by Erin Poythress
I’ve been trying all day to find a way to talk about the announcement we all got in our boxes about the sexual assault on campus, and the words keep failing me. But this is exactly the kind of thing that needs to be talked about on college campuses (virtual or not), and because words matter, and this is a literature course,* it is perfectly appropriate to our learning goals to look closely at the words that went out to the whole UNCG community on a matter that I think we can all agree is terrible. So I decided that an imperfectly worded conversation is likely better than a perfectly crafted treatise days after the fact. I’m siding with it being more responsible to broach a tough topic than ignore it. Silence offers too much protection for perpetrators of sexual violence.
I’ll start with the easy stuff: I am saddened and outraged this happened in my community, even though this is merely the first campus-wide report, not the first on-campus assault. UNCG is my community, my intellectual home, and it is hard to fight the sense that this happened in my own house. As a member of the faculty, I feel responsible for my students, despite their age or life experience. I’m also concerned that the safety tips offered up were problematic at best, and at worst, part of the problem. I will get into that as we go.
Here’s the email that went out from Campus Police, cut and pasted for reference:
September 10, 2014
On the evening of Wednesday, September 10, a UNCG Housing and Residence Life staff member received information that a university student was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance in a residential room in […] Residence Hall.
University officials outside of the police department know the identities of both parties and are proceeding with actions in accordance with university policies. The student has selected not to proceed with a criminal investigation at this time, and UNCG Police are respecting her decision to remain anonymous and are not investigating this incident.
In response to this incident, the UNCG Police are providing the following information on acquaintance sexual assaults. This information is general in nature and is not specifically related to this incident.***
It is estimated that nationwide one in every four to five college women will be the victim of a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. The most common type of sexual assault is not a stranger but someone the victim knows, typically a date or acquaintance. To minimize your risk of being sexually assaulted by someone you know, it is critical to keep the following points in mind:
Alcohol and drugs are sometimes used to create vulnerability to sexual assault and may impair yours and your acquaintance’s judgment. Studies of sexual assault incidents show a high correlation between acquaintance rape and drug/alcohol usage. Keep control of your drink.
Always trust your instincts. If you feel uneasy or sense something is wrong, do what you can to get out of that situation.
If you engage in sex, be sure you understand your partner’s limits, and communicate your own limits clearly. Don’t engage in sexual activities without affirmative consent from your partner. For more information see http://sa.uncg.edu/dean/ sexual-misconduct/consent/.
Have a companion or a safe means of getting home, i.e., a trusted friend, taxi, public transportation, or Spartan Chariot, if available.
If you are sexually assaulted, you have several options; please see related information at this website:http://sa.uncg.edu/ handbook/wp-content/uploads/ assault.pdf . If you choose a police investigation of this crime, we will investigate, provide support, and offer related services.
Sex offenses are treated with the greatest seriousness on our campus; criminal and/or severe disciplinary action can be taken. If a criminal case is brought, we will support you as much as possible as you pursue it. In the case of disciplinary action, it is our university’s commitment that a victim shall be informed of the outcome of any institutional disciplinary proceeding brought alleging a sex offense.
UNCG Police offer Rape Aggression Defense courses as well as personal safety information at the following web address http://police.uncg.edu/ Programs/. UNCG Police recommend people walk in groups when possible and report crimes immediately by calling 336-334-4390 or 911. They also encourage people to use public transportation, Spartan Chariot, and other reliable transportation services and avoid situations or circumstances that may increase the risk to their personal safety.
This information is being released in accordance with the federal Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. The Clery Act requires all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to keep and disclose information about crime on and near their respective campuses, including timely warnings of crimes that may represent a threat to the safety of students or employees.
***(Safety tips were obtained from the the University of Iowa website on timely warning notification,http://tinyurl.com/k6yh56j).
Let’s deconstruct that message…
Regarding the suggestions to “minimize your risk of being sexually assaulted by someone you know”—I just need to talk about this with you for a moment, even though many of you don’t take any classes on campus, even though some of you don’t even live in the same state. You do live in the same society, and acquaintance rape and sexual assault occur all over, so you need to be part of the conversation. I firmly believe that if you are not part of the solution to a problem, you are part of the problem. Since most of what we do in this class is take a close look at language, and unpack its denotation, connotation, innuendo, and implication, I want to do the exact same thing to these suggestions.
