Rape Culture 101
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Ken and Andrew Working together to #stopabuse |
End the rape culture at university
I was sexually assaulted my freshman year at Yale. I refuse to remain silent anymore about what should be called an epidemic.
July in Washington DC is brutally hot, but last week sexual violence survivors and allies couldn’t be contained to the shady corners of the Department of Education’s plaza. As part of the Ed Act Now campaign, we’d gathered to deliver more than 100,000 signatures from ourChange.org petition urging the department to protect students from assault and harassment on college campuses.
We went to Washington DC because under US law, most notably Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, all of us are guaranteed an essential civil right to access to education free from violence, but these provisions are almost never enforced.
During the event I told my own story of sexual violence on campus, one I can now articulate publicly without fear. While in college, I never talked about my personal stake in this fight. As a student activist I spoke about sexual violence in the abstract, as a statistic, but I never mentioned my own experience.
When someone attempted to rape me my freshman year, I asked my college, Yale University, for help, but instead I was basically advised to keep quiet. I shouldn’t formally report the assault, I was told. Despite my clear and repeated “no”, school administrators cast the whole event as a misunderstanding among friends.
In short, I was told to be a good girl. And for four years, I listened.
Women everywhere are used to being told to accommodate those who wrong us. With family, friends, bosses, and partners, we must always be understanding and flexible, ready to dig deep into our well of second chances and generosity. We must never complain or make trouble.
Our devotion to this image of the good girl particularly infects our responses to survivors of sexual violence. As the media coverage of the Steubenville trial showed, those who seek justice are blamed for overreacting and “ruining the lives” of their rapists. Because of our insistence on the femininity of victims, even male and genderqueer survivors are held to the good girl standard.
We can deconstruct this pressure to stay quiet, but it is very real and very powerful, and it benefits universities looking to avoid scandalous headlines for the sake of reputation, application rates, and alumni donations. I know too well how effective such silencing can be. Even after I had joined 15 classmates to file a Title IX complaint against my school, I stayed largely silent about my personal motivation. When I published an op-ed in my school paper about my experience, I did so anonymously, afraid to anger my assailant.
It’s doubly dangerous that these same expectations of accommodation have infected the Education Department, charged with protecting students from just such abuses. The department knows sexual violence is rampant on American campuses. It has investigated dozens of schools based on student complaints, uncovering blatantly illegal abuses: survivors are told not to report their crimes by school administrators, threatened with expulsion if they speak about their experiences, and forcibly institutionalized.
Yet even in the face of such violations, the Education Department almost always chooses to avoid legal action or fines against schools by accepting administrators’ promises to do better in the future. That’s exactly what happened with our complaint to Yale University. There was a resolution where Yale agreed to do better, and the Department of Education accepted that even though it found that the university didn’t have adequate procedures for reporting or addressing sexual harassment and assault.
The department has insisted that it’s more productive to work collaboratively with universities, giving them the benefit of the doubt and room to change, rather than to punish.
These agreements send a familiar message to survivors: in the face of abuse, be understanding. Be accommodating. Be a good girl. Just as Yale told me not to make trouble for anyone, so too did the Education Department by instructing my co-complainants and me to extend our feminine forgiveness to our surely well-intentioned college.
The last year, though, has shown just how essential it is that we deny this silence and shame. After graduating from Yale, I wrote publicly about my assault, comforted by my distance from my assailant and the administration. The outpouring of support – and thanks from fellow college rape survivors – deepened my regret for not coming forward sooner. By speaking out I was able to connect to other activists, who had who had met similar opposition from their schools. From ties like these we are building a national student movement against campus sexual violence.
After the 15 July 2013 rally, Ed Act Now organizers were invited to meet with senior officials at the Education Department and present. We are thankful for the opportunity to detail our grievances and suggestions, but we won’t back down until we see real, substantive change. We can’t afford to be “good” any longer.