Beauty Pageants and Rape Culture: Miss Nevada’s Q&A Sparks Debate

by | Jun 11, 2014 | All Blog Feed, Sexual Assault | 0 comments

Nia SanchezIn case you missed it: this past weekend, the Miss USA pageant churned up controversy when one of its contestants– then Miss Nevada; now Miss USA– Nia Sanchez, answered a question regarding sexual assault on college campuses that left a vocal chunk of self-identified feminists on the internet steaming.  Watch Nia Sanchez — Miss Nevada’s Q&A here.

You can read a decent synopsis of the social media backlash here.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t watch the pageant, so my first thoughts upon hearing the backlash and reading headlines charging Miss USA with perpetuating rape culture was along the lines of at least one or more following:

1) Why is this news?

2) Feminists watch beauty pageants now? Oh.  *pause* This doesn’t mean I have to start watching though, right?

3) If Miss USA is supposed to be a legitimate platform for feminine power, why do we only get to hear what the girls have to say after they parade across stage in bikinis and ball gowns?


Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to hate on pageants or hate on feminists or even hate on Miss USA.  It’s not my thing, but if it’s yours– that’s cool. But I can’t write an honest post without at least mentioning that I did find the whole thing initially bemusing.  I personally have never bought into the idea that pageants were anything other than a beauty contest with Q&A segment at the end that usually runs along a continuum between painful and amusing.But who knows?! Maybe I’m wrong!  I don’t know.

I definitely was NOT a pageant girl and I don’t think I’ve watched one live since the early 2000’s when a girl I went to high school with was competing as Miss New Jersey. My lack of information about pageantry aside,, let’s tackle the real issue at hand. When Nia Sanchez, then Miss Nevada and now Miss USA, was asked to speak to the issue of sexual assault on campus, the part of her response that seems to have folks railing is:

“…I think more awareness is very important so women can learn how to protect themselves.  Myself, as a 4th degree black belt, I learned from a young age that you need to be confident and able to defend yourself.”

Now having watched the twitter firestorm of reaction to the statement before I actually heard Sanchez’ answer for myself, I was actually kind of underwhelmed when I finally heard the “offending remarks”.  I guess this means I either have a high tolerance for “shock”, or a very colorful imagination about the seriously messed up sh– garbage people are capable of spewing.  It’s probably a bit of both.

Break It Down

Let’s break it down… Not everything Miss Nevada/USA said was all that messed up. *gasp*

“I think more awareness is very important…”

Bravo! So do I!  And there’s nothing like creating a social media frenzy to draw attention to an issue that people so rarely like to discuss.  Believe me– it I had a $1 for every time I endured an awkward silence after answer the question, “So where do you work?”– I wouldn’t have to work anymore.  (But for the record, I still would.  Working with survivors is beyond awesome!) Okay, on to part two– which for the sake of simplicity I’ve condensed:

“…so women can learn to how to protect themselves.”

Ahh… yeah, well  that’s part of it….

 ” …you need to be confident and be able to defend yourself.”

So here’s the deal, I see Miss Nevada/USA’s answer as not inherently BAD, but rather incomplete.  And moreover, I’d feel like an idiot if I tried to argue that confidence isn’t a good thing for women to embrace and that we need more of it.  But there’s more to the story than that… which I promise I’ll attend to in a minute.

First a Word on “Rape Prevention”

But first I think we need to address the fact that her answer is the quintessential byproduct of what our “rape prevention” curriculums sought to teach throughout the late 90’s and early 2000’s with catchy slogans like, “Watch your drink; Watch your friend” and this image to the right that constantly reinforces the idea that women need to take responsibility for not getting raped.

A "rape prevention" poster in the UK

A “rape prevention” poster in the UK

Now in more recent years, the movement to combat sexual violence and assault has largely shifted from a victim-centered approach, to a more preventative approach targeting people at risk for perpetrating assaults (aka: Primary Prevention).

You can read more about this shift here and here.

