What We Talk about When We Talk about Sexual Assault

Studying the humanities reveals just how powerfully language can shape humans’ perspectives and behaviors—the way we talk and the way we listen to others molds what we think and do. I have become sensitive to this, paying careful attention to how I and those around me talk about things, especially complex or controversial issues. This month, it’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), a topic both complex and controversial. I’ve been listening to those around me—what they say, how they treat the subject—and have realized we are still talking about sexual assault in the wrong way.

Let me explain: I’m in a human sexuality class this semester, where we cover everything a college student may want to know about sex—anatomy and physiology, information about contraception, different cultures’ and time periods’ perspectives on sex, and more. It’s, for the most part, a great class, and an overall extremely informative class, but, a few weeks ago, one lecture stood out from the others in how offensively reactionary it was: the lesson was on sexual assault. Our instructor reminded us frequently that he is an “expert in the field of date rape.” After defining rape, listing a few statistics (e.g. “1 in 3 women have been assaulted”), and outlining a few rape myths (e.g. “women secretly want to be raped”), the instructor went into how we can prevent rape. We were told to avoid alcohol, to try our best not to go out at night—especially alone—and to carry pepper spray.

This perspective is problematic because it is blaming the victim—perhaps, though, not outwardly. Victim-blaming is often associated with blatant statements like “she was asking for it,” “what do you expect when you dress that way,” or “she was drunk,” but blaming the victim can, like in this instance, be subtle: if we say that it is a person’s responsibility to avoid alcohol or going out at night, we place the burden of preventing their own attack on them rather than on the attacker. Additionally, it treats rape as if it is an inevitable part of life by saying the solution is for the victims to simply do the best they can in taking measures against being attacked. This does nothing to stop sexual assault.

Similarly, as a part of SAAM, campus is hosting self-defense classes later this week—one class just for women and one co-ed class. Self-protection and self-defense are not themselves problematic, but suggesting them as solutions to assault is. Again, it is a backwards approach, aiming not to solve the problem (rape) but to only defend against the problem’s existence and consequences.

Another approach campus is taking is to create a more empathetic environment through SAAM events like Walk the Lane in Her Shoes. At this event, spectators (almost all female) clap and cheer as men on campus walk once up and down Drury Lane in high heels—“to see what it’s really like,” boasts the flyer. If I understand it correctly, the intention is for the men to put on high heels, take a very short walk, and suddenly understand “what it’s really like” to be sexually assaulted. An event like this takes a complex, serious issue and dilutes it severely. It can even become comedic—upperclassmen and faculty may remember the “Don’t rape, masturbate!” cheer the walkers chanted as they walked a few years ago. (There are many other things off-putting about a group of men “representing women” by strutting around in high heels and having women cheer them on as if they’d taken such a noble step, but that’s another feminist topic for another feminist blog post.)

It’s arguable that at the very least, these discussions and events create empathy and awareness. But, if they achieve that, that is all they achieve; what’s more is that empathy and awareness are crucial, but to treat them as solutions is to ignore the true problem. Self-defense classes will not stop rape, women carrying pepper spray will not stop rape, and men walking around the block in high heels will certainly not stop rape. Only understanding and adhering to consent will end the problem.

This is where our language comes in. If we are going to have a productive conversation about standing up to and stopping sexual assault (as is a goal of SAAM), we need to change the way we talk about it—no more “carry some pepper spray” faux-problem-solving. The main focus needs to be on consent, both defining and demanding it. I don’t see this now. The idea of consent is buried under discussions and events that minimize the problem or address it illogically. I understand it’s more convenient to create the “fun” events that are easily-marketable and attract students; I understand that talking about consent can be an incredibly difficult and uncomfortable conversation to have, especially when addressing a large group of college students, but it is a desperately necessary conversation. With the wealth of information that’s available, there’s no excuse not to talk about it. Talking about consent means talking about the real root to the problem; talking about the real root to the problem means working towards a real solution.

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About Elle Hammond

Elle Hammond is a senior at Drury studying Writing and English. She is a resident at the Humanities House.

11 Comments

  1. Elle,

    Your central argument is something I’ve been advocating for a long time: “The main focus needs to be on consent, both defining and demanding it” (in your blog). I appreciate you going into depth by showing how the discussion of consent needs to be the focus, not preventative measures of rape by possible victims.

