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It takes more than words

What is enough for an individual or organization to prove that they are against or that they support a certain issue?  Would this just have to include verbal statements or is there a need for some type of action or behavior change?  What if I told you that I support the environment and green/sustainable energy and attend monthly meetings to talk about this issue?  Perhaps you would think that is fantastic and that this world needs all the people it can get on the environmental movement bandwagon.  However, you would probably not think it was fantastic if you realized that I drove a Hummer, refused to recycle, and decided that I needed to run my dishwasher twice to ensure cleanliness.  (Note: I ride a bicycle, love recycling, and don’t even own a dishwasher).

The point is that the thoughts people have and the statements they make don’t always line up with what they practice and the perception this gives to others.  Based on the advocacy, education, and prevention work that I have done here at BARCC and elsewhere, it is not enough to verbally condone or condemn something.  Actions need to back up those statements. 

Recently at the University of Arizona, a student, Dean Saxton, stood outside holding a sign that said ‘You Deserve Rape’.  The student is quoted as saying

“if you dress like a whore, act like a whore, you’re probably going to get raped. I think that girls that [sic] dress and act like it, they should realize that they do have partial responsibility, because I believe they’re pretty much asking for it”.

The University of Arizona stated that they don’t support his message but also say that his speech is protected and that it isn’t directly threatening any particular person.

Dartmouth College recently had their prospective students day in which a group of 15 current students disrupted a program to protest and highlight the issues of sexual assault, racism, and homophobia that are frequently covered up or ignored by the school’s administration. Many students who were involved in the protest received threats of violence both online and in-person by other students.  In response the school shut down classes for a day and instead held teach-ins to address the campus culture. 

And of course there is the case at UNC Chapel Hill where one of the deans reported that she was pressured by administration to change the number of sexual assault reports each year. 

To reframe, in the past few months, survivors of sexual violence have seen a student blatantly holding a sign that says ‘You Deserve Rape’ and saw zero response from the school.  They saw an administration state that they would charge the protesters and those who threatened the protesters in the same manner.  And finally they saw an administration lie about reports.  These actions have huge consequences. 

Title IX guarantees that students will have equal access to education and campus resources. 

Feelings of safety and equality can be diminished or erased when survivors need to walk by Saxton’s sign on the way to the dining hall, class, the quad, or even their car.  The online and real world threats that so many people received and documented on Real Talk Dartmouth, also create a culture of fear and intolerance.  Despite how these actions are predominatnlty from students, they raise the question about how supportive the administration will be to reports of sexual violence if they allow such messages to be displayed on campus. Survivors and anti-sexual violence advocates may not feel safe or fully able to express themselves in such an intolerant environment, especially if they don’t know where the messages are coming from or whether the administration is supportive of them or not.  

Many survivors blame themselves for part or all of the abuse they experience.  This self-blame can take days, weeks, months, or even years to overcome because of the victim-blaming and rape culture that exists.  Oftentimes survivors are scared into silence because they don’t know how people will react or believe that they will be blamed for the attack. Because of this, many survivors aren’t able to access the resources and support services they deserve. 

Despite UofA’s excuse that the speech was protected, didn’t violate the student code of conduct, and didn’t threaten a particular person.  In an opposing example, Dartmouth scrubbed their campus clean of all chalking and signs that the protestors made about how poorly they campus handles sexual assault and homophobic language and behavior.  Colleges do have control over the type of messaging that is allowed on their campus.  I wonder what UofA’s response would have been if Saxton had decided to hold his sign during a prospective student day or weekend.

As a first-year at college, my room mate and I had taped a Global AIDS Campaign postcard on the door of our room.  After a fire alarm one night, we returned to ‘AIDS is a blessing in disguise’ written on our white board.  We had no idea who wrote it.  It could have been a fellow hall mate, student, or a guest. We also didn’t know if the message was specifically written at us or if it was written solely because of the postcard.  However, it did have what I can only assume was the intended effect: suspicion, hurt, and unease. 

A message doesn’t have to be pointed at a specific individual for it to have an impact.  Blanket and general statements can have just as profound an impact on the people who see it or hear about it. 

Creating a culture that is intolerant of sexual violence and supports survivors takes work.  UofA Health Center referenced a video they had just made about how the men on campus don’t support sexual violence.  However, the hits to that video are far fewer than the people who saw Saxton.  Dartmouth cancelled classes to address the need for respect and tolerance on campus.  Change is going to need more than a video and more than one day of programming.  There are no quick solution fixes, such as shutting down an entire Greek system, that will end racist, homophobic, sexist behaviors or even hazing.  My college disbanded its Greek life in the 60s and it just went underground.  Trust me, the hazing didn’t get any better once these groups were no longer recognized.

Changing a culture is possible but people need to be willing to work for it as it needs the input and help of the school’s administration, staff, and students.  There needs to be collaboration between these groups and the service providers who specifically focus on these issues. It requires holding people accountable for their actions and behaviors.  Time, money, and resources are needed much like they are everywhere else.   However, the most important thing is the belief that it is possible.  Because it is.


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Posted by stacey

Stacey formerly served BARCC as the coordinator for Community Awareness and Outreach. Prior to BARCC, she worked for the Navy as a sexual assault response coordinator and volunteered for the DC Rape Crisis Center. She got involved with anti-rape work during college and has enjoyed doing both direct services and educational work.

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