“One in every four to five college women will be the victim of a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault.”
This statement suggests that 1 in every 4 or 5 (20-25%) will be a victim of an assault or attempted assault. This leaves it open as to how many of these member of our community were actually assaulted and how many endured uncompleted attempts of assault. Don’t get me wrong—an attempted assault is certainly traumatic, and erodes one’s sense of safety, but most of us would agree that it’s worse to be the victim of a completed sexual assault than to endure an unsuccessful attempt. The law also agrees, as the penalties are heavier for a completed assault than an attempted assault. Given that phrasing, someone might imagine many of those women in that 20-25% of the female population of college campuses all over the country survived attempts and not assaults. “Someone” would be wrong. One in five female college students, according to the White House, are victims of sexual assault. Period. The quoted phrase in the tips from the campus police may not technically be inaccurate, but in grouping assaults with attempted assaults, it can minimize the trauma these women experience, and allows the reader to imagine a less criminal, less traumatizing experience for the victim. (Note: I usually prefer to refer to sexual assault victims as “survivors,” but since the text in question can be interpreted to minimize the very harm itself, for now I’ve sticking with “victim.”)
“To minimize your risk of being sexually assaulted by someone you know….“
Here’s the thing. There is nothing anyone can do to reduce risk of harm to zero—no nail polish, no anti-rape underwear, no protective amulets, or mindreading glasses. Women are often advised not to drink in public, not to wear “racy” clothes, not behave in certain ways in public so that she is not a target for predators. But guess what? Predators predate. Most rapes are planned in advance. Rapists observe and then manipulate people they perceive as vulnerable to get what they want from them. So while I would never discourage a woman from taking steps to make herself feel safer, whatever that looks like, one may also be able to imply, when these well-meant suggestions are offered based on observations of commonalities in the circumstances of these crimes, that if she did not take these precautions then she either wanted to be sexually assaulted (or it wasn’t truly assault but a misunderstanding, which I will get to later) or deserved it somehow. There is no one in this world who deserves to be raped. No one. The idea that—instead of teaching people not to rape, and teaching people to recognize and intervene when they see signs someone may be targeting another person for sexual assault—targets of rape should alter all their behaviors and take all the responsibility for protecting themselves is backward. Again, it is easy to see how someone might turn that around on a victim and imply or even say outright that she should have known because she went to a frat party/got drunk/wore that dress. Law enforcement has said these things to women reporting rapes before. Just sit there a second and imagine how that feels, especially if you have already endured a rape examination (that link describes briefly what really happens– it is not a short or simple or painless exam). This is another case where focusing on a victim’s behavior allows us to avoid the questions about why that attack really happened, and the cultural currents that allow these attacks to take place.
“Alcohol and drugs are sometimes used to create vulnerability to sexual assault and may impair yours and your acquaintance’s judgment.”
As a friend of mine once aptly put it: “A woman’s outfit may very well be an invitation. That does not make it an invitation for you.” This also applies to people getting drunk in public (after all, isn’t getting drunk all alone a warning sign of addiction?). There are many reasons it may not be a great idea for anyone to get highly intoxicated (Who likes throwing up? Weepy, humiliating public scenes, anyone?), but it is really important for me to point out that a woman out getting drunk is not necessarily interested in sex, and even if she is, any old partner likely does not do. And going out to have anonymous, consensual sex isn’t the same as going out to get raped, since rape is about power, not about sex. Let’s go back to that whole most-rapes-are-planned-in-advance thing. Seen through the lens of that fact, it’s easy to see that alcohol is a means to an end here—to lower inhibitions and confuse our instincts that might put us off a creep. Here’s an article to back up that alcohol is not the cause of male aggression, at least in terms of sexual assaults happening in bars.
