It has been a tremendous few months of activities, conversations and action regarding the prevention of sexual violence on American college campuses.
In January 2014, the White House Council on Women and Girls released a special report “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action” outlining best practices for prevention of violence and response with a specific focus on college campuses. The report tasked colleges to do better with their education and prevention programming, and to respond appropriately and with transparency to students’ complaints. The Circle of 6 mobile app was cited as a stand-out tool to prevent violence, by harnessing mobile technology to strengthen community and encourage bystander intervention.
Over the subsequent weeks following the report’s release, meetings were scheduled with students, activists, lawyers and survivors to brief the Vice President, members of Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Department of Education and the Department of Justice. Lynn Rosenthal, the White House Advisor on Violence against Women, spearheaded the process. Pictured above, is the February kick-off meeting with Vice President Joe Biden, with student leaders and advocates from across the country. Once the cameras left, the Vice President and his advisors listened to each participant give recommendations about what policy, tools and programs students need, and what we want colleges to do.
In April, the Office of Science and Technology Policy hosted a “Data Jam” spearheaded by Vivian Graubard and Erie Meyer challenging activists and technologists to work with publicly available data. In informal teams and working with 103 data sets on the Clery Act, Title IX and more, we worked quickly to prototype mobile or web-based solutions to targeted problems. I presented new findings about Circle of 6 and conversations the app is sparking. Since the Data Jam some great ideas are now in development, including a men’s intervention tool and a college ranking app that includes sexual assault information.
Yesterday was the culmination of these efforts and the launch of the White House website NotAlone.gov. This new site is a compendium of resources, programs, data and maps for students to know their rights, for administrations to know their obligation to their students and for young people to find help. The Vice President gave a passionate speech denouncing rape and rape culture, calling out the need for verbal and affirmative consent, and charging young men to step up and intervene. Additionally, in an important clarification, the Department of Education announced that Title IX protects transgender students. We are thrilled that the collective efforts of so many brilliant bloggers and students put The Line Campaign on this comprehensive website.
As a survivor, filmmaker, advocate and app developer, I bring my opinions, personal experience and values to the work. “The Line” and this campaign is adamantly sex-positive, challenging victim-blaming and slut shaming, and the blog was founded, staffed and run by queer and diverse voices. “The Line” film has been shared with thousands of students across the country, and most recently hundreds of soldiers at Ft. Meade Army Base. The film and campaign continue to spark dialogue about consent and boundaries around the world. The mobile extension of this work, Circle of 6 is on now on 120,000 phones in 32 countries. Currently, we are partnering with colleges to customize Circle of 6 for their needs.
I’m deeply honored to work with great collaborators to push boundaries and create complex conversations about sexuality and human rights that inform discussions with students, administrators, the Department of Defense and the White House. Our leaders are following through on their promises, and putting the time, effort and energy into the health, well-being and rights of our students. For that, I am deeply grateful. We’re poised to see real cultural and behavioral change occur on college campuses, and eager to see the positive effects ripple into all of our communities.
I recently came across a video on Upworthy that I found both powerful and profoundly unsettling – perhaps most unsettling because of how strongly it resonated with me. The video features Wesleyan student Lily Myers performing her poem, “Shrinking Women,” at the 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational. In her poem, Myers draws on her own personal experience to explore the pressures on women to conform to societal expectations about their bodies and their behavior. The physical shrinking of women, fueled by self-deprivation in pursuit of “the perfect body” (whatever that is), is reflective of, and intrinsically bound up with, the metaphorical shrinking of women to fit the roles established for them by a patriarchal society.
On the surface, Myers’ poem is a painfully honest representation of the fraught relationship many women have with food, eating, and their bodies. Myers describes her mother as “a fugitive stealing calories to which she does not feel entitled,” because for Myers, her mother, and too many others, eating has become a socially complex act permeated by guilt and self-loathing. Rather than being seen as a basic right, a way of nourishing one’s body, eating is experienced as an indulgence that must be strictly policed and monitored. If we slip in this self-policing, a shaming ritual follows, an acknowledgment to ourselves and others that we know we can’t get away with eating like this. Or at least, we can’t get away with it and still look good, still feel good about ourselves. We tear our bodies apart to prove that we know how the game works, that we always could and should be doing better and working harder.
Myers says of this behavior that “we learn it from each other,” but I would counter that we instead reinforce it in each other. I contribute to this twisted mentality every time my best friend tells me she’s having a fat day and I reply eagerly that I feel like a complete whale, that my stomach is disgusting, that an extra pound or two is somehow manipulating my entire sense of self-worth. But we, and all of the women in my life – we didn’t learn that from each other. We learned that from a culture that presents us with a narrow, virtually unachievable definition of beauty and teaches us that we can’t feel good about ourselves if our bodies don’t fit that standard. This culture shows us women whose bodies are digitally altered by Photoshop and tells us this is what it means to be perfect, and then it shoves diets and workout regimens down are throats as a reminder that if we just worked a little harder, maybe we could be perfect too. It tricks us into believing that our value depends on how we look, how successfully we can police ourselves into thinness, and that if we somehow stray or fall short, then we must not be worth very much at all.
