It has been a long time since students at my college were organized, cooperative, and angry. But I go to American University, and our school paper, The Eagle, is infamous for publishing inflammatory and often antagonistic opinion pieces by a staff columnist- and last week, the columnist chose to write about sexual assault and date rape.
I’ve been working with Women’s Initiative, a campus group, and have regularly had to respond to pieces published by The Eagle and mobilize others to do so. At the beginning of September, the paper published the first of a regular series on sex and dating that told women at AU not to worry about drunk hookups: to think of situations where you couldn’t decipher where you were and what was happening as a growing experience, and not as assault. The column was chilling. In response I launched (con)sensual, a campaign based in artwork and social media that spreads knowledge of and encourages the practice of verbal consent in any and all sexual interactions. I’ve worked closely with THE LINE Campaign since last summer, and wanted to use my experience to begin an open dialogue on campus. I worked with campus organizers on getting the posters in residence halls and bathrooms and further mobilized and collaborated with other groups on speakers and events.
For this reason, words could not explain the frustration I felt when I discovered “Dealing with AU’s anti-sex brigade.” The article proposed a number of claims: that date rape was not a valid crime, that straight women deserved rape for going to parties, and that rape was an innate action and an unimportant issue. The Eagle was at it again! The author stated:
Let’s get this straight: any woman who heads to an EI party as an anonymous onlooker, drinks five cups of the jungle juice, and walks back to a boy’s room with him is indicating that she wants sex, OK? To cry “date rape” after you sober up the next morning and regret the incident is the equivalent of pulling a gun to someone’s head and then later claiming that you didn’t ever actually intend to pull the trigger.
“Date rape” is an incoherent concept. There’s rape and there’s not-rape, and we need a line of demarcation. It’s not clear enough to merely speak of consent, because the lines of consent in sex — especially anonymous sex — can become very blurry. If that bothers you, then stick with Pat Robertson and his brigade of anti-sex cavemen! Don’t jump into the sexual arena if you can’t handle the volatility of its practice!
I was horrified by the piece and its publication. I immediately worked on a letter for the editors, and submitted a rewrite of the entire piece that was focused on the importance of consent:
Let’s get this straight: any person who heads to a party and drinks five cups of the jungle juice is unable to provide consent. To justify manipulating someone who is inebriated, taking advantage of someone with physical threats, date-rape drugs, and coercion, and/or disregarding someone’s ability to enjoy or consent to sex is the equivalent of pulling a gun to someone’s back and shooting it in the dark.
I drafted a petition and form letters for others to send to the editorial board. I met with a collective of activists on campus and organized a multitude of efforts to spread awareness of the article’s false and harmful claims. The petition went out later that week, and began gathering signatures. I spent the week in meetings, collaborating and spearheading efforts to work on messaging, make the activists on campus a more productive and cohesive unit, talking to the press, and even being featured on the CBS Early Show. I re-launched (con)sensual, and the new hostile environment that emerged from this article rendered a destructive welcome for the newest shipment of artwork.
We are still working, however, in the aftermath of the piece. We have used the incident to push for a full-time, professionally-staffed Women’s Resource Center, and for the university to hire a full-time sexual assault counselor. I pledged as the WI Rape Awareness & Eradication Dept. Director to stop telling women how to not get raped, and instead educate my campus about the inequalities that create violence and urge them to be a part of a progressive cultural shift to eradicate that violence.
The impact sexual harassment has on the lives of all people, and especially women, is impossible to ignore. Rape is one of the most underreported crimes, and sexual assault is likely to occur to over 25 percent of women on every college campus. Sexual assault happens every day, and every second. For The Eagle to hold up rape excuses and justifications as journalism is revolting. The overwhelming fear of shame most women feel after being sexually assaulted is real and painful, and the memories of their rapes should not be used as tools to combat an oppressive publication. The Eagle, for too long, sold rape controversy to its readers, using it as an impetus for readership and a method to grab the attention of students. They have since apologized- but this entire incident made me aware how fleeting the tenants of respect, consent, mutuality, and communication have become on my own campus.