Sexual assault is in the news. And while it happens everywhere, lately there has been increased attention to the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses.
It’s about time.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently surveyed undergraduate women, 19 percent of them reported having experienced sexual assault in college. When you consider the fact that most sexual assault victims don’t report their assaults, we can reasonably suspect that these are conservative estimates, and that sexual assault among college students is even more rampant than official statistics indicate.
(This post will focus on women, because they make up the vast majority of victims, and this fact shapes the gendered ways we tend to talk about sexual assault prevention. Of course, men can be and are victims as well. Men of color, queer men and men with disabilities may face particular vulnerabilities.)
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) September 19, 2014
The typical response to a woman’s assault is to teach her ways to stay safe. Indeed, throughout their lives, girls and women are told to avoid sexual assault by avoiding certain people, places, clothing and behaviors. We are told to take precautions. The implied message is that if a woman gets assaulted, it must be because of some error on her part, some failure to take the right precautions.
Notice that the responsibility of avoiding sexual assault is on women, while the questions of who commits sexual assault, and why, often remain unexplored. When the topic of sexual assault comes up in my classroom, I ask the students to describe the steps they take to stay safe as they move through their worlds each day. The female students provide a remarkably long list of strategies:
- Not walking alone after sundown
- Not going into stairwells alone
- Keeping the windows in their homes locked
- Carrying mace spray or a weapon for self-defense
- Keeping 911 on speed dial on their phones
- Setting up buddy systems with friends to check in by phone or text to repeatedly affirm that everyone is safe after dark or when alone
Clearly, women take precautions. The men in the room report using none of these strategies. They are frequently stunned to learn of the myriad ways women’s vulnerability to sexual assault informs their everyday activities, and they confess that they take their bodily sovereignty for granted, more or less. This exercise never fails to lay bare the profound differential freedoms experienced by women compared to men, and I do it to show how deeply a sense of sexual and bodily risk is encoded into women’s everyday lives. I also want to show that sexual assault does not happen because women fail to take precautions. They take precautions and still suffer sexual assault at alarming rates of frequency, regardless of their behavior (or clothing).
“We are told to take precautions. The implied message is that if a woman gets assaulted, it must be because of some error on her part, some failure to take the right precautions. Notice that the responsibility of avoiding sexual assault is on women, while the questions of who commits sexual assault, and why, often remain unexplored.”
So what’s the better approach? I argue that we must see sexual assault as a cultural problem, not an individual one. Assault doesn’t happen because an individual woman failed to take precautions; it happens because it is still acceptable in some quarters of our culture to treat women as targets, conquests and objects for others’ use, rather than as sovereign subjects. Sexist ideologies that render women vulnerable to assault circulate socially and culturally. Therefore, the responsibility for eradicating sexual assault lies in the very cultures in which assault persists.
It’s time for a culture change. Cultures change when people reject key beliefs and norms on which a culture rests, and erect new ones. If members of a culture were to harshly renounce, rather than reward, the conquest of women, there would be fewer cultural settings in which sexual assault could thrive. Changing the culture of sexual assault requires making sexual assault socially unacceptable, and that’s a job for everyone. Cultures only change when enough members of the culture accept the new norms.
“I argue that we must see sexual assault as a cultural problem, not an individual one. Assault doesn’t happen because an individual woman failed to take precautions; it happens because it is still acceptable in some quarters of our culture to treat women as targets, conquests and objects for others’ use, rather than as sovereign subjects.”
We at Roosevelt are uniquely positioned to lead a cultural change when it comes to sexual assault. After all, our campus isn’t just a culture; it’s a learning culture. Our classrooms provide a forum for identifying, analyzing and imagining ways to change cultural norms that support injustice. More campus events about sexual assault could model new cultural norms of sexual respect as well as display solidarity against those aspects of our culture that need changing.
The idea here is that all members of the Roosevelt community would learn that sexual assault is considered a repugnant act in our culture. We would show that we reward community members who embrace sexual respect, speak out against assault and intervene in settings where it may occur. This can be as simple as expressing strong offense at sexist comments made by friends and colleagues. It can also mean actively preventing would-be offenders from attempting assault in high-risk situations, such as at parties, bars and in dorm rooms.
A stance of sexual respect would become a cultural norm. This would be a valuable first step in changing a broader culture that typically stays silent while women are targeted. Deeper cultural change will come when “intervention” is no longer necessary and instead, girls and boys grow up with ideals of justice, and come to expect bodily and sexual safety as their birthright.