Thursday, June 20, 2013

Sexual Assault: as a research topic and as a practical discussion

I usually stick to a few key topics around here: academia, mental health, and bikes.

But today, things are going to be a bit different because I can't avoid talking about the inherent need to discuss rape and sexual assault a it's implications in our society.

Why?  Well, most importantly, I study the way that bureaucracies deal with sexual assault.  Secondly, I've actually had to help a student make a referral about a sexual assault my first year here.  Third, it's a huge problem in society and one that has affected me personally.

A recent discussion started on a blog I frequent.Jezebel ran a story about Whoopi Goldberg and Serena Williams's misguided comments about the Stubbenville case.  It just shows how crazy rape culture because women are parroting this dialogue.  Rape effects women unfortunately all too often.  Vassar College has some important statistics about the prevalence of rape among college-aged women.  By college, 1 in 4 women has been sexually assaulted.  I was one of them so, yes, I have a horse in this fight.

Let me define what this means. Rape and sexual assault are basically ALL situations where consent was not had and sexual advances were made.  Assault is a wider definition than rape and covers more bases but, essentially, it's advances without consent either way.  There is no "rape rape", there is no "legitimate rape".  There is just rape.  No consent = rape.  Why does this seem to be so hard for people to understand?

There are two main problems that I have with Goldberg and Williams's reasoning.

1. The normative "should have". The "women should protect themselves by no dressing provocatively and drinking too much" idea of covering your drink and altering your behavior to stay safe!  These women alleged that the victim in question should have better protected herself.  It's something that is said generally, but especially of college-aged women who are "date raped".  This means drinking, roofies, and being assaulted by a person you know, generally.  There are two big problems with this line of reasoning.  The first is that when you trust people, you tend to let them in and you don't expect them to, I don't know, rape you?  And if that person wants to hurt you, they will likely do it - regardless of "precautions".

There is another problem with the "protection" aspect.  Victims tend to blame themselves.  They don't need victim blaming.  Do you NOT think that this victims has played the decisions in her mind over and over and over again regarding that night?  She likely has.  And, despite taking any other precautions, these guys would have either found a way to hurt her in a different manner or would have hurt someone else.  The thing is, if someone wants to hurt you they will.  The self-blaming feelings after rape are awful to deal with.  The student in question that came to me was feeling all of the same.  A friend took advantage of her at a party and she wasn't sure where to go.  Two weeks after the fact, she broke down and told me this was why her last paper was awful.  I directed her to the very well-equipped sexual violence response center on campus but I knew how she felt.  The evidence was gone by then.  People would ask her why she had waited, why she had drank so much, and criticized even what she was wearing.  All I could do was hand her resources and be as supportive as I could without crossing that instructor-student line.  I tried to be compassionate above all.

What happened to me was far less-intense but similar.  A friend hurt me.  I was younger than my student and younger than the person in question.  It was reported to school officials but they did nothing.  I never told my parents the whole story out of shame.  I blamed myself for not "doing more" but it happened at school in a situation where I was sure I would get detention if I left.  I didn't want to talk to anyone about it for a long time and didn't even have the words to describe it because I was too young to really have that vocabulary.  The Stubbenville victim is a child.  She faces similar problems.  Blaming her for "not doing enough" only makes the situation worse.

2. Putting the onus on women excuses men from their own guilt.  Going back to those Vassar numbers, 84% of men that actually committed rape (most of it was actually date rape, remember) claimed it wasn't.  What does this tell us?  Well a couple of things.  The first is that people, in general, don't understand what constitutes rape or sexual assault.  We tell women how to avoid rape but we never tell men how to avoid RAPING women.

I will never forget talking to a man from RWAMREC, the Rwandan Men's Resource Center, a non-profit that educates men AND women in Rwanda about the roles involved in sexual violence and encourages men to step up and be masculine in positive ways.  Basically, they have a campaign that says men need to recognize what rape is and to stop when consent isn't there.  I oversaw a number of meetings and talked to a number of Rwandan bureaucrats at the center charged with policing sexual and domestic violence reports.  The number one misconception found among average people and bureaucrats was simply their lack of knowledge about what WAS rape.  These people were well-meaning but facing the exact same problems we do here in the U.S.   Was it "rape-rape" or what?  My conclusion was that these issues were leading to bureaucratic discretion being unintentionally used to thwart the intended way of implementation and enforcement of the Gender-Based Violence Law passed by the Parliament years before.  Rwanda is making great strides in this aspect but it faces the global problems of stigma.

A similar organization in the United States also deals with this problem.  Men Can Stop Rape also gives tools to educate people on what constitutes rape and teaches men about consent.  Rape culture hurts men AND women.  The problem won't be solved until we educate everyone.

So, how does this affect what I do on a daily basis?

Well, it affects my students - male and female - as I said before.  It doesn't help women because they end up getting assaulted on a regular basis on college campuses.  It doesn't help men because it doesn't inform them of what constitutes rape.  Don't take this to mean that I think all men are prone to raping or hurting women.  Absolutely not.  But when you live in a culture where it's considered okay to have sex with a totally incapacitated person despite that meaning that consent no longer exists, it means we aren't doing enough to educate people about what rape is.  And college, based on culture, parties, etc, seems like a place ripe for this sort of misconception to cause problems.  Sexual assault has serious consequences far beyond the immediate.  PTSD, depression, and panic attacks are common with survivors.  Reliving that experience is common.  That can lead to students dropping out, doing poorly, or suffering unnecessarily.  We need to improve mental health resources on all campuses.  My undergrad did a pretty poor job of coping with sexual assaults.  I can gladly say that my current place of study has made HUGE strides to deal with the problem.  It's nowhere near perfect but the administration has been very adamant about dedicating resources and personnel to address the problem.

So, think about how this matters and what you can do to help?
1. Be educated about what constitutes rape.
2. Don't perpetrate myths and when you see them - speak out.  Especially you guys out there.  When men get involved, it makes the message of what rape is clearer to men in your social circle and sets a good example for future generations of guys.  Be a trend setter and get your hands dirty, ladies and gents.  Don't let people think this is okay.
3. If a student or friend comes to you, know about the resources available.  Be supportive but don't make demands about what they should do.  I.E. if they don't want to go to the authorities, the best thing you can do is give them their options and support whatever choice.  Legal recourse is a really scary matter and isn't the right choice for everyone at that moment.  Remember, you aren't the one who was assaulted so you can't know how you would feel in that instance.  Things are not simple.
4. Press for more resources and education on campus. 
5. Get involved with feminist organizations that pursue similar goals.  Volunteer at the rape crisis center, a women's shelter, or participate in the Vagina Monologues to raise awareness.
6. Be mindful of how your words affect others in both positive and negative ways.  Don't make rape jokes.  Don't assume things about victims or blame them.  Realize that if you are surrounded by 4 women, one of them has probably been the victim of an assault.  Your words carry weight.
7.  Small things make a big difference.  One defense of a Stubbenville victim or someone similar may make my day and make me feel like I can go on to share my story with others.  It has only been through the kindness and acceptance of others that I have been able to find some peace and confidence in relating my experience to others.  Sharing experiences helps others.  Not everyone can do it and it's not something everyone will necessarily want to do but small statements of support, even indirectly, give me a lot of hope for the future.


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