The issue of sexual assault, which has plagued college campuses across the United States, recently garnered national attention after receiving a nod of recognition from Vice President Joe Biden and Lady Gaga at the 2016 Oscars.
Gaga’s performance — an intimate, homey ballad sung while playing the piano on stage — was made even more meaningful by the appearance of dozens of survivors of sexual violence who stood beside her in solidarity during the performance.
In light of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which is recognized nationally during the month of April, it is important to recognize that sexual assault is an all-pervasive issue that has been around for centuries but has only begun to receive the attention it deserves in the past few decades.
It is imperative to recognize that a significant amount of power to combat the prevalence of sexual assault and other forms of gender-based violence lies in the hands of individuals and college students that can affect institutional and cultural change on a daily basis.
Gaga’s song, “Til it Happens to You,” was featured in the documentary film “The Hunting Ground.” Released in 2015 at the Sundance Film Festival, the film chronicles the experiences of university student activists that identify as survivors of sexual assault and had negative experiences with their universities during their attempts to report their assault on campus and bring justice to the assailant. The emphasis of the film is on the institutional barriers that many survivors face on campus, namely because it is often in a university’s best interest to suppress the voices of survivors of sexual violence in order to portray their campuses as safe.
The activists in the film went on to file Title IX complaints with the U.S. Department of Education and to assist other activists in filing the same complaints against their universities.
The result of their activism is unprecedented. According to Anemona Hartocollis of the New York Times, “more than 200 colleges and universities are under federal investigation for the way they have handled complaints of sexual misconduct, up from 55 two years ago.”
There is, of course, inherent value in recognizing the need for institutional change regarding support for survivors of sexual violence. There is also significant value in the recognition of the pervasive culture that promotes the likelihood of sexual violence on college campuses.
Sexual violence is a crime that is steeped in stereotypes, norms and taboos. There is also a part of mainstream American culture, called “rape culture,” that subtly promotes these factors and affects the ways in which individuals perceive their rights to sexual encounters, as well as aspects that normalize gender-based violence.
I, like many other vocal advocates against sexual assault, have been at the receiving end of negative feedback regarding this kind of advocacy.
For example, I recently commented on a Facebook post of a high school friend of mine who expressed feeling attacked by a pregnant woman celebrity on Twitter, when, in reality, the woman had been defending herself from a tweet directly messaged to her in which someone stated that he wished to “beat the sh** out of her” had she not been pregnant.
Following my comment, in which I defended the woman’s right to stand up for herself, I was accused by many on the social media site, including the original poster, of taking things too seriously, of making something out of nothing and of being unable to take a joke. But I could not get past this threat because of its clear implication, since he had directly mentioned her Twitter handle in the post.
I was at first surprised by the support he gathered from over 20 friends, but in the end I was left to recognize the fact that violence is in many ways normalized in our culture.
There are significant myths related to sexual violence: that men cannot be raped, that it is possible for individuals to “ask for it,” that rapists are always strangers to survivors and that women often falsely report rapes in order to get attention. These myths, however, are not supported by fact, and it is imperative that college students are constantly aware of and are able to combat these myths.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice via Know Your IX, a Title IX resource, “5-6 percent of men are survivors of sexual violence during their time in college, 90 percent of sexual assaults are committed by perpetrators that the survivor knows, and approximately 19 percent of women will be sexually assaulted during their time at college.”
Despite extensive research of the topic, it is common to hear that women who report rape are only doing so in order to get attention. In reality, however, rape and sexual assault are falsely reported at the same rates as most other crimes (2-10 percent), according to the International and Disciplinary Journal of Violence Against Women. It is ironic, then, that sexual assault is one of the only crimes in which survivors are asked whether they are sure they were truly assaulted.
There is also a culture of victim blaming surrounding sexual violence. Oftentimes, survivors are asked what they were wearing at the time of the assault, or if they had consumed alcohol before the assault. However, it is inherently impossible for an individual to ask or imply that they want to be sexually assaulted. Sexual assault by definition is not sex, it is “unwanted sexual contact,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice, that “occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” Sex, on the other hand, is sexual contact that is clearly and enthusiastically desired by both parties.
Victim-blaming can also exist when it comes to the prevalent nature of online harassment, such as the example discussed previously. This is because celebrities live their lives publicly and are perceived as “wanting” attention, even if that attention is in the form of violent threats. In the same vein, it is important to remember that there are intersecting identities that certain individuals possess that make them more likely to be the targets of such threats.
Ultimately, rape culture is not something that can be changed just through policy. Rather, it is something that must be combatted throughout daily life. Being an advocate for survivors of violence and an agent of prevention often involves uncomfortable situations with close friends, coworkers and authority figures that promote these subtle and sometimes overt messages that violence is something to be accepted rather than vilified.
As students and members of a college community, it is important to show up, inform yourself, inform others and, above all, combat ignorance. Survivors of sexual violence deserve a community in which they feel supported, but that support cannot be implied through silence. Instead, it must be enforced through action and, at the very least, through facts.