wonder how everything went so wrong.

Anti-intellectualism is a distrust of anything academic. Vocal anti-intellectualists present themselves as champions of the common man and as defenders against the nefarious forces of political elitism. In the mind of an anti-intellectualist, a college graduate is a glorified button-pusher and yes-man who has been allowed to think of himself as elite in return for his unquestioning compliance. The irony of this stance is that, for me at least, college is where I really learned to apply critical thinking and began to question the long-held assumptions that had until then governed my life. My worldview changed dramatically in college, thanks in part to professors who would not let me be complacent in my thinking.

Of course I realize that everybody’s academic experience and outcome is different, but that’s exactly what makes a meme like this irrelevant. People who complete their formal education are not merely drones in the industrial-political hive. If anything, education has the potential to enhance your individualism.

I want to be clear: I’m not besmirching anybody who didn’t go to college. A college diploma is not the only gateway to an inspired, fulfilling life. If you opted out of jumping through academic hoops and found peace and happiness through other avenues, I’m quite glad for you. I feel that we can be happy for each other, because we’re both important to our fellow humans. All I ask is that you not assume the worst about those who pursued an academic goal.

This Is Rape Culture

This is rape culture

If somebody ever tells you they don’t know what rape culture is, point them to this meme. This meme is the archetype of rape culture; it represents everything that is wrong with how our society responds to sexual violence. Shame on the person who made this meme, and shame on anybody who passes it along.

But perhaps you’re still confused about what this hideous aspect of human society is all about. Maybe I can explain using an imaginary Q&A session.

Q1: What is rape culture?

A1: In the words of Shannon Ridgway, writing in Everyday Feminism, rape culture is any situation in which sexual violence is “ignored, trivialized, normalized, or made into jokes”. If you ignore a person who has been the victim of sexual violence; if you tell a woman that she was “asking for it” because she dressed immodestly; if you make jokes at the expense of a rape victim, you are participating in and perpetuating rape culture. You are sending the message that maybe rape isn’t such a big deal, and rape victims should really stop whining and take responsibility for their own lives.

Q2: Isn’t rape culture just a term made up by feminists to shame men for wanting to have sex?

A2: The concept of rape culture was invented by feminists, but not for the purpose of shaming men. The intent of the phrase is to draw attention to our attitudes regarding sexual violence.

Q3: If America (or any other nation) is a rape culture, why are there laws against rape?

A3: Rape culture does not mean that rape is legal, or openly encouraged. The problem in a rape culture is that rape isn’t discouraged strongly enough. Sure, we have laws against rape, but how are they being enforced by the justice system? What about the judge in Texas who gave a confessed rapist 45 days in jail on the grounds that the victim was sexually promiscuous and the attacker did not fit the profile of a sex offender? Or maybe you heard about the London detective who landed in hot water after shelving dozens of rape investigations, effectively letting the rapists go without a trial. Then there was the judge in Montana who sentenced an offender to just a month in jail, saying that his 14-year-old victim “seemed older than her chronological age”.

Many will remember the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case that began in July 2003 when the Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard allegedly raped a 19-year-old hotel employee in Edwards, Colorado. The criminal case was eventually dismissed because the accuser refused to testify, perhaps because of the barrage of hate mail and death threats she received from people who were convinced she was out to wreck Bryant’s career.

Rape culture is all about making excuses for rapists, and holding the victims accountable for the crimes that befell them.

Q4: But some convicted rapists spend years in prison. In fact, a 1995 study by the US Department of Justice showed that convicted rapists served 56% of their sentences, a higher percentage than murderers, kidnappers, and other villains. Doesn’t that mean that rape culture is a myth, and the few rapists that seemingly get away with it are the exception rather than the rule?

A4: Not quite. Rape sentencing is part of rape culture, but there’s more to it. Rape culture extends beyond the justice system. Remember Representative Todd Akin, whose attempts to distinguish “legitimate rape” led to a social media firestorm? Akin was a proponent of rape culture, because he implied that some rape was more “legitimate” than others. He failed to understand the severity of rape.

On a more local level, rape culture causes women to feel less safe than men when walking alone at night. If we could learn not to excuse, ignore, or joke about rape, perhaps the people who perpetrate these terrible crimes would be less inclined to do so, and that fearful gap would narrow.

Q5: But doesn’t the idea of rape culture treat all men like potential rapists? And don’t men get raped too?

A5: Men do get raped too, which is why rape culture is a problem for everyone, not just women. Men and women should strive to end rape culture by not participating in it.

The concept of rape culture does not assume that all men are rapists; it only acknowledges that some people are rapists, and that their actions are not being properly addressed by society. To end rape culture, we must change the way we view these rapists. We should change the system that implicitly tells them that rape is okay.

Q6: What can I do to end rape culture?

A6: Lots.

  • Stop giving money to “artists” who glorify rape culture in their “music
  • Stand up in protest when an admitted rapist escapes justice with a token sentence.
  • Do not ever suggest that a rape victim “was asking for it” or “deserved it” because of their attire, their decision to drink, or the party they chose to attend.
  • Do not encourage rape jokes and do not pass them along.
  • Acknowledge that men have as much responsibility for preventing rape as women do.
  • Do not make excuses for rapists, even if they happen to be celebrities.
  • If somebody tells you he or she was raped, take that person seriously. Do not assume that the person is lying or mistaken.
  • Be aware that any form of sexual contact that happens without both parties’ consent is rape. That includes having sex with a person who is unconscious or otherwise incapacitated. Tell your friends that absence of refusal is not the same as consent.
  • Do not presume that most people who report a rape are lying, and finally…
  • Do not make or share memes like this one.

I’m probably missing a few things, but that’s a good start. It’ll take all of us working together to bring rape culture to an end. Don’t be the douchebag who holds back progress.