The Rhetorical Triangle and Rape Culture

Summary: This lesson is designed for the first or second week of a Rhetoric class. It helps students’ build their foundational rhetorical analysis skills by introducing the rhetorical triangle and giving them the opportunity to practice identifying the different elements of that triangle with a commercial and a meme. Both commercial and meme also send the message that sex is a transaction that happens between a man and a woman, which students can consider in terms of gender stereotypes, relationships and consent.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Introduce students to the rhetorical triangle and give them practice applying it to different rhetorical artifacts
  2. Help students explore one of the tenants of rape culture: that sex is a transaction between people (portrayed as a man and a woman)
  3. Help students see how that tenant relates to sex and to sexual assault
  4. Encourage students to think about that message in contrast to their own relationships or the relationships they want to have one day

Teaching Materials:

  • Slides or handout with discussion questions, Teleflora ad, and College Life meme

Outline for Class Activity:

1. Introduce the Rhetorical Triangle (10 min)

  1. Rhetor: the person or group that has created this piece of rhetoric, whether it is a speech, an advertisement, movie, book, article, image etc.
  2. Goals: the effect the rhetor wants their argument to have on their audience. A goal might be to change the way the audience feels, what they believe or how they act. Most pieces of rhetoric have both primary and secondary goals. The primary goal is the main effect the rhetor wants their argument to have. For example, an Audi’s commercial’s primary goal is to change how people act: to get them to buy Audis when they might not otherwise. In order to achieve that goal, the commercial might make the audience feel a particular emotion, like desire, envy, pride or exhilaration. The commercial might also try to change what the audience believes: make them believe that Audis are safer, more fuel efficient, more reliable etc.
  3. Intended Audience: this is the specific group of people or type of person that an argument is designed to persuade. We usually talk about target or intended audience in terms of demographic factors like age, gender, sexuality, race, religion, economic class, geographic location, education level, etc.
  4. Unintended Audience: a group of people that will be exposed to the argument even if it is not designed specifically for them. For example, the target audience of picture books are children. The unintended audience are the parents who read the books to their children.
  5. Message: the message is the main point or idea of the argument

2. Small Group Discussion (10 min)

Have students watch the Teleflora commercial (, a Superbowl ad from 2012. Then have them identify and discuss the elements of the rhetorical triangle with regards to this ad in their groups.

  1. Who is the rhetor? What company made this ad? What do you think is their primary goal for this commercial? What secondary goals are they trying to achieve in order to get to that primary goal? (Hint: often times arguments have to affect how we feel and what we believe in order to change how we act.)
  2. Who is the intended or target audience of this ad? Think of a few demographic parameters like age, gender, economic class, sexuality, geographic location etc. What group of people is this video designed to persuade do you think? (Whether or not it is effective at persuading that group is a different question).
  3. This ad was aired during the Superbowl in 2012. Who watches the Superbowl? Who is the unintended audience who probably saw this ad even though it is not designed for them?
  4. What is the message here? What is the main idea this add is trying to get across? (Hint: you might start your thinking this way: “The ad sends the message that X group of people should do Y because Z.”
  5. How do you feel about this message? What secondary messages does this ad send about men, women and sex? How common do you think this message is? What effect might this message have on the intended audience? What effect might it have on the unintended audience?

3. Large Group Discussion (20 min)

  1. Rhetor: Teleflora, company that sells flower arrangements
  2. Goals: The goal is to get people (in this case young men) to buy flowers for their romantic partners. In order to achieve that goal, the ad tries to make its audience feel desire, and tries to make them believe that if they give their partner flowers they will receive sex in return.
  3. Intended Audience: heterosexual men (likely young men between the ages of 18-35 given Adriana Lima’s age and the fact that advertising often implies that sex is only for young people). The room around Lima also has a very fancy, slick, high-class city aesthetic, so it’s possible it is trying to appeal more to young professionals aspiring to an upper-class urban life.
  4. Unintended Audience: though the stereotype is that men watch more sports, the Superbowl (and the parties that come with it) often attract a much wider range of people, including whole families.
  5. Message: Dear men, buy flowers for your romantic partner on Valentine’s Day because then she will give you sex in return. This message rests on many societal assumptions:
    1. That men do not know anything about relationships (they need Adriana Lima to explain things to them), that they only want sex and not women’s companionship, that the only reason to give gifts is to get something in return, and that men are supposed to be the providers. Also, that they are all attracted to women.
    2. That women do not want sex and use sex as a bargaining chip which they withhold in order to get what they want. Also that women are supposed to be skinny, have high cheekbones and full lips, wear makeup and nice lingerie etc.
    3. That sex is transactional (I give something to you so you give something to me) rather than a shared experience.
    4. This ad could implicitly teach men and boys that if they give a gift they are allowed to feel entitled to sex, while teaching women and girls that they must have sex with a partner that gives them a gift.

4. Large Group Continued (10 min)

Show students this meme found on the blog “College Life.” Have students practice identifying the elements of the rhetorical triangle and discussing the implications of the message.

  1. Rhetorical Triangle: we don’t know much about the rhetor in this case (anonymous human on the internet) the goal is clearly to get the intended audience to laugh and repost. The humor in this meme comes from creating an in-group/out-group dynamic (a set of people who are in on the joke and a set that are not). Humans like to feel like they belong, so this meme is essentially a wink between people who are in on the joke.
  2. Intended Audience: The meme’s intended audience is probably young, straight, cis-gendered men, because it refers to women in the third person and implies heterosexual relationships with the image. It also implies that the people involved are dating and not married, and that combined with the meme format implies a younger audience. While some people in that group might find it funny, others (particularly survivors) might find it troubling.
  3. Like the Teleflora ad, the meme implies that men don’t care about women’s companionship; they only care about women’s bodies and the possibility of having sex with them. Conversely it implies that women resist having sex and care more about companionship. These messages not only disregard the fact that women have a range of sexual desires and preferences, but also disregard the fact that some men may wish to refrain from sex. In this way the meme limits who men and women can be, what they want, and how they are perceived.
  4. The meme also displays entitlement: we bought expensive gas and thus we deserve sex. This reduces sexual partners (in this case women) to objects whose bodies can be bought.
  5. The meme stereotypes men and women and makes it okay for men to care only about sex and women only about companionship. When it is assumed men only want sex and women never do, it follows that men would think they always have to coerce a woman into having sex. By implying that men “deserve” to have sex with women, it shows a disregard for what women want (including women’s desire for sex if/when they want it).

Wrapping Up

These messages limit the ways that people of any gender act and interact with people they are attracted to and care about. As we continue on in this class we will continue to analyze the media around us to see what it is encouraging us to feel, believe and do so that we can decide whether or not we want to let those message influence us and the people around us.