That bit about it “impairing…your acquaintance’s judgment” suggests that the assailant did not realize he was raping someone, or that he would not have committed this act sober. This is a problematic assumption in the best of lights, and carries with it a whole lot of assumptions about gendered expectations around sexuality. The first thing I’ll say about it is that the notion that the victim and the assailant in this scenario could be on equal footing in terms of power and decision making is not consistent with the facts we know about acquaintance rape, since it is usually premeditated. It’s also highly insulting to someone who has been raped, because the implicit suggestion is that all she needed to do was communicate more clearly or have less drinks so she could do so. This blames the victim for what happened to her, and this is toxic for both that person’s healing as well as society, since it allows the rest of us to tell ourselves we’ll never drink that much/wear that dress/go off with someone we don’t know well/insert whatever makes you feel superior to that poor hapless girl, so we won’t be raped ourselves. That may help us sleep better, but it doesn’t make a dent in the crimes, and it allows us to focus on the victim’s behavior and not on the perpetrator’s, which only gives a predator cover. The implication that a person can always be free from sexual assault simply by being aware of his or her surroundings is the very root of victim blaming and rape culture (what’s that? Read this). The fact that rape happens everywhere to every demographic should illustrate that it is not an epidemic of drunk girls not walking home with friends.
“Always trust your instincts…do what you can to get out of that situation.”
Of course, trust your instincts. But if your instincts are confounded by intoxicants and/or manipulation by someone who has singled you out, this is less simple than it appears. In situations where a sexual assault may be more likely (see that White House doc about the Red Zone), it’s great to have a buddy system and take other sensible precautions, but it is just as vitally important that everyone take responsibility for those around us when we see they can’t do it ourselves. Bystander education has been really driving down campus sexual assaults recently. Of course I am not saying that someone in this situation should not try to get away if they feel trapped. I think every woman alive has been there at some point, and I know some men have, too. But not getting away, or placing conditions upon what is considered a vigorous enough effort to escape an attack, further blames the victim for the attack. Even in a stone-cold-sober rape scenario, the adrenaline response, which is commonly called “fight or flight,” can also cause a person to freeze (think deer in headlights). Some people, in some situations, completely shut down in the face of extreme fear. I think we can all agree that shutting down in fear is not consent.
“If you engage in sex, be sure you understand your partner’s limits, and communicate your own limits clearly. Don’t engage in sexual activities without affirmative consent.”
This is where I actually started yelling at the screen. This assumes that sexual assault has happened because of a failure to communicate, and in addition to going against established facts about sexual assault (again), it assumes that had the victim only said “no,” the attacker would have backed down. This also completely ignores the long-established position of the psychological community (and others) that rape is about power, not sex. Think about it. A regular, non-rapist human, in a sexual or turning-sexual situation with someone desirable, gets the “no” signal. Maybe their partner breaks away from the embrace, maybe the person says something that isn’t “no” but indicates they aren’t into it right then, like “Man, I really need to get to sleep.” A non-raping human might be disappointed or even angry—there might even be words about it (PS: this is a terrible idea, and in the history of human civilization, never has anything good happened right after those words, just FYI). But the difference between someone who rapes and someone who doesn’t is that a rapist may then decide that he (statistically, he is a dude, and I will get there, male readers) will get what he wants, no matter what his partner thinks about it. The rest of us, who make up the vast majority of society, do not want to be intimate with someone who doesn’t want to be intimate with us. Because we aren’t rapists. Rape is about power, not sex.
The next bullet point, about having a safe means of getting home, is more of the same. After all, using manipulation to isolate someone sets them up to not have a safe way out. This tip places the responsibility of remaining safe on the victim instead of instructing people not to rape, or better yet, to intervene.
“UNCG…Rape Aggression Defense course.”
I have no firsthand knowledge of this course, though I did follow the link to its description. I am all for people doing what makes them feel safe, and while I don’t know what they say over the twelve hours of instruction, I really hope one of them is that nothing reduces one’s risk to zero, and that if someone takes that class and then gets raped, it isn’t their fault. Because remember—rape is usually planned, and rape is committed by people who don’t believe that “no means no” applies to them. If taking any kind of self-defense class makes someone feel empowered—great! That just might make them less vulnerable to attack down the road, or better at stopping it. But it also might not, and as I’m sure you’re tired of hearing, you can imagine how awful it would be to hear that you kind of asked to be sexually assaulted because you didn’t take such a course in self defense. This places the burden of responsibility on people (mostly women) not to be raped, instead of teaching (mostly) men not to rape.
