Of Star Trek, Spring Break, and Sexual Assault

Trigger warning for mention of rape/assault especially of inebriated persons, and of sexual slavery.

Hello! I’m Maggie, usually called Wednesday hereabouts.

My first post here at SGB will be on the subject of media and rape culture. For those who don’t know me, I am a student in a field related to media analysis, and I’m a rape survivor, so these are both issues in which I have really strong interests. Specifically, I’ll be addressing the rape-apologist ‘Spring Break’ T-shirts marketed by the Star Trek franchise.

(Fellow non-American peeps not familiar with North American culture: spring break refers to the term break for college students right about this time.)

Context: the Star Trek online store advertised ‘Get your exclusive Spring Break gear featuring Orion Slave Girls and Romulan Ale at the Starfleet Academy Campus Store.’ (source) The Facebook page is saturated with misogynistic comments, and there have been reports of survivors being harassed and threatened when they criticised the publicity material.

If you’re not a Trekkie (and goodness knows I’m not, though because of my fannish interests I have some favourite lady characters), you might be wondering what this means in terms of canon. On Star Trek, the Orion are a species who can emit emotion-altering pheromones. Their first appearance was as a race whose women are frequently sold into sexual slavery, although retcons later suggested that they could control their owners using their pheromones.

Using this justification, I have been told – and apologists have been saying – that the T-shirt is alright, and that the concept of ‘Orion slave girls’ is alright, because the Orion are in control, anyway.

I’m going to unpack this very, very briefly here: Who created these characters? Whose gaze is served and fulfilled by the notion of always-sexually-available women being owned? Who gets to invent a back-story that magically makes it ‘acceptable’ and puts a veneer of consent upon the female body?

If we look at this in the context of our society and culture, what becomes clear is that the existence of the fictional Orion is merely one more step in a popular culture that includes fictional worlds like Gor, and in a society where women’s bodily autonomy is persistently ignored and abused.

If you were around for our roundtable on Frank Herbert’s Dune last year, you’ll realise we made the same point when we argued against the argument that the Bene Gesserit are not essentialised, misogynistic caricatures of female power. They may appear to have agency. Denotatively, within the text, we are told they are in control of the plot events. But the narrative is still authored to meet the cultural expectations, desires, and framework of white, hetero/cis/sexual masculinity.

In addition, few are going to parse Star Trek like this. So talking in circles about whether or not Orion slaves ‘want it’ is merely packaging rape apologism underneath the top-soil. On the surface level, who is going to even consider these arguments? On the surface level, we return to the visual image of sexually available women who have no agency or ability to articulate their lack of consent.

On the surface level, these are real shirts being sold in the real world. The myth of Spring Break is constructed around free access to two things: alcohol, and the female body. It is, as I have explained, a narrative designed for the default privileged person in our society – the person who is white, straight, cisgender, sexual, and male.

In the real world, then, these shirts reinforce the rape culture that surrounds women and people who are not male-gendered. They reinforce the message that our culture is a celebration of privilege. For survivors especially – but also for everyone else who lives under the constant threat of having their bodily autonomy removed – these shirts remind us how precarious our position is, how unsafe society is for us. In particular, through the conflation of ‘Orion slave girls’ and ‘Romulan ale’ – the female body and drunkenness – the spectre of alcohol-enabled sexual assault looms over us again.

Consider that in your consideration of how this advertising strengthens rape culture. (Remember also that the drinking status of a survivor is often used to slut-shame them, to blame them, and to interrogate them with suspicion about the ‘realness’ of their rape.) Those who defend this shirt are arguing from a place of privilege so blatant and harmful, some even relinquished the mask to outright attack survivors.

Those who are involved in geek culture will remember the Penny Arcade ‘joke’ of a few weeks back. In that case, also, the creators and supporters of that shirt provided apologism for the rape joke with facile counterarguments such as the oversensitivity of survivors (compounded with the ableism of trivialising PTSD and panic/stress disorders), and the straw idea that a shirt won’t make someone commit rape.

But that’s not what rape culture is about, is it? Rape culture is not about directly causing rapists to assault. It’s no more ‘T-shirts and comic strips cause rape’ than gravity is ‘things fall down’. Instead, it is about the societal approval of this act – the implicit message that it is acceptable, or even required, to force sexual acts against non-consenting people. It is about creating a culture where rapists feel safe and validated, where survivors are belittled and threatened repeatedly.

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