We've come a long way, baby....or have we?
This blog post is one that has been long coming. As various events have unfolded over the past few months I have contemplated writing this post, yet continued to hesitate. "Do I have anything new to add to the discussion?" I have asked myself. "Will I just be too cynical?" I have wondered. But it seems that everywhere I look there are signs pointing to this topic: sexual assault on college campuses.
I am writing this post on an airplane on my way home from vacation. In the airport I snagged this picture:
Looking at this cover, I asked myself the same questions, but also one that I can't figure out how to answer. So many of the articles, stories, and discussions I have heard lately have suggested that there is a new wave of activism challenging sexual assault on college campuses: suggesting both that sexual assault and the activism to stop it is a "new" phenomenon. We've come a long way, baby! Right?! Or have we?
My response to the cover was such a bittersweet one. It is great that a magazine like Rolling Stone is covering sexual assault on college campuses (and the article is actually pretty good). Perhaps this is a sign that anti-violence initiatives are becoming more mainstream. Perhaps the activism taking place today on college campuses is new or more effective than ever. Yet, I can't help but hear the nagging voice in the back of my mind warning me that the situation is not so straightforward. Suggesting that there may be some danger to believing that today's activism has raised awareness in a way that has never before been seen. My husband who was with me was subjected to my impromptu rant (a phenomenon to which he is well accustomed) about how the cover that included the story about sexual assault on college campuses also included a stereotypical photo of a woman, somewhat scantily clad, placed in an awkward and vulnerable position and almost certainly photoshopped. Maybe I was overreacting. A quick glance at the other magazines in the little shop verified that this photo was far from the most offensive of the bunch, and I have seen worse. Is that really what conversations about violence against women and sexual objectification have come down to? "I've seen worse." Are our expectations really so low?
Which brings me back to the reasons I have waited to write this blog post. As I write this post I am asking myself three questions:
1. Can I add anything to the conversation?
2. Is there anything "new" about sexual assault on college campuses and/or the response to this crime?
3. Is it simply cynicism that keeps me from celebrating small victories?
Well, I finally decided that I can't definitively answer the first question and I have to leave it up to my readers to be the judge. I am, however, very grateful that so many others are writing thoughtful and interesting pieces about this issue and I hope if you are reading this you will find your way across those other writings as well. If my voice does more to echo that of others rather than change the direction of the conversation I am ok with that. In so many ways the conversation about sexual assault requires individuals to break their silence and contribute the dialogue.
So, on to questions two and three.
Is anything really new? I suppose that my hopeful answer is yes, but my fearful answer is no.
I hope that change has happened and is happening. It is meaningful that the Obama administration has demonstrated support for victims of sexual assault. Joe Biden has long been an advocate for ending violence against women. Social media has allowed survivors to share their stories with a larger number of people, expanding awareness and building networks of advocates who are fighting for better laws and policies. Discussions about shifting masculinity have called into question dangerous beliefs about aggression and attitudes suggesting "boys will be boys." Maybe something new is happening.
On the other hand, some of the conversations about the "newness" are a bit disturbing. In early May I was listening to NPR while getting ready for my day (my usual routine) and David McCullough Jr. was being interviewed about the controversial graduation speech he gave in 2012. My breath was caught when the interviewer brought up the recent trend of conversations about sexual assault on campus and asked McCullough if he thought the rise in campus sexual assault is related to the attitude of millennials who are "entitled" and “special” with the assumption being that a rapist feels entitled to another person's body.
WTF? Now, I have to remind myself that it is very hard to get an accurate count of the frequency with which sexual assault occurs because so many people never report it or wait years before telling anyone. Maybe sexual assault is on the rise. But the implication that the sexual assault epidemic is new really blew my mind.
The fact is that I don't know many women my age without stories of very personal connections to sexual assault. Stories. Plural.
The day in my freshman year of college that a young woman living on my floor came to my room crying and telling me she had been raped the night before at a frat party is forever burned into my brain. Her roommate and I accompanied her to the hospital. I don't know whether she pressed charges-- we were not especially close and didn't stay in touch after our first year of college. I am not sure why she came to me that day, except that she knew I wore my feminism on my sleeve and suspected that I would help her without judging her. Try telling her that sexual assault on college campuses is a "new" trend.
In the letters to the editor in the summer issue of Ms. Magazine a few people wrote responses to their article "Blowing the Whistle on Campus Rape." Ms. is one of few magazines that I read cover to cover. And today I am glad that I do. One letter came from an unnamed woman from Pittsburgh (my current hometown). She wrote about her experience being the victim of date rape in her first year of college and becoming pregnant as a result. Her mother arranged an abortion for her. She is soon to be 84 years old and had her abortion before Roe v Wade. I can't help but wonder if she was once a student at the university where I teach. Maybe she even lived in the dorm room that is now my office.
Sexual assault on college campuses is not new. Its dark tentacles run deep, connecting women (and men) around this country. Activism fighting it is not new either. My concern about these assumptions is that you cannot solve a problem if you don't understand it. Blaming sexual assault on the millennial generation will get us nowhere.
Perhaps it is cynicism, but this is part of my hesitance to celebrate the recent victories. I do believe that change happens incrementally and movement in the right direction is better than no movement at all. But I just can't manage to throw a party for those who are finally doing the thing they should have done all along. I like the fact that famous male actors joined the White House PSA about stopping sexual assault. The cause to eradicate sexual violence will go nowhere without men being on board.
But I also can't find it in my heart to congratulate them for doing the right thing.
Men SHOULD be opposed to sexual assault. They SHOULD vocally speak out against it.
Treating men like they are heroes for doing so inadvertently suggests that men who don't oppose sexual assault are the expected norm.
Forgive me if I want something more.
I have worked in collaboration with numerous sexual assault treatment organizations and groups (most working within college campuses). Every single one I have been associated with has the goal of eradicating sexual assault. I hope that we are entering a new wave of awareness, that we are finding better ways to connect, educate others, and prevent sexual assault. I want SO badly to be unwaveringly positive about these accomplishments.
But I fear we must tread carefully. We must hold onto a healthy amount of skepticism. Addressing sexual assault should not be relegated to another facebook fad. It is not enough to include an article about sexual assault in a popular magazine while also supporting rape culture in other subtle (and not so subtle) ways. I fear that the movement to end sexual assault has been met with so much resistance over the years that we will grab up any crumb of support that we can get, thinking that we are having a great feast. But to avoid future famine we must grow stronger, continue to move forward, and plant seeds. Let's nurture new allies as they join the force, but not allow them to grow so self-satisfied that the movement stops with a few recommendations and everyone feeling like they can sleep better at night because they are doing “good”.
As long as 1 in 5 women on college campuses are being assaulted, we should all lose a little sleep.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.