Ring Discussion asks: Is our culture complicit in sexual assault?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

An open discussion about issues of rape and sexual assault on campus held on Wednesday night was the first such discussion in at least four years. It was timed to coincide with the Clothesline Project, where survivors and their allies are asked to make shirts about their experiences with rape, sexual assault, child sexual abuse, incest, violence because of sexual identity, and murder. Community members who read the shirts, currently strung across Parrish Beach, often experience emotional reactions, including a desire to do something about the problem. Last night’s discussion was such an opportunity.

Panelist Danielle Toaltoan ’07 opened by explaining, “people always say ‘I would never rape somebody so what’s the issue?’ but we want to go a little deeper in this discussion,” and that desire to expand the issues at hand characterized the subsequent conversation. Over sixty people attended, with about an equal number of women and men, although multiple students speaking anonymously afterwards said that they felt that male voices had dominated the conversation.

The discussion opened with a question about what it means to be complicit in a culture that allows sexual assault, and how complicity relates to ignorance. One student felt that “complicit behavior constitutes what we say and what we do… things as simple as using the word ‘rape’ as vernacular for something else, saying things like ‘this exam raped me.'” They continued, “complicity and ignorance are one and the same and you cannot divorce the issues.”

It was agreed that it’s “complicit to rely on assumptions of character as a way of preventing rape… even if people you know are good people it doesn’t mean things can’t happen.” One student suggested to “take on the responsibility of thinking about it every day since survivors live with it every moment.” Another said, “don’t assume you know your friends… sexual assault is more pervasive than you imagine.”

One student raised the question, “If you are a victim who chooses not to report the incident, is that complicity? Is there an obligation to inform the perpetrator?” Another pointed out that “victims don’t owe society anything… they shouldn’t feel they need to report it.” They continued, “if you were to make it public that you were raped on this campus, you would put yourself open to judgment and harassment. ” One student admitted that “sexual assault is terrifying and it’s asking a lot to ask somebody to be proactive… to report requires more courage than I think I have.”

On the question of whether a victim should say something to the perpetrator, who may not always realize that what they did was assault, one student pointed out that “there’s a lack of understanding of what constitutes sexual violence,” pointing to a survey where men were anonymously asked about their own sexual habits. From the survey, many of the men would qualify as rapists, but supposedly over 80% of these men did not identify themselves as rapists when asked. Some students said that people should keep in mind that “yes means yes, and everything else, including silence and hesitation, means no.”

Some students questioned whether we should use the term rape or sexual assault, saying that “rape” implies violence and makes people more uncomfortable, when many situations occur in relationships and at parties and should perhaps be called sexual assault, but someone pointed out that this is “a mute distinction for survivors… whether rape is violent or not, it hurts equally.”

Alcohol was of course raised as a grey area. How can informed consent be given after drinking? What if two people are equally drunk? “We all know there is a large drunk hookup culture,” said one student, and another worried about how to balance a “sexual culture based on pursuit and competition” with respect. One student claimed that “to be drunk is to be uncontrollable,” but another said that this was an excuse, and that even when drunk, “I’m accountable for every minute in my day… I have to be.”

One student claimed, “if people had the mentality that you don’t have sex when you’re drunk, then these situations wouldn’t become issues.” To this, one student suggested, “if there is a question in your mind just don’t do it… if they want to have sex with you, they’re going to want to the next day when you’re sober.”

A particularly insightful point was made by a student who said, “what a drunk hookup culture indicates is that people are uncomfortable talking about sex… if we had more open communication about sex it would go a long way towards solving these problems.” Along similar lines, a student suggested that “if you want to change how people talk about sex, the place to start is among your friends.”

What do you do if you see people at a party in what looks like a dangerous situation? While most students agreed that “it’s important for us to take care of each other,” they disagreed on how best to do that, whether it was coming up to people directly, asking their friends to talk to them, or physically separating them. Students suggested “asking the girl if it’s OK” and “making eye contact.” There was also the question of whether to send a male or a female. One woman made the point, “I’ve heard about lots of situations where men yell at girls and nobody says anything… if I say something it’s not legitimate because I’m a woman, but if it comes from another male that ‘that’s not cool’ then the point is made.”

One student felt that “the worst that can happen is that they’ll be OK,” but another confessed to cursing at people who had asked him that question before, “but I apologize the next day.” There were also worries that you can’t always believe what people say, especially when they’re drunk, but the point was made that “at least you give them that moment to think about it… they might not be worried then, but at least they’re thinking about it.”

The question of who we hold accountable for sexual assault at Swarthmore and in what ways was a controversial one. Some students have heard many manifestations of the “She was asking for it” comment, like “Did you see what she was wearing?” or “Well, she went up to his room.” One student said that because of this culture, “it’s very rare that survivors feel supported by the people they talk to.”

“It is not your job to judge whether or not someone was raped,” said one student. “False reporting of rapes is the same as of other crimes, sure there are false reports… but why do we doubt these reports and not reports of stolen cellphones? If someone comes to you you should validate what they’re saying.” The student continued, “if people change their stories we assume it means that they were lying, but rape is a traumatic event… the story comes back in bits and pieces and changing the story doesn’t mean that they’re lying.”

Some male students pointed out that it should be OK to suggest that women can prevent rape by thinking about things like “walking through a dark alley scantily clad,” saying “it’s OK to say that in terms of prevention but not afterwards.” For many students this veered too close to victim-blaming, and some felt that “it is more constructive to say ‘How can men prevent rape?’ than ‘How could individual women prevent their own rapes?’ How can men change what masculinity means?” This student acknowledged that although there are female perpetrators and male victims, something like ninety percent of rapists are male.

As the “dark alley” example continued, one student said “most rape is acquaintance rape… thinking about dark alleys has very little to do with this issue.” A man tried to say, “it’s not holding anyone accountable to say you should take steps to protect yourself,” but the women for the most part felt that “that’s not something women need to be reminded of,” adding that stupidity happens, but “rape is not a punishment for stupidity… these things do not justify rape.”

Students agreed that while “obviously there’s an onus on the guy to ask for consent… it would be wonderful if everyone could be open about expectations.” When asking for consent, men are expected to ask women, but “it would be nice if I heard that from a female partner as well,” said one man. This dovetailed well with some concern that “we should also talk about what it means to be a male victim… a male victim will get laughed at, that’s a prevalent attitude.”

Students agreed that “making sure you get a yes is not killing the mood,” and “maybe it’s even more romantic because it builds trust.” Students wavered between talking about individual and societal responsibility, with one student pointing out that “individual acts are motivated by larger social currents… that includes women as well, there are no female figures in the media who say no, so women don’t feel comfortable saying no.”

The final topic of the night was language and what we can do about changing it so that “rape” is not used euphemistically and women are not referred to with derogatory names. Women pointed to these words as hurtful, especially on a small campus, but the group was extremely divided about the question of how far this language policing should go. Most students agreed that if they were asked, they would stop using such words, but questioned whether they had to stop watching television that used those words or stop using them with friends with whom they had an understanding.

Although students expressed doubt about the possibility of change, one student said, “there is an element of voluntary construct, because I know I change my language between the all-male locker room and Sharples.” He continued, “there are also many students who come here using ‘gay’ as a derogatory word, but when we tell them that’s not OK, it stops.” He suggested that the same could be done with cruel words about women, and that this might result in a better culture for victims of sexual assault on campus.

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