Allyson Scher, a recent graduate of Washington University in St. Louis with a B.A. in English literature and cognitive science, has studied the intersection of women’s rights, civil rights, and the influence of language on cognition. In this post, Allyson explains why individual and institutional accountability and female agency are essential components of effective sexual assault prevention.
Columbia University student-activist and rape survivor Emma Sulkowicz was raped by a classmate in 2012, and, after the university failed to punish her attacker, called attention to the epidemic of sexual assault on campus through a performance art piece, Mattress Performance, in which she carried her mattress around with her on campus throughout the academic year. Sulkowicz’s invitation to the President’s State of the Union Address this year as the guest of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand shows that the problem of sexual assault is increasingly gaining national attention, and it’s encouraging to see a number of prominent political figures beginning to talk about it. However, trying to address sexual assault is not sufficient to ending sexual assault; the way we address it matters, and we have a long way to go before we do so effectively.
Rape and sexual assault have received particular focus from the Obama Administration. The U.S. Department of Education is currently investigating 95 universities and colleges under Title IX sexual violence violations. The White House has also recently engaged the issue of sexual assault on campus, and in January 2014, President Obama established a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, co-chaired by the Office of the Vice President and the Council on Women and Girls. In April 2014, the Task Force published its first set of action steps and recommendations regarding sexual assault on campus: the initiative “Not Alone” purports to help improve identification, prevention, and effective response to sexual assault on campuses. And in September 2014, the White House Task Force launched a PSA and report to call for bystander intervention to protect victims of sexual assault. Despite well-intentioned efforts, however, these initiatives fail to successfully address sexual assault on campus because they (1) focus on bystander intervention rather than directly addressing individual and institutional misconduct, and (2) subvert female agency.
The misaligned priorities of the initiative are apparent through the title of the Task Force: the “White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault” suggests that it is the Task Force’s job to “protect students from sexual assault”– and not to fight to end the act of sexual assault itself. The Task Force focuses on identifying victims to the neglect of identifying perpetrators, which incorrectly suggests that the act of sexual assault is both inevitable and inherently enmeshed in our culture. The Task Force directs us to protect women, but not to identify and stop rapists. It is a welcome shift from victim-blaming, but it is misplaced to focus solely on bystander intervention (i.e., a third party protecting a “potential victim” from a “potential rapist”).
Michael Winerip noted in the New York Times last year: “The hope is that bystander programs will have the same impact on campus culture that the designated driver campaign has had in reducing drunken driving deaths (to 9,878 in 2011 from 15,827 in 1991)…Both take the same tack: Drinking to excess can’t be stopped but the collateral damage can.” In other words, Winerip identifies that bystander intervention works under the assumption that sexual assault cannot be stopped, but individual instances of victimization can.
This assumption is damaging because, in attempting to shape campus culture to emphasize the protection of women, it instead validates violence against women as an inherent and unchangeable aspect of our culture. Approaching sexual assault prevention in this way puts the onus on the bystander, and removes responsibility from the offender because “it happens.” We need to acknowledge not only the fact that rape occurs, but that we perpetuate rape culture, and consequently rape, through acceptance of its inevitability.
The White House Task Force’s PSA, despite having several commendable features, also inadvertently subverts female agency in its attempt to end sexual assault. The PSA, titled “1 is 2 Many,” features several male celebrities, including Vice President Biden, President Obama, Steve Carrell, and Seth Meyers, urging the audience to “speak up” or “do something about” sexual assault on campus. President Obama ends the message with: “It is up to all of us to put an end to sexual assault. And that starts with you.”
On first glance, there is a lot to applaud about this PSA: it displays powerful men – in politics, comedy, and entertainment, all of whom are stereotypically masculine men – speaking out against sexual assault, and declaring that “if she doesn’t consent, or she can’t consent, it’s rape, it’s assault.” That line is valid and useful to the cause of ending violence against women. Also, it is persuasive to see powerful men taking a stand against sexual assault – but that premise illustrates a significant part of the problem with this campaign.
The implication that these men, and no women, are best able to get across the message to end sexual assault is indicative of a culture in which men’s words have greater weight than women’s, a culture in which gender inequality is evident, and thus a culture in which sexual assault is tolerated as a part of our society. Because there are no women present in the PSA, when the male celebrities urge “us” to intervene to stop sexual assault, it appears that they are addressing only men. The non-presence of women here suggests that women do not have power or agency to stop sexual assault, and this further perpetuates a culture of violence in which women are “helpless” and assault is “inevitable.”
Rape and sexual assault entail the denial of women’s agency – forced or coerced sex denies a woman her right to choose what she does and does not want to do – and so, women’s agency is integral to the effort to end violence against women. It remains important to engage men as allies, but we must do this carefully so as to not take away the agency of any woman in the process. Perhaps we are able to stop specific instances of sexual assault from occurring through bystander intervention, but encouraging bystander intervention will not succeed in ending sexual assault, especially because most men who assault are “repeat rapists” – one study, for example, found that “almost two thirds of [non-incarcerated] rapists were repeat offenders who averaged close to six rapes each.” Bystander intervention programs also won’t rid society of the culture that tolerates rape.
Instead, we need to hold universities, police forces, and individuals accountable for sexual assault, and treat it in a way in which we do not resign ourselves to the expectation of its inevitability. This accountability can include pushing for a policy to expel rapists on college campuses, or even the recent NFL policy, which, although an imperfect policy, moved to banish players from the league for domestic violence offenses (this punishment is currently for second offenses, and players will receive a minimum of 6 weeks of suspension after their first offense). Calling attention to sexual assault in a way similar to Emma Sulkowicz’s performance art piece constitutes good activism: Sulkowicz both calls attention to the rape itself (in carrying the mattress on which it occurred) and the institution which has the power to bring justice to the survivor (by carrying the mattress on Columbia University’s campus). Mattress Performance emphasizes female agency by highlighting a woman’s choice to take her assault into her own hands.
We can use the White House Task Force and its initiatives as a stepping stone to provide further attention to violence against women and the imperfect policies that address sexual violence. Nevertheless, it is important that we expand on these initiatives, and work to adjust our culture’s tolerance of sexually violent acts by empowering women while holding perpetrators and institutions accountable.