    I’ve seen this discussion of consent vs blaming the victim in films such as “The Accused”, “The Central Park Five”, “The Invisible War” and “Brave Miss World”. I highly recommend these films.

    I support your argument fully. It will take time to change the mindset of transitioning fully to discussing consent, but it is worth the arduous steps.

  2. Did you pitch this to your professor in your Human Sexuality class? It sounds to me like he needs to change his tact too and pair the prevention recommendations with methods of how campuses, or how even Drury’s campus, aims to stop sexual assault. It’s incredible when you see the surveys college students have taken with what they consider to be rape… It’s the whole yes means yes, no means no argument that every sexual assault PSA puts out. Maybe some of those statistics should come into play too and a suggestion of changing mindsets.

    • I did–I spoke up as soon as he gave his “methods for prevention” and asked if he noticed how his language came off and asked if he discusses consent or if he realized it was the only true method of prevention there is; he told me that if I would “sit and listen until the end of the lecture,” I would see he “[tells] people to get permission,” which I think is insufficient.

      I think that experience saddens me even more than the SAAM events. Those words have extra weight to them when they come from someone who repeatedly identifies as an “expert in the field.”

      Thank you so much for your comment! I agree that students’ perception of what rape is can be alarming, and that my professor should change his lecture. And thank you for reading and thinking about the post!

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful post and comments. As one of the organizers of SAAM at Drury, I want to know what we can do better not just for this month, but to help those throughout the year that have been victimized in their lives. One thing that does interest me for the future is finding a way for a student to get support from peers, in addition to counseling services, etc., because you are so right, victim blaming is a huge problem. I would love to hear people’s ideas to not only make SAAM better, but also help support people and work towards prevention efforts. Please email me at rsenn@drury.edu & I would love to talk to you.

    • I think looking at organizations like No More and Joyful Heart can get some perspective on how to get more people involved. I think rape/sexual assault can 100% become preventable and not in the aspect of the victim. Perpetrators are the ONLY reason this crimes happen, and that is solely how things will change. I don’t think it will happen anytime soon, but we can even look now how much it’s changed. Our own President and VP are actively involved in making a change. People like Mariska Hargiaty are pushing for domestic violence to be talked about. Even this year No More had a DV commercial during the Super Bowl. It all begins when we let go of the stigma and learn to talk about these issues. Is how we raise our kids. How we deal with victims who have been in these situations. We must empower them to become survivors instead of blaming it on them.

      No man or woman deserves to be raped or sexually assaulted. UCLA has a new way of trying to prevent sexual assault on campus. It’s called “Yes Means Yes.” California has become the first state to adopt an affirmative consent law, known as “Yes Means Yes” aimed at strengthening the rights of targets of sexual assaults on college campuses. According to the law, silence or the lack of a “No” from an individual does not mean that she or he has consented to a sexual encounter. That goes for students who are sleeping or intoxicated. All incoming freshman and transfer students must go through new student orientations with these new definitions. Students will be educated on affirmative consent to not only prevent sexual assault from occurring but also help shift a campus climate from one of silence and stigma to one of support and healing.

  4. The sad part is that sometimes rape can’t be prevented. Especially for survivors who were raped by someone they know. It’s very difficult and confusing, especially if that person was trusted. I would be interested to read another survivor’s view on this topic. (I use the term “survivor” because the word “victim” can make a person feel helpless when they see themselves that way. It’s kind of hard to explain.) And as a survivor of rape, I really can’t come up with any solution. If the person had listened when I said “no”, there wouldn’t have been a problem. Being in a place where I trusted this person, I had not consumed alcohol, I didn’t have my pepper spray on me (I was in my house, so of course I didn’t) and he was far stronger than me. I was afraid. I was paralyzed. I don’t think that you can ever be prepared for that kind of situation, but that’s my perspective. It really isn’t just about what a person can do to protect themselves, but it should also be about finding resources for those who have gone through it. As a survivor, I found it very hard to get the support I needed because of “victim blaming”. Even the person’s spouse knew the whole story and blamed me. I wish there were ways that SAAM could also show support for survivors of rape.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, especially on such a sensitive subject. I am extremely sorry to hear that happened to you, but your contribution shows our readers an important perspective, so I truly appreciate your willingness to share.

  5. This is an excellent discussion, Elle. It does seem we need another drastically different approach, one that I fear is far more difficult––and, sadly, far less likely––where we convince people that others are valuable and should not be assaulted.

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