Wednesday, October 7, 2015
Guest Author Prof. Margo Lindauer contributes the following discussion on sexual violence:
Are we ready to have a real conversation about sexual assault? The Harvard Crimson reported on September 19, 2015 that more than twenty nine percent of surveyed Harvard senior women experienced unwanted touching or penetration. Coupled with the recent guilty finding of Owen Labrie from St. Paul’s School, sexual assault on elite campuses is now front-page news. Are we ready to really talk?
Much of the response to both the guilty finding and survey has been to slice and dice. Innumerable articles have been written about Owen Labrie with one headline announcing that he was found not guilty of felony sexual assault. There have been few, if any, written with a headline of how he was found guilty of three counts of statutory rape, which happens to be a misdemeanor in New Hampshire (but not in all states) and a felony count of using a computer to entice a minor. A jury found Labrie guilty of serious crimes.
Hundreds of comments appear in the Crimson report. In addition comments abound regarding a NY Times Article reporting on the survey on sexual assault on campuses commissioned by the Association of American Universities (NY Times, September 22, 2015). The article discusses the faults in the survey procurement. Many of the comments begin with “I am a feminist, but…”, or are a plea to disregard the data because of what some claim to be ambiguous language in the questions asked. Is this another way of trying to see a certain reality?
Critics suggest that the survey respondents were self-selecting, which potentially skewed the reporting towards a higher percentage of affirmative responses. Even if the actual statistic of assualted Harvard women was ¼ as opposed to nearly 1/3, would that make the issue less compelling? Would we be relieved of an obligation to find a solution? To be specific, sixteen percent of women surveyed at Harvard reported penetration without their consent during the time that they were in school. As a society, we have decided that no one deserves to be hit, punched or otherwise assaulted by anyone, including an intimate partner. But why are we reluctant to hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable?
The secrecy and acceptance of the unspeakable has gone on unchecked for centuries. The structures of privilege and power on campuses have silenced women and men . Further, our culture seems to have accepted the reality of older boys and men preying on younger women. The notion that men make aggressive sexual advances is assumed to be an accepted reality. But this survey and Labrie’s guilty finding give us the opportunity to change our reality.
Much of the response by educational institutions has been to change the structure of their reporting and service protocol. While that is an important step, let’s make our goals loftier. With an increased understanding of the historical practices that allow and support violent behavior, we now are able to change the dialogue. Let us talk and create a new normal where we not only provide services and support for individuals who survive sexual assault, but we educate all individuals so that sex or force touching is not acceptable, is criminal and no longer the norm.
To change the conversation, we must start one early.
Learning about healthy relationships and risk factors for domestic and sexual violence must be mandatory in middle schools. There is now evidence that there is a direct correlation between bullying in school settings with school-aged children and exposure to domestic violence in the home. Further, those who experience or perpetrate bullying as young children with no resolution may learn to normalize and mimic similar behaviors later in life. We must develop curriculum that is age appropriate at the middle school, high school and university levels that teach and talk about healthy relationships, the notion of power and control, risk factors for violence and trends in dating violence such as the current conundrum of online abuse. Educators in middle, high schools and in university settings must be given training, support and resources to be able to identify warning signs, talk about the issues safely and refer students to appropriate resources found through up-to-date, accessible and geographically relevant information. And finally, universities must institute polices related to affirmative consent. Though hotly debated, affirmative consent is a useful tool, particularly on university campuses where much of the socializing inevitably occurs under the haze of alcohol and darkness. Let’s talk about it, learn about it, and feed students with information about their rights and what is healthy dating. Let us not allow perpetrators to normalize abusive behaviors. We must establish protocol within institutions in order to hold perpetrators accountable. And let us support survivors to find safety and give assurance that they are believed.