Women are bombarded from all sides by expectations and rules dictating how we should look and act. The same is most certainly true for men, and I don’t want to ignore that – men have their own standards by which they are judged, and these can be enormously damaging and restrictive. But my focus here is women, and the reality that women, far more than men, are “taught accommodation” (as Myers so perfectly articulates it). We are programmed to be passive rather than assertive, to be quiet and modest and adaptable rather than to speak up and ask for what we want. We learn that women are not entitled to certain things, like the right to take up space, the right to be heard, the right to embrace our agency and demand respect. Instead, we are taught, as Myers explains, to shrink ourselves both literally and metaphorically, to get out of the way and let others decide how we should look, what we should want, and how we should behave.
So how do we combat this? How do we stop sending messages that are so utterly destructive to women, that teach us we don’t have the right to claim the space and attention and respect that we deserve? I’ve thought a lot about this, and what it all comes down to, at least for me, is agency. Agency and choice. Rather than establishing a standard and expecting everyone to meet it – you must be this thin, have this many sexual partners, behave this way in the workplace – we should instead reinforce the idea of determining that standard for yourself. We will always be bound by societal norms and the pressure to conform, but I know we can be better about teaching women to assert their agency and make their own decisions. We can teach women things like this:
You have the right to decide for yourself what food you will eat, what size you will be, what kind of body feels healthy and comfortable for you. You have the right to eat a piece of pizza without having to justify yourself and to like your body even if you don’t look like a Victoria’s Secret model. You have the right to have zero sexual partners, to have 7 or 75, to sleep with men, with women, whoever you please. You have the right to say “no,” to say “yes,” to give pleasure or to ask for it, to know what you want and to say what you want, and to have your desires and self-knowledge respected. You are entitled to speak for yourself and demand that others listen, to be assertive rather than accommodating, and to claim space beyond merely what has been allotted to you.
When these are the things women learn from each other, we will find ourselves in a much better place.
As women, we are acutely aware of the fear of rape. With statistics suggesting that 1 in 6 to 1 in 4 American women have experienced it, there’s no reason not to be. Rape is a very real threat. So a creation like AR Wear’s “anti-rape” clothing is something that people might think offers us peace of mind: at times where the threat seems greater – which AR Wear suggests includes blind dates and “clubbing” – to know that we have a bit of added protection, in the form of underwear that “locks” at the waist and is crafted from cut-resistant material, might just make us feel safer. The problem is that all it really does is contribute to the rape culture it purports to combat.
I mean, do we seriously live in a society so progressive that women have to physically lock up their crotches in order to avoid rape? I’m not saying that AR Wear don’t have good intentions, but the creators appear to be attempting to profit from a very real fear, and they’re doing so in a way that only reaffirms the stance society already takes on rape: namely, that women should alter the way they live in order to stop it happening to them.
Let’s be real: this underwear isn’t exactly practical. For it to be effective, it has to be difficult to remove, and that means it’ll be at least somewhat difficult for the wearer to remove as well. What about when we need to pee, or when we actually want to have sex? (Considering AR Wear is especially keen to promote it as something to be used whilst “clubbing,” I’m dubious as to how well the underwear will be removed by an intoxicated woman desperate for the toilet, or a woman keen to take it off in a moment of passion.)
Besides – ultimately, advising women that they should wear special underwear in order to prevent rape isn’t really far removed from advising women not to get wasted in order to prevent rape, and that’s victim-blaming 101. Both rely on placing the onus on women to stop rape, and both rely on misconceptions about rape – most specifically, that there is a “common” kind of rape or assault. For anti-rape underwear to work, the rape that it is designed to prevent is by nature one perpetrated by an unknown attacker. That’s why AR Wear specifies blind dates, or being out for a run; we feel anxious about these scenarios because we may end up dealing with men that we are not expecting to, who might subsequently assault us. But statistics show that 73% of rapes are committed by people known to the survivor – meaning that, in all likelihood, they trusted them. Why wear anti-rape underwear when you feel safe? (The point being that products like this really only exist to make certain that we never really do feel safe, ever, at all.)
This leaves us where we usually are in rape prevention discourse: either women make this alteration permanently, or they achieve nothing. Women are raped whilst drunk, raped whilst sober, raped behind clubs and raped at home. For the anti-rape underwear to really work, we’d need to wear them literally always. Which isn’t to say that it won’t make some women feel safer, and if it does, that’s absolutely fine. But it’s really not the answer. $50,000 is a lot of money that could actually shift the discourse surrounding rape away from blaming the victim. Instead, AR Wear market their clothing as “for when things go wrong,” as if rape is a mistake that women need to stop letting happen.
Rape is a crime that somebody else chooses to commit, and the only way we are ever going to prevent it is by getting them to stop making that choice. AR Wear doesn’t prevent rape – it prevents progress around the issue of sexual violence and victim-blaming.
I’ve previously covered a gender-essentialist Double X Fail for the blog, and unfortunately, they’ve done it again. As now infamously reported across the feminist blogosphere, Emily Yoffe thought it was a good idea to tell college-aged women to stop drinking alcohol in order to avoid rape. In her extremely paternalistic piece, Yoffe writes such gems as:
Young women are getting a distorted message that their right to match men drink for drink is a feminist issue. The real feminist message should be that when you lose the ability to be responsible for yourself, you drastically increase the chances that you will attract the kinds of people who, shall we say, don’t have your best interest at heart. That’s not blaming the victim; that’s trying to prevent more victims.
I’m so confused: Since when is it a feminist issue to match men drink for drink? Did I just not get the memo on that? Did Yoffe just try to (wo)mansplain victim-blaming, while simultaneously victim-blaming? Does Yoffe even know what feminism is? I just…I can’t do it today.
Almost immediately, feminist journalist Ann Friedman posted a parody to her blog (later published at The Cut), that switches the pronouns on Yoffe’s piece with often hilarious and insightful results, including the following sentence I find devastatingly true:
But the obsessive focus on blaming the victim has made it somehow unacceptable to warn young men that when they get wasted, they are putting young women in potential peril.
Although Friedman’s exercise is deceptively simple, it gets at something: when we discuss rape culture, far too often the onus is on women to change their behavior. Rape doesn’t occur because of Yoffe’s ignorant assumption that there’s a lack of knowledge about potential prevention methods. On the contrary, growing up socialized as female means being constantly aware that your body is not your own, that it is vulnerable to violation by any man at any time. We are drilled by a misogynistic society to expect a potential rapist to be an unknown assailant that jumps out of the bushes and so-called prevention methods are rattled off accordingly: to carry keys to use as potential weapons, to have a buddy system if we do have to walk home alone, to carry mace or pepper spray, to not wear short skirts or shirts that are too revealing. So, yeah, Emily, me and every other person socialized as female in this culture is probably aware of what we supposedly need to do to “prevent” rape.
What I love about Friedman’s parody is that it addresses the missing piece too often ignored in conventional discussions of rape culture: male perpetrators rape women, and they often use alcohol as an aid to do that, yet no prescription is ever made on men’s behavior. Outside of feminist circles, men are never told not to rape, and when they are (as in the case of Zerlina Maxwell’s badass appearance on Fox News), they can expect vicious death threats.
By omitting the crucial fact that drunk men play a role in coercing women, Yoffe’s article assumes “boys will be boys,” with insatiable sex drives they have no ability to control. Despite what the conventional narrative would have us believe, these men know what they’re doing – rape is about control and domination, and we should acknowledge that preying on inebriated women creates a clear power imbalance.
Most conversations had about rape in our culture, Yoffe’s piece included, render invisible the obvious role that male rapists play in rape, and in so doing, assumes the innocence of the white male perpetrator. And, I, for one, am sick of this unquestioned centering of the white male experience. But if the cultural conversation about rape in our culture is going to stay at the level of changing behavior, we may as well talk about men’s behavior. (But for self-care purposes, I also endorse Mychal Denzel Smith’s response to her follow-up.)
Laurie Penny’s article for the New Statesman, “I Was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” and the ensuring conversations I had with friends about it, spoke to a specific type of erasure women all too commonly encounter: many of my female friends recall experiences similar to Penny’s, where former boyfriends expected them to expend emotional labor “fixing” them, while these men wouldn’t lift a finger trying to find out about the smart, dedicated, and driven women I knew they were underneath the surface.
You may be wondering why I even care about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, which, as black feminist writers have noted in the past, is almost exclusively a white archetype. What resonated with me was the critique’s concern with projection, and how that projection has real-life consequences for women.
Central to Penny’s argument is the assertion that the stories we tell matter, and inform the social roles we end up playing. Because girls only see themselves playing supporting roles, especially in film, they, in turn, conform to those roles in real life. By contrast, men’s autonomy and self-actualization has endless cultural representation, and is too often built on the backs of archetypes like the manic pixie dream girl (as well as people of color, I might add). Even though women constitute 52% of movie theatre audiences, lack of representation both behind and in front of the camera, as well as conservative ideas about what audiences want to see continue to translate to limited narratives for female characters.
For Penny, finding her identity as a political writer may have had the consequence of driving away men who were looking for her to fill the role of fictitious girl-muse, but Penny feels casting her own spells is worth the compromise. She writes: “What concerns me now is the creation of new narratives, the opening of space in the collective imagination for women who have not been permitted such space before, for women who don’t exist to please, to delight, to attract men, for women who have more on our minds.”
Finding positive models to articulate my identity has been a challenge I’ve faced my entire life. As a quiet, awkward black teenager, I didn’t see people like me on television or in movies. I had to build an oppositional narrative for myself on suburban Long Island, even as the story I crafted at the time was deeply self-hating. That story was built on accommodating white people’s comfort, making myself smaller in the process. Feminism provided a way out of the partially self-imposed cage of internalized racism, and gave me the means to reaffirm myself. From Rebecca Solnit’s definitive essay on mansplaining to the phenomenon of gaslighting, I learned how to center my experiences and articulate truths about interpersonal power dynamics that made me uncomfortable.
Structurally, culturally, and interpersonally, men take up a lot of space. For years, I never questioned their entitlement. Instead, I chose to defer to men, to accept their opinions as correct and legitimate in comparison to my own. (But afterward, I’d review the conversation in my head and find myself thinking, “Hey, wait a minute…”) Living in a world where my experiences weren’t seen as reliable for a matrix of reasons – my race, my gender, or my age – I eventually internalized the lesson that I was wrong, I was unreliable.
This combination of entitlement, projection (of who I am, and whose experiences get to be legitimate) and erasure gets to the heart of why I no longer find it safe to pursue interpersonal relationships with men. It’s too easy to fall back into the automatic habits of doubting my own experiences just so a man doesn’t feel uncomfortable, a courtesy that is never extended back to me (or any other woman, I’m sure.) These behavioral patterns are incredibly self-hating, and emotionally draining. Like Penny, I’m no longer interested in dumbing myself down or doubting myself to assure men of their superiority.
Originally posted at Scientific Femanomoly. Reposted with permission.
Someone’s status of being “accomplished in his field” should never be used in an investigation.
***Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault. This post includes information from an actual university investigation. ***
You can walk through the halls at my university and feel like you are in a place of success. The walls are plastered with research posters and stories of accomplishments. For me, it is a dream school for research. I love what I study here, and engineering is one of my passions in life. Unfortunately, choosing to study here came with some unexpected things that I did not want or ask for.
Being a female in engineering, I’ve experienced a fair number of less than favorable encounters that range from awkward peers to sexual harassment. Not all women in engineering experience sexual harassment. Some have been lucky enough to avoid it and some are oblivious, but by graduate school there are a large number of us who have our stories. Most of the time we just roll our eyes and laugh it off. This is part of being a female in a male dominated field. We put up with a lot of obnoxious things and usually don’t report them. (A 2006 study showed that an astounding 69% of women in engineering experienced sexual harassment during their careers).
Yet, when I experienced something on the severe end of sexual harassment, it became necessary to report. Since I had evidence, I thought the case would be fairly straightforward, and that a resolution would be reached. Instead, I came away feeling less safe than I did before reporting.
A group of us gathered at a place just off of campus to celebrate finishing a huge exam. It was early in the evening and constituted more of a mellow dinner gathering among adults than a party. During the dinner, one of my peers that I didn’t know as well started touching my leg under the table, moving his hand under my skirt and up to my crotch. I quickly removed his hand, but he persisted and did this to me two more times. After the third time, I quickly got up and left the gathering for a bit. I was shaken but I decided to go back and confront him about what he did to me. I thought physical and verbal communication would be enough to make a clear point that I wanted no part of his sexual advances. Still, despite removing his hands from me, and verbally confronting him, he persisted in his endeavors. He would later that evening be so bold as to grab my breast and place his hand down the back of my skirt and underwear (which constitutes sexual assault). To top it off, when I tried to go back to my office, he started following me. My only recourse was to run onto a bus and take it half a mile away just to get away from him.
Worrying for my safety, I drafted an email to him after the incident that briefly stated that he inappropriately groped me, and that told him to never touch me again. He left two voice mails on my phone apologizing, though I suspect he wanted me to be quiet about what happened more than apologize to me.
I was really scared to walk through the halls of my department, and I confided in a few people about what happened. They encouraged me to come forward to resolve the problem, especially since my assailant could do the same thing to other women. One person reported it to my university, and soon after that, an investigator from the office of student conduct contacted me.
I agreed to meet with the student conduct investigator to discuss options. A discussion of options turned out to be the investigator jotting down notes as I gave a short synopsis of events. At the end of the meeting the investigator said she would investigate the perpetrator. My meeting had suddenly turned into an investigation. I shared a copy of the email and the voicemails with the investigator, but after that I was never contacted again until the investigation was over.
Soon after the university “investigation” started, I learned from a third party that police have methods for investigating non-rape sexual assaults. Initially, I did not think of going to the police, because criminal punishment seemed extreme when all I wanted was a continued safe academic environment for me and for other students. Generally, women don’t run to the police every time they experience sexual harassment, even in extreme cases.
With encouragement from a third party, I talked to a police detective, who thought I potentially had a case. Unfortunately, the university investigation disrupted the opportunity for a proper police investigation. By the time I had gone to the police, my university had already handed over all of my evidence to my assailant and his attorney.
In the end, the solo university investigator decided that my assailant did not violate any university policy. The investigation was not only an insult to victims of sexual assault, but an insult to women in STEM fields as well.
Often times I hear people ask how perpetrators of sexual violence don’t get found guilty even when there is evidence. To help aid in the understanding of this, I have decided to include some excerpts from the investigative report. It is important to remember that these items are things that the investigator felt were important to the overall investigation. Quotations denote direct quotes that the investigator included in the report.
MY ASSAILANT HAS MANY OPPORTUNITIES IN HIS FUTURE
“Respondent loves his field and is accomplished in his field.”
He “does not want to lose the 11 years of work he has put in to get where he is now”
“He thinks there are lots of opportunities in his future.”
“He is concerned about the possibility that professors won’t want to hire him based on these allegations.”
In one of the emails my assailant sent to the investigator, he mentioned the hard work he was doing. While the entire work description was not included, the investigator felt that the following information was relevant to the investigation:
“Respondent proceeds to state how hard he has worked in his field and how dedicated he is to that”
***Note to reader: I am also getting a PhD in engineering, just like my assailant. I am also accomplished in my field. This was never mentioned. The report didn’t mention how having my assailant in my department would affect my research and my leadership opportunities. My safety and learning environment did not appear to be of importance during the investigation either.
What does it say to victims in prestigious fields when perpetrators can use their success in those fields to cover up sexual harassment? What does it say to all the good successful people who would never use their careers as a way to cover up sexual harassment?
MY ASSAILANT IS MARRIED
This is apparently very important information to put in the report because we all know that married men never ever cheat. Obviously.
“He and his wife are close and often in communication when they are apart.”
“Respondent and his wife have been married for one and a half years. Their families are very far away so they are very reliant on each other.”
“I asked Respondent if he finds Complainant attractive. He said no, and that he is attracted to women who are physically similar to his wife. Respondent’s wife and Complainant are physically dissimilar.”
“he and his wife are Catholic. They text while apart.”
Furthermore, my assailant was able to use his wife as a witness even though she was not present during the assault at all. She submitted a long statement, which was included in the investigative report.
MY ASSAILANT WAS ALLOWED TO HAVE AN ATTORNEY
“He was accompanied by an attorney advisor”
*** Note to reader: I was never ever given this opportunity. I went in to discuss options with the investigator alone, and then the investigator started an investigation during our meeting. There was no follow up, or even an opportunity for me to get a lawyer or have someone present with me.
MY ASSAILANT WAS ABLE TO CHANGE HIS STORY
Despite my assailant previously apologizing in response to an email that described some of his sexual actions, my assailant changed his story and called what he did “hand play.”The investigator wrote:
“they had “hand play” which Respondent described as “not sexual in nature””
That term seems like something an attorney would come up with…
THE INVESTIGATOR WENT OFF OF IMPRESSIONS
Regarding my assailant:
“I find his reaction to the email suspect. I am also concerned about the fact that respondent did not tell his wife about the email from Complainant when he received it, since he emphasized the closeness they share. Despite this issue, Respondent gave an overall impression of credibility based in part of his verbal and nonverbal symptoms and attitudes during our interview”
I write this as an educational piece for the public. Sexual harassers and abusers often go free or just get a slap on the wrist.
While CU Boulder continually works on improving the investigative process, some problems still exist with addressing people who perpetrate sexual violence and harassment. Sarah Gilchriese is not alone. There are more victims here, and sometimes our assailants go unpunished.
It is a problem that only one single investigator listened to my story and made a decision about the outcome of the investigation. There were no precautions in place for situations where the investigator is biased towards one person based on their academic credentials, or the investigator does not take thorough notes during the interviews. It creates a frightening situation for victims who come forward about perpetrators who are successful in prestigious fields of study. Furthermore, it was also disturbing that my evidence was handed over to my assailant and his attorney without getting the police involved. In fact, university investigators do not notify the police in these investigations.
My experiences leave me conflicted. I want to know what I should tell young women who would like to study engineering at CU. Do I tell them that they might have my assailant as a TA or a mentor? Do I tell young prospective students that if they get sexually harassed or assaulted to hope that it isn’t by someone who is “accomplished” in their field?
Through the tears and pain and being terrified, I chose to stick with my PhD program because I did not want to throw away all of my work, and because I love what I am doing. It has come with sacrifices, such as not feeling safe on campus, and avoiding any events where my assailant could come into contact with me and repeat his actions. Thankfully, some members of my university have attempted to ensure my safety and to create an academically fair environment for me.
Yet, there is one thing that still very much upsets me. After an investigation like mine, perpetrators learn that they can hide behind their careers and success and no one will believe their victims even if there is evidence. That is wrong.
Editors Note: This story is told from the perspective of a female in engineering. However, sexual harassment and sexual violence affects women and men on college campuses and beyond. According to the CDC, about half of women and 1 in 5 men experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. For more resources, you can visit the RAINN website.
Babysitting has always been an easy source of cash for predominantly teenage girls. I’m no exception; I babysit at least once a week to fund my increasingly expensive social life. One natural side effect of babysitting is being able to observe the attitudes of children about various big-picture themes and potentially increase their own social skills. I went to go babysit for a nice family with two little boys, a 4 and 6 year old. Most of their behavior was expected and I had an easy time correcting it; they didn’t share well, so I told them why that was important. They hit each other, so I sent them to time out because violence isn’t okay. But when the 4 year old tried to kiss me on the lips and I said no, he didn’t quite understand the concept. I tried to explain to him that I didn’t want to kiss him and he had to respect my words. He said that if I didn’t kiss him, he would hit me. I didn’t let him kiss me, and he punched me in the face because “boys are supposed to kiss girls and since you didn’t let me, I get to hit you”.
When did society redefine the word “no”? According to dictionary.com, the word “no” is a negative used to express denial or refusal. In most situations, that meaning still holds. However, when it comes to sexuality, the word takes on a whole new meaning. The person saying yes has more power than the person saying no when it should be the opposite. This is the foundation of rape, and while it begins in childhood, it certainly doesn’t stop there.
I’ve known many women who have been sexually assaulted and raped, and personal connection has always incited me to do whatever I could to change the hostile environment that society allows when it comes to victims of sexual violence. This includes making my own school a safe place, which is a significantly more difficult task than it seems. It’s not so much the administration or faculty who hinder my efforts, but rather the attitudes of my peers.
When I speak out on behalf of sexual assault victims at my school, I’m met with a negative reaction 95% of the time. Students of both genders will show their disdain with comments that are geared to not only undermine what I do, but to attack me as a person. This has always confused me because I’m not trying to do a bad thing; I want to make the school a safe environment for victims of sexual violence and also prevent people at my school from being perpetrators.
But until now, I never truly realized the implications of what a hostile environment meant for a victim. I guess it’s difficult to know what it’s like until it happens to you, and even then, you don’t quite know what to think about everything or anything. It’s hard to not adopt the mindset of those around you concerning sexual assault. It’s hard to not blame yourself. It’s hard to not make excuses for your rapist. It’s hard to not forget about everything that happened. In a situation that’s already hard enough, the accusatory and judgmental mindset of society puts the victim on trial for the crime.
I was 15 when I first got pressured into doing something sexual that I didn’t want to do. Before that point, I had been privy to cat calls and unsolicited sexual attention, but it was all “normal”, so I didn’t pay it much mind. In fact, I thought it was flattering because guys thought I was pretty. Then I started kissing boys and boys started kissing me, and then it started going farther and that was fine because I knew my boundaries and I made sure that boys knew them too. But then one time I was kissing a boy and things were going too far and I said that I didn’t want to do anything anymore, that I wanted to stop. I thought saying “no” one time would be enough. It wasn’t. He tried to persuade me, tried to convince me that it would be fun, tried to tell me that everything was okay and that I needed to stop being a bitch. I really liked this boy and I wanted him to like me so I nodded and did what I was told.
I was 16 the first time I was sexually assaulted. After the incident that happened when I was 15, I moved my boundaries back a little more because “what the hell, it doesn’t mean anything anyway”. Then I had a boy that I thought was just a friend come over to my house and I learned that even if you repeat the word “no”, it still isn’t enough. He shoved me up against my bedroom wall and tried to take off my clothes, tried to have his way with me. I could barely fight him off. Then he slapped me, I suspect for the same reason that the 4 year old that I babysat for punched me. Boys are supposed to kiss girls and since I didn’t let him, I deserve to be hit.
I was almost 17 the first time I was raped. After the incident that happened earlier that year, I moved my boundaries back even more because “what the hell, no one will respect them anyway”. Then I went out with a boy I sort of knew, and he started kissing me and I let it happen, but I specifically told him that I would not have sex with him. I thought at least that boundary would be respected. He tried to persuade me, tried to convince me that it would be fun, tried to tell me that everything was okay and that I needed to stop being a bitch. I still said no. I said no the entire time, but this time I couldn’t fight him off. After it was over, he said he thought I was “one of those girls who says she doesn’t want it but is really just playing hard to get”. Then he apologized and left. I was in shock after it happened. I ignored it and went on with my day. I laughed, I smiled, I went to my friend’s house and never said a word. It hit me the next day. I let myself cry for 30 minutes, and then I tried to reason with myself.
It couldn’t have been rape because I didn’t bleed even though I was a virgin. It couldn’t have been rape because he didn’t seem like he wanted to hurt me; he just wanted to have sex. It couldn’t have been rape because it would have been my fault because I knew the reputation he had and I went out with him anyway. It couldn’t have been rape because I wanted it, right?
Then I watched some TV and tried to forget. I babysat some more and tried to forget. I went to sleep and tried to forget. I can’t forget.
I called the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) hotline and spoke to a nice, helpful woman about my options. I didn’t want to go to the police because if I pressed charges, everyone would know. I couldn’t handle people knowing for two reasons: 1) I knew what people would say about me and 2) I knew that my rapist would get people to hate me. Whenever someone claims that they’re sexually assaulted, their peers will either try to blame them (what were you wearing? why did you put yourself in that situation?) or say they’re making it up (just because you regret it doesn’t mean it was rape!) Additionally, the rapist will try to make the victim seem guilty (I thought she wanted it! She’s a slut anyway. She’s lying!) My other option was to try and talk about it with friends to build a support system. The number of people I felt comfortable talking to was shockingly low. I couldn’t even tell my best friend or family what happened because I didn’t want to be blamed. I was blaming myself enough already, I couldn’t handle someone else interrogating me about what happened. I felt so alone and so unsafe and it took a long time for that feeling to go away. It still hasn’t gone away.
This guy wasn’t a serial rapist. He wasn’t a scary psychopath. In fact, I was never really scared the entire time that we were together, which is confusing even to me. He was just a normal, popular high school boy that wanted to have sex with another high school girl and so he did it. He knew that what he was doing wasn’t right (hence the apology), but if he were to read this article, he would have no idea that I wrote it about him. He doesn’t think he raped me. He just thinks that we had sex and I didn’t like it. This is the case for a startlingly large number of young adults who rape other young adults. 1 in 5 women are the victims of an attempted or completed rape, and of that number, 44% are under the age of 18 according to the New York Times and RAINN. He is one of the countless reasons why we need to talk about consent, and rape, and communication, and healthy sexuality. I am one of the countless reasons why we need to have that conversation. The people at my school make up the countless reasons why we need this education.
In all honesty, I’m terrified of having this article published. I’m terrified of the reactions I’ll get if/when people who know me read this. I’m terrified that a college could see this article and reject my application for some reason based off of it. I’m terrified that my parents will read this and never let me see another boy. I’m terrified that if I admit to what happened, people will never look at me the same again.
But I shouldn’t have to be afraid.
In the state of Connecticut, a person convicted of felony sexual assault can face up to five years in jail — up to one year if convicted of misdemeanor sexual assault. Unless, that is, that person happens to go to Yale.
Yale reported eight sexual assaults on campus between January 1 and June 30, 2013. Two of those cases were dismissed, and the remaining six were adjudicated by the university. A recent report by the Huffington Post reveals that of the six students found to have committed sexual assault at Yale in 2013, four received only written reprimands from the university. A fifth student was suspended for two semesters but allowed back on probation to finish his degree, while a sixth received probation. Not a single one of these students spent a day in jail.
Even more problematic, these students’ records will not reflect that they were found to have committed sexual assault. Instead, Yale chooses to use the term “nonconsensual sex,” which downplays the severity of the offense. By labeling sexual assault, including rape, with the more innocuous “nonconsensual sex,” Yale promotes a sense that these incidents were the result of misunderstandings, perhaps too much alcohol, rather than the acts of violation they actually are.
Yale was investigated by the US Department of Education in 2011 for the mishandling of sexual assault cases on campus. The university was found guilty of violating the Clery Act, which mandates reporting of sexual assaults, and forced to pay a $155,000 fine. In addition, the university has produced a semi-annual Report of Complaints of Sexual Misconduct since the time of that investigation. In spite of the investigation and the fine, however, Yale seems content to punish perpetrators of sexual assault with minimal penalties — the maximum penalty anyone found to have committed sexual assault at the institution is a two-semester suspension, and even the students receiving that penalty are allowed to return to campus to finish their educations.
When one of the most respected educational institutions in America is not only found to have misreported sexual assaults on its campus, but also delivers slap-on-the-wrist punishments like a written reprimand, what are we telling young women and young men? When the institution label acts of sexual violence as merely “nonconsensual sex,” what does this tell us about prevailing attitudes towards rape and other forms of sexual assault? What type of education is Yale providing young women when it tells them that if they are raped, they will not only not receive justice, but will have to share classrooms with their assailants? And what is Yale telling young men when it demonstrates that, should they commit sexual violence, they will probably just get a “note in their file”?
This is a problem that goes far beyond Yale, as the more recent investigations into the handling of sexual assault at campuses like Occidental and UNC-Chapel Hill demonstrate. Perhaps Yale, not unlike USC, hopes that the sexual assault adjudication process will be “educative” rather than “punitive.”
Certainly, these cases are both educative and punitive for victims and survivors, in that they teach very pointed lessons about the prevalence of rape culture, victim-blaming, and institutional negligence. The question is whether what these incidents teach is what we want young women and young men to learn.
It’s become pretty obvious just recently that Twitter has a huge problem with misogyny. That might not be news to a lot of women who use the site; we’ve been getting this kind of abuse for our entire Internet lives. But since Caroline Criado-Perez, a British feminist who recently campaigned the Bank of England to keep the image of a woman on our banknotes, started making noise about the horrific abuse she began to receive after seeing success, it’s finally getting the coverage that it rightly deserves.
According to Criado-Perez, at one point the rate of abusive tweets she was receiving was up to “50 an hour”. The abuse also spread to other women who have spoken out in support, culminating in several female journalists receiving bomb threats. It hardly needs stating, but that is a lot of harrowing tweets for one individual to receive at a time. Even more so when every one is a rape threat, a rape joke, or a death threat.
Twitter allows anyone to project their opinions in 140 characters to millions across the globe. Why is it that the first thing so many men seem to want to do with access to such a platform is send women misogynistic abuse and threats of rape? This isn’t just a one off; it’s symptomatic of a toxic culture. A “report abuse” button might hide individual tweets and maybe see individual accounts closed, but it won’t stop more tweets being sent, or more accounts being set up. It definitely won’t stop those men going out and actually causing harm to the women they clearly hate so much.
Social media doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If men are abusive on the Internet, and treat rape as an acceptable act to wish on someone, then those opinions transfer directly into real life. They might well be less inclined to say to a woman’s face that they are going to rape her in the way that they do in a tweet, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to. They just think there are less consequences of doing so on the Internet. Which is what really needs to change.
It’s all very well having a “report abuse” button, but something needs to happen when those tweets are reported. Twitter needs to acknowledge what real abuse is, the police need to be made aware, and the police need to act. Right now, I see little reason to believe that this will happen. We’ve already seen the way Facebook’s moderation team considered the most horrific, violently misogynistic content acceptable, and we see every day the way that the police just do not take rape seriously at all. Add to this the way that a “report abuse” button could very easily be used by the abusers that it is meant to remove as another way of silencing their targets, and what exactly is going to improve here?
Clearly, a shift on a much wider scale is required. It’s less clear how best to achieve this. For some, including the journalist Caitlin Moran, the answer was to “boycott” Twitter, to show both the site and the abusers on it that they would not stand for the situation any longer. This is what became the #twittersilence. But is removing yourself from the platform that abusers are already trying to forcibly remove you from an effective form of protest? Is silencing yourself, in response to people actively trying to silence you, sending the right message?
Men are tweeting abuse at Criado-Perez, and anyone offering her support, because they are women with opinions, and that is apparently the biggest threat to a man.
Maybe we should make our opinions our biggest weapons.
Yes, you read that right: according to one student who reported a sexual assault at the University of Southern California, campus police told her that they had determined that no assault had taken place because her assailant didn’t orgasm. In explaining the university police’s decision not to refer the case to the Los Angeles Police Department, an officer told her, “Because he stopped, it was not rape. . . . Even though his penis penetrated your vagina, because he stopped, it was not a crime.” A student judicial officer reportedly gave the same reason for the lack of disciplinary action against the accused assailant.
I’m not questioning that the lack of semen certainly would make the collection of forensic evidence more difficult in a sexual assault case. But law enforcement asserting that the lack of semen means that no rape occurred turns my stomach. There is already a culture of shame and silence around sexual assault, which results in (by some estimates) less than half of all assaults being reported. For a victim who was brave enough to report her assault to be silenced in this way is horrifying.
It would be nice to think this incident is the result of one clueless police officer at USC, however, according to a recent Title IX complaint filed against the institution, it is part of a larger pattern of mishandling — or refusing to handle — sexual assault cases in the community. Given that being a woman in college is, in and of itself, a risk factor for sexual assault, as well as the dismal statistics about sexual assault on even those colleges ranked among America’s best, the lack of support found by victims and survivors in our educational communities is all the more infuriating.
Along with the “no orgasm, no rape” incident, victims at USC have reported a systemic pattern of refusal to punish assailants or hold them accountable. Some students report that even when assailants were found to have committed rapes against fellow students, they received light punishments and were allowed to graduate from the university without facing any criminal proceedings. In other cases, the university refused to pursue investigations even in the face of what would seem to be overwhelming evidence. Tucker Reed, the lead complaitant in the suit against USC, presented university police with audio recordings of her ex-boyfriend admitting that he had raped her. A USC official told Reed that the university’s goal was not to “punish” the assailant but to provide an “educative” opportunity. (She does not seem to have told Reed what exactly they wanted to “educate” her rapist about, but I’m guessing the takeaway lesson for him was “You can rape your ex-girlfriend and get away with it.”) Yet another student says campus police asserted that women should not “go out, get drunk and expect not to get raped” when she reported being assaulted at a fraternity party.
USC Title IX coordinator Jody Shipper told the Huffington Post that the university “remains vigilant in addressing any issues promptly and fully as they arise,” and is in the process of internally reviewing policies and procedures regarding sexual assault reporting and adjudication at the institution.
Hopefully, should the Justice Department find that USC and the other educational institutions named in the Title IX complaint are in fact guilty of violating federal law in their (non)handling of sexual assault on their campuses, it will elect for a process that is more than just “educative” and in fact holds institutions and administrators accountable. Certainly, the process has already been “punitive” enough for victims and survivors.