Being on campus, it is often quite easy to live in a bubble and not hear about news that’s going on in the midst of work and things going on on campus. However, one story that I have kept on my radar in the last couple of months was the Steubenville, Ohio rape case. Thinking about the heinous actions of the men in the story was one thing but what stuck out to me was the way in which they were represented in relation to the victim of the case. You’ll notice that I won’t use their names here. I think that in order to make my point, it will be important to divorce the personal from the structural.
Thinking about the case gave me a flashback to the summer before I got to Wes and some pretty healthy Facebook activity over an article about sexual assault entitled The New Rules of College Sex (it even garnered a rebuