Tag Archives: sexual assault

Aziz Ansari, Power, and Sexual Assault

On January 13, online magazine Babe published an article titled, “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life.” The piece alleged acts of sexual misconduct on the part of comedian Aziz Ansari and in the aftermath, folks have been left to grapple with the murky questions of what is sexual assault, why do men fail to see it, and what we can do to stop it. On this week’s episode of Run it Black, David and Mike enter the fray.

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Sexual Assault Prevention Requires More than Well-Intentioned Allies

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. 

Allyson Scher

Allyson Scher

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.

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Shaming the Victim: The Public Backlash against Jackie and How It Reinforces Rape Culture

In this post, Lela Spielberg discusses the media’s coverage of a gang rape at the University of Virginia and its complicity in American rape culture.  Lela is a lifelong advocate for gender equality and has spent time as an elementary school teacher, education policy analyst, and director at an education nonprofit.

Lela Spielberg

Lela Spielberg

Last month, Rolling Stone published a story by Sabrina Rubin Erdely: “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.” I’m sure most of you are by now familiar with this story and its central protagonist, “Jackie.” (If not, you should read it). The lack of urgency and transparency with which UVA and other elite universities across the country have chosen to handle allegations of sexual assault and rape on their campuses deserves plenty of comment, but my post is not about this story.

Instead, my post is about the controversy that followed Erdely’s story, and the overwhelmingly negative and unkind reactions towards Jackie from the media and the general public. Allow me to briefly summarize:

Following the release of the story, T. Rees Shapiro of The Washington Post chose to follow up on Rolling Stone’s story, and when he did, he found some inconsistencies in Jackie’s narrative. Several other, less reputable news outlets – including The Huffington Post, The Daily Caller, and Fox News – chose to follow suit. A mere week after the story was published, several holes had been poked in the Rolling Stone article. Every detail of the story and rape was questioned: Why were the alleged perpetrators of the rape not interviewed? Were there five men present at the rape, or seven? Did Jackie have to have vaginal sex with them, or was she “just” forced to perform oral sex?

None of these inconsistencies refute the fact that Jackie was indeed sexually assaulted at UVA, or that UVA was incredibly cagey in its handling of the assault and the story. Yet the ensuing public backlash was enough for Rolling Stone to issue a statement apologizing for the original article and for the media to continue, for almost a month now, to further discredit Jackie, Erdely, and, to some extent, the prevalence of rape on college campuses. These reactions are not surprising to me. Rather, they are symptomatic of a larger problem. The world we live in is overwhelmingly tilted in favor of its most privileged members – in most cases, wealthy, white men – and yet so blithely unaware of the privilege it grants some people and not others that those who challenge this privilege are vilified, impugned, and doubted.

I will not waste my time going tit for tat with The Washington Post and Rolling Stone on the facts of Jackie’s story. I understand that good journalism is about facts, and I regret that Rolling Stone did not do a perfect job checking them. But in a story involving trauma, there will likely be inconsistencies in first-person accounts of events. And those stories still deserve to be told.

What Jackie described to Erdely was a severely traumatic experience. It is a well-documented fact that when people experience an incredibly stressful event (and being forced to perform oral sex, being gang raped by several men, and/or having a beer bottle inserted in your vagina all definitely qualify as stressful), their memories of the event are often incomplete and/or altered. Moreover, most people tend to forget details as time passes. Think about it: if I interviewed you about a sexual experience, even a pleasant one, that happened two years ago, would you be able to tell me everything? Where did your partner work at the time? How long was the foreplay? How long did the sex last? What did you say to your friends afterwards?

(If you think you can recall these details, please email me so we can set up an interview. Then I’ll interview every single person tangentially involved, ask to go through your emails and texts, and print any inconsistencies in your story on the front page of The Washington Post.)

Indeed, that’s why self-doubt and guilt are two feelings that sexual assault survivors often experience. They wake up in disbelief: Did this really happen? Will I remember enough to tell the police? A judge? A jury? What if I forget a detail and I ruin my life, or his? In too many instances, this self-doubt prevents sexual assault victims from confronting their attackers or reporting the crime, which reinforces the idea in perpetrators’ heads that this kind of behavior is acceptable, and creates a new cycle of attacks and secret shame.

When women get the courage to tell the story of their sexual assault, they must brace themselves for a level of scrutiny and character assassination that not even the most saintly citizen could withstand. In Jackie’s case, the media has been quick to impeach her character, and has recently gone so far as to suggest she was obsessive and boy crazy. Behold just a few articles that come up when I perform a basic Google search on Jackie:

Defaming and questioning a woman’s character is an all too common reaction when a woman reports a rape. Everyone from acquaintances to law enforcement officials will ask tacit questions about what she did to deserve it: Was she wearing something revealing? Did she go upstairs willingly? Did she kiss him at the party? Did she drink anything? Did she send a suggestive text message? Not only will they raise doubts about the incident in question, but they will also call into question her general character: Does she sleep around? Does she drink a lot? Does she chase guys? Has she ever sent a naughty picture?

Here’s the deal, folks: even if the answer to every single hypothetical question posed above was, “yes,” it isn’t any less possible that the woman was raped, and it doesn’t make the rape any less of a crime and abomination. Being forced to have sex without consent is a horrific abuse. It is an assault on one’s sense of safety, on one’s physical body, and on one’s mind. Nobody deserves that, no matter who she is and what she did in the minutes before it happened. But yet, in Jackie’s case and the case of so many others, we spend way too much time looking for evidence that the behavior of the attackers was somewhat justified.

It’s no wonder that Jackie waited so long to tell her story. After all, look at what she had to look forward to: reporters harassing her and her family, internet trolls searching relentlessly for her identity, even her alleged “friends” questioning her integrity to reporters.

Zerlina Maxwell wrote an excellent piece for The Washington Post about the high cost of not believing rape survivors. She writes, “The cost of disbelieving women…signals that…women don’t matter and that they are disposable — not only to frat boys and Bill Cosby, but to us. And they face a special set of problems in having their say.”

I want Jackie, and the many women who have been or unfortunately one day will be in a similar position, to know they aren’t disposable. Talking about a sexual assault takes courage. It means replaying the details from an incredibly painful thing you are trying to forget. It means confronting your attacker, at the very least in your own mind, and sometimes in person, even though the thought and sight of him makes you sick. It means listening to the patronizing questions about what you did wrong, and it means bracing yourself for every mistake you’ve ever made, every possible error in judgment you’ve ever had, to be analyzed by people who don’t even know you.

After a story about rape makes national news, it’s a shame that the people on trial the most are the victim and those who tried to help her. But this doesn’t have to be our reality. Instead of focusing on discrediting the victim, let’s focus on her alleged attackers. Why did they do what they did? Have they done it to anyone else? What messages have they gotten from their families, their friends, from their university, and their society about the rightness and wrongness of what happened?

There is a quote I like, by a favorite writer of my father’s, Abraham Joshua Heschel: “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Regardless of the particular details of what happened to Jackie, and the details surrounding any assault on someone’s body, spirit, and safety, we should not look for reasons to let those who committed these crimes, or ourselves, off the hook.

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