By now you are probably trying to figure out, after all this dissection of what troubles me about the tips in this email, what I think we should be saying and doing.
1. Don’t rape.
The next should come as no surprise by now:
2.It is never the victim’s fault. The first step to transitioning from victim to survivor is having the support from family, friends, and the university community (if it happened on campus), starting with telling the person that nothing they did occasioned the attack. And then seeking to resolve the case as the survivor wishes. I am a part of the UNCG community. The idea that someone among us is harming us is very, very difficult for me to live with. I’d prefer the assailant, if determined guilty by the justice system, be as far from our red bricks as possible, because many offenders repeat. I feel like someone has harmed a member of my family because they have. But it isn’t my place to tell any survivor how to proceed, even if I want our world safer.
3. We have to change the culture around these issues. That is a much bigger issue, because it involves social conditioning that happens all our lives. That is too big for any university or all of them together to be expected to tackle all by itself since students arrive as adults. But that doesn’t mean we just accept this sorry status quo. As I mentioned above, bystander awareness campaigns have been very successful on many college campuses. In addition to talking through some of the more contentious consent issues (some college students don’t know someone can be too intoxicated to consent to sex at all, for example), the value of peer groups has also been recognized in research as critical to helping curb sexual violence on campus. Everyone cares what their friends think of them, even people at risk for committing sexual assault. So with specific training and awareness programs, students learn ways to safely intervene when they notice, for example, someone, usually a girl, suddenly quite drunk, cornered by someone, usually a guy, and looking uncomfortable. They help the would-be assailant want to identify as and be accepted as a man who respects women and doesn’t let other men act that way, either. Many of you have probably done that before without even realizing you were participating in bystander intervention because trying to keep your friends out of harm’s way is also part of being a good friend, and that includes a playful “Dude, she is not into you,” and a firm steering to the other side of the bar. Will that stop all rapes on campus? Sadly, no. But it starts to change the conversation. It starts to question the paradigm that allows sexual assault to happen.
I promised I’d talk a little more about the gendered stuff. By now, I’d bet there is at least one reader squirming, maybe male, maybe even feeling possibly judged. Assuming you are not one of the 3% of men who has committed sexual assault, I am not pointing at you when I talk about rapists. I don’t believe for a second that all men would rape given the chance, and my belief is backed up by the stats. Three percent is not a lot of people, but one in five women have been affected by them, and one out of 16 men have, too. That is a lot of collateral damage. If “See Something, Say Something” is good enough for a counter-terrorism campaign, then maybe it should be good enough for a sexual-assault awareness campaign. If it threatens your safety to intervene, call 911, of course. I want all my students and their kids and grandkids to live a long, happy life, wherever they are, so don’t go getting yourself hurt. But if you see a situation in which a person (usually a girl, but not always) looks uncomfortable and stuck or too intoxicated to know what is going on, and you see one or more people acting a little too interested, go talk to her. About anything. Maybe you’ll find you misinterpreted the cues, and everything is okay. Maybe, though, you’ll find a way to breed disinterest in the ne’er-do-wells, and she’ll be grateful. Or she will be too drunk to get it and won’t even be grateful, but it won’t matter because you still did the right thing. Take it from a teacher: if doing the right thing were only about the unwavering gratitude we got in return, we’d give it up and never look back.
* Ms. Poythress originally wrote this to send out to her BLS 321 class.
Editor’s note: UNCG Campus Police has been receptive to criticism of that email text from the campus community, and has taken steps to update that information. UNCG also has a bystander-awareness campaign beginning this month.
UNCG Sexual Violence Campus Advocacy page
Some suggestions for further reading…
Reporting Rape, and Wishing She Hadn’t
How One College Handled a Sexual Assault Complaint
Ending College Sexual Assault
Can Obama’s new campaign bring change?
Edit: New video released this week by UNCG SAF: