We Can Do Better….

rape quilt squareYou may have heard some stories recently about the problem of sexual assault on campuses across the country. And you may have also heard of some recent efforts to address the issue. We are always happy to see people and institutions take the problem of sexual violence seriously, and we know we need all of us on this issue to make the change we are seeking.  But…..not all solutions are created equal, unfortunately, and at the risk of accusations of being “negative”, or “contrary”, or “standing in our own way”…we feel it’s critical to examine some of these proposed solutions from the perspective of how they will or won’t work in a culture that is – if we are being honest – as committed to denying the existence of sexual violence as ours is (that is not an attitude unique to American society, of course).
     Let’s start with legislation recently proposed in some states to require referral of campus sexual assaults to local law enforcement. It’s true that schools many times are more concerned with their reputations rather than the safety of their students, particularly their female students (see above links). So we appreciate these attempts to hold schools accountable for their lack of action. But….local law enforcement also habeen known to be more concerned with their stats on solved vs. unsolved crimes rather than on the safety of members of the community, particularly their female constituents. And local law enforcement has been known to label plenty of sexual violence reports as “unfounded” so they can close the book on them (see previous links). Plus, rape culture means very few of us, including police officers, are immune to the idea that women are vindictive liars using the only power we tell them they have in order to get revenge/attention/the guy, or something. (Police have been known to ask rape victims to take lie detector tests; or refer to them as “suspects”; or just flat out accuse them of lying and/or being mentally ill).
     Wanting to provide justice to sexual violence victims is a worthy, worthy goal. We are glad somebody is trying to do something. But we’ve got to start where we are, and work our way up to where we want to be. Where we are right now is that many believe (wrongly, we think) that convicting a rapist is worse than the rape itself, and are more concerned about “ruining a man’s life“. (Fine to have compassion for all, but please extend a little of that to the victim as well; and remember that when one makes the choice to rape, any negative consequences from that choice tend to be that person’s responsibility).  Certainly some victims believe this as well. Therefore, sexual assault survivors may not feel like they want to pursue the lengthy process of trying to get a conviction (that will probably not come); rather they may just want to not have to attend classes with their rapist. And that may be what they need to heal. Forcing them to either report to the police and potentially suffer additional re-victimization or just suffer in silence is not the ideal either/or option.
     Our conclusion – we appreciate trying to hold campuses accountable, but without holding our law enforcement and justice system accountable for their handling of rape cases, it probably still won’t work out well for the survivors.
     The next proposal we’ve been hearing about is coming from sororities on the UVA campus – a school that has been under federal investigation for some time re: its handling of sexual assault cases, and at the center of a hotly debated incident reported on this past winter. (Note: some have used this debate on this one case as proof that UVA has never had a sexual assault ever, although we would then wonder why sororities at UVA – and their national council – felt they had to come up with a solution to the problem of rape at frat parties). Sororities on campus decided that if they could be cleared to serve alcohol at their place, rather than having to go out to fraternities to drink, women would feel, and actually be, safer. Again, we appreciate when people take sexual violence seriously. However, we do not appreciate it when it seems only women are doing so, and the solutions put forward are for women to police their own actions, rather than holding rapists accountable for their actions. We’re also not sure, with so many rapes happening in or near the victim’s home, and stories of women participating in the victimization of other women, why one would assume these places – that are still serving the number one date rape drug, alcohol – would necessarily be considered that much safer. Also, this solution does nothing to stop rapists, who will just find other victims – what about the women who don’t belong to sororities? We know this seems like a good idea, and maybe it will help some women; but we will never get behind a proposal that intentionally leaves other women vulnerable (and by doing nothing to stop rapists from raping, that’s what this does).
     Our conclusion – this really is just more of the same, making victims responsible for stopping rape rather than holding perpetrators accountable.
     And for what it’s worth, this story includes mandatory reporting to local police and an all-women environment (a women’s college). And we still end up with a violent rape, and no justice.
Tara Romano, President, NCWU