This Sunday, Miss Nevada Nia Sanchez was awarded the Miss USA pageant title. During the question-and-answer segment of the contest, Sanchez was asked about the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. The 24-year old, a holder of a fourth degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, responded, “More awareness is very important so that women can learn to protect themselves.”
I see where Miss Nevada is coming from. In a country where at least 1 in 4 women experience sexual assault during an academic career, it’d be wonderful if colleges offered self-defense classes for credit. But they don’t, and more importantly, they shouldn’t have to. Which is why I find Sanchez’s attempt to empower women to be troublesome.
I could pay hundreds of dollars for self-defense classes (assuming I have this privilege) and wear my black belt to every party I attend from now till graduation. That still wouldn’t get to the root of the problem: that college students are not properly addressing safety, respect and consent. And deflecting the responsibility to women only addresses half the question, because rape culture permits us to ignore men in conversations about violence against women.
“Rape culture” itself is a touchy topic. Whether or not you believe in its existence doesn’t change the facts. Despite journalists who call rape culture “a panic where paranoia, censorship and false accusations flourish,” campus sexual assault is real, it affects men and women, and it needs to be addressed as a serious security threat on college campuses in America. As woman in my 20s, I know at least a handful of women who have been sexually assaulted on a college campus, and I don’t think I’m unique. Do you live on a college campus? Have you ever seen a student, at a party or elsewhere, force him or herself sexually on another student? I know I’m not talking statistics here, but this stuff feels like common sense at this point.
At least 80% of sexual assaults are committed by an acquaintance, and 48.8% of college women whose experiences fit the criteria for rape don’t consider those experiences “rape.” These statistics indicate how deeply ingrained violence against women is in college culture. A student who tries to force his intoxicated female friend into a sexual act can pass it off as a drunken mistake or a misunderstanding. This casual perspective on rape is what makes frat parties potentially dangerous places for women, but it also influences women to brush assault off. It’s not as real if it was that guy from your Stats class, just like it’s not as real if you can’t remember the whole thing. It’s not as real if he walked you home after, it’s not as real if your friends interrupted it before it went too far. Once again, the responsibility to deal with rape culture falls in the laps of college women. It’s our job to rationalize, to get over it, to forgive him because he’s really a cool guy when he’s not drunk! When almost half of college women who have been assaulted don’t recognize they’ve been assaulted (or, more probably, feel pressure to pretend it didn’t feel like assault), it’s time to change the narrative on consent.
Men are oppressed by rape culture too. 4% of college-aged men report surviving rape, but considering the stigma we hold about rape and our conception of masculinity (being strong, being tough, being hard), men are far less likely to report rape than women. Men are also the survivors of rape, and varying degrees of sexual violence, in our college community. Arousal doesn’t mean consent. Damaging assumptions make college campuses unsafe for everyone.
Survivors of sexual assault on campus experience another obstacle: they usually have to continue going to school with their rapists. In cases where a college does not properly handle reports of sexual assault, a practice that has been normalized and validated by campus administrators across the country, survivors are forced to live in fear or leave school on their own accord. The power and control dynamic of a nonconsensual experience can leave a person living in fear. Maybe you’ll have to see each other in class, maybe around campus, maybe at the next party. People and places on campus become triggers for painful memories of the assault. Maybe the rapist is a member of student government, or maybe the rapist is your girlfriend, but either way there’s a chance he or she might live down the hall from you.How can you feel safe enough to go about your daily life at school, let alone learn?
And that’s how one “drunk misunderstanding” can effectively destroy a person’s entire academic career at a particular institution.
Some students have taken the law into their own hands when faced with unresponsive sexual assault policies, but even well-meaning student-led tactics can turn into opportunities for misinformation and panic. What we need are better policies, better access to mental health services on campus, and increased awareness of what rape really is. We need more men to understand their role in rape culture and how they can be allies to women on campus. Maybe we also need self-defense classes, like Miss Nevada recommends, but do we really want to live in a world where we condone criminal acts because they’re “inevitable”? What if we taught college men that they are responsible for their actions, no matter how drunk they are or how much pressure they’re getting from their friends? What if we encouraged men and women to be strong together, teaching and learning from each other, instead of asking women to take self-defense classes against nameless, faceless classmates?
Campus sexual assault has the potential to destroy four years of personal growth and development. Because every person has the right to feel safe at college, let’s work together to change conversations about responsibility and consent.
Check out these organizations that are helping to end campus sexual assault and find out how you can get involved at your institution:
Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER)