We live in a neon, multidimensional world where colors burst in flavors of all variety, a world as decadent as the Wonka Factory, and as duplicitous as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Yet, we view sexual assault as black and white, despite our technological, cloud-esque world where information is boundless and invisible.
We imagine rapists as pigs, as misogynists, as men who degrade women on a daily basis—we never seem to imagine them as teachers, poets, professors, fathers, brothers, lovers, or friends. They are all of these things, whether we like to admit it or not. We imagine bros on a football team, not fiction writers at a MFA program; this is a disservice to humans everywhere, because it is implying only one type of human must commit assault.
It assumes that artists or educators are beyond such acts, which then implies that women (or men) who report cases where non-bros are the perpetrators become questioned like liars. It’s as if rapists can’t enjoy Proust and Rachmaninoff, they must only appreciate beer pong and Kanye West. It means men like alt lit writer, Tao Lin, can publish books and get away with abuse.
Bravery is defined as a courageous act; women and men who report their rapists are defined as brave. I do not want to live in a world where reporting an assault is brave, where confiding with friends is brave. I want it to be part of a dialogue that happens everyday; I want us to be open with each others enough to talk freely, as opposed to in the dark, with secrets and lies abound.
We assume writers and artists must be people who “feel” an extraordinary amount in such acute precision that they are incapable of such heinous acts like rape. This is a dangerous stereotype that needs to stop. Right now. It’s the same, tired logic we’re using when it comes to women preventing their rapes by not getting drunk or wearing provocative clothing, as opposed to men understanding the nuances of sex.
Men are more comfortable than ever about expressing their sexuality and exploiting women through violent yet normalized behavior and speech, whether it’s by listening to Drake, publishing predominately male literature and ideology, such as articles on Thought Catalog about the ten things men find unattractive about women, or Vice founder Gavin McInnes stating feminism makes women less happy.
How many women have said that harassment and assault are simply a part of life? It’s not okay to limit the words and actions of men, but it’s okay to limit the words of women, whether that’s through belittling or downright neglect. Women who publicize their assaults are seen as “loose,” or controversial.
Academia, as liberal as it deems itself, is one of the worst perpetrators of keeping assault “under the radar.” Emma Sulkowicz, is our Columbia University heroine, who lives in a world full of people like Ray Rice to Elliot Rodger to Terry Richardson to “legitimate rape” activists to Robin Thicke to Chris Brown. Colleges work really hard to appear as if they truly care about their students, but if rape is involved, they are the first to completely shut down any conversation.
While I was a student at SUNY Purchase, I dealt with rape twice, first as a victim, and second as an advocate. As an advocate, I was shot down. This was my first real look into how academia fails women everywhere; a male student posted a sign on his door that said “RAPE.” When other female students came up to me, as I was their RA, I reported the situation immediately; how could I know what his intentions were?
Long story short, the male student pressed charges against me, citing that I was taking away his freedom of speech. When I had to explain myself to an administrator in the Residential Life department, she suggested I try to “put myself in his shoes” and understand where he was coming from, that it may have been an art piece as he claimed, that he was an “angry young man.”
All I could think about were the sleepless nights I had, triggered by dreams of my attacker, and how I must be overreacting, how I avoided the staircase near where the sign was posted. (I doubted this, as it was just a print out in Times New Roman font.) I argued it was like posting a sign that said “NAZI,” “NIGGER,” or “MURDER.”
Even now, after several years have passed, I’ll never forget how my own boss boldly stood up for me, citing my own experience as a rape survivor; I was beyond grateful. However, her assertion made no difference—it was his feelings that were more important than mine, or the hundreds of signatures of from men and women on campus stating the sign was wrong.
While I did not “win” that battle, it encouraged my college community, albeit a liberal one, to rethink their ideas about men, women, and sexual assault. Teachable moments fill our days like air fills the atmosphere; cultural perceptions change slowly, and those with the most privilege tend to vocalize using a megaphone. Those being oppressed are sometimes drowned out by this cheerleading, but this silence is not the same as support.
If we haven’t learned anything from the McCarthy era, it is that free speech is essential to everyone, to a democracy; challenging authority and mainstream culture is the sign a healthy and educated people. While I technically had right to report my rapist, to report an offensive sign, I often questioned myself and my authority. My mind flooded with thoughts, ranging from “I deserved it…I should have said no more,” to “Well, maybe I’m being too sensitive,” to “Maybe I missed the joke,” to “Was it really rape?”
The kind of sexism that oppresses people through fear and insecurity is not just unjust, but it’s a sign that we haven’t come far enough since 1921–women’s first vote. Schools, whether elementary, high school, or college, need to be at the forefront of this change: train teachers about gender, consent, and assault. If teachers aren’t aware, then students will never learn.
(Published at Luna Luna Magazine)