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.