This shift is exciting because it is one of the first to recognize that it is the presence of the perpetrator that allows rape to occur– not the length of someone’s skirt or how much they’ve had to drink. And if you want to know more about how Primary Prevention works, you can download this schnazzy toolkit for FREE from the American College Health Association (ACHA, 2008) by clicking here:  Shifting the Paradigm Toolkit FREE 

Who’s to Blame?

So after decades of the “Watch Your Drink, Watch Your Friend” and “Buddy System” campaigns, why are we surprised that the message persists?

Personally, assigning blame really isn’t my thing.  Ownership sounds better.

As someone who does identify as a feminist, and also as an advocate for survivors of sexual violence, I think that Miss Nevada/USA’s answer is a wake-up call that there’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of educating people.

And those of us who feel passionate about this cause need to take personal ownership in getting the message, “Only a perpetrator can prevent rape” out there to the masses.

The fact that the old message has taken root in our culture isn’t Miss Nevada/USA’s fault.  She’s repeating what we’ve been telling women for years upon years.  And it’s not completely a bad thing, if you consider it an honest and healthy  call to action for the rest of us.

So what is REALLY missing from Miss Nevada/USA’s answer?

In my not-so-humble opinion what’s missing is the very same concept that I emphasize to high Heaven when I’m speaking in classrooms and on college campuses.

It’s a concept I first stumbled across in Gavin de Becker’s book, Gift of Fear, and while it’s shocking and even repulsive at first, I think it’s ultimately valuable: What’s missing from Miss Nevada’s answer is this: Perpetrators are people, just as you and I are people.  And we need to actively work against the ingrained notion that rapists are the equivalent of a monster in a horror film.

Disgusting concept, isn’t it?  Rapists are people?!  Trust and believe, I’ve struggled with it myself.

And yet it’s a really important piece because when we acknowledge that perpetrators are people, we can also recognize that they have access to the same choices and behaviors as you and I do in our lives.  As such they can need to be held responsible for those choices. And if one of the ways you choose to hold them responsible for making predatory choices in your space is to kick their ass like a bad ass ninja or something because you’ve chosen to invest in your own self-protection, I think that’s awesome.

But we also need to realize that predators don’t necessarily lurk in the bushes waiting to pounce.  So you might not always be as mentally on-guard when things like this occur.

  • Sometimes they sit next to you in class or at the coffeeshop.
  • Sometimes, you’ve dated them.  Sometimes they’re really good looking and charming.
  • Sometimes you’ve had consensual sex with them before.

According to RAINN, over 2/3 of sexual assaults are perpetrated by a non-stranger.

So while it’s great to be on guard, and to practice good situational awareness (notice I did not say “rape prevention”) and other risk reduction techniques when we’re out in public, we need to get realistic about when we’re at risk.

And we need to teach responsibility in a balanced way.

For the record, when I’m presenting,  I do choose to include a section of risk reduction– but not before emphasizing over and over again that the only person who can 100% stop a rape from occurring is the person who perpetrates that rape.

Does that anger some people?  Probably.  And I will continue to do it because swinging to the opposite extreme and teaching that we don’t have to look out for ourselves whatsoever would also be horrible.  So yeah– go ahead and provide more opportunities for training in self defense!  And then let’s also consider creating opportunities where concepts of respect, boundaries and consent are discussed as well.

Not a Women’s Issue

And lastly, we need to stop treating rape like it’s a women’s issue.  It’s not.  And treating it as such not only perpetuates the belief that victims are solely responsible for their safety, but also negates the experiences of male survivors, of those survivors who do not identify within the gender binary, and of survivors assaulted by persons of the same gender.

It’s an issue that everyone needs to be concerned about and take responsibility for addressing.  And for at least a few hours, we have people paying attention and TALKING about it!  That’s not a bad thing!

Sound Off!

Clearly this topic is a BIG one to tackle and goes well beyond the scope of a singular blog post.

What do you think about this issue?  What else do we need to bring into this conversation?  Do you believe a balanced approach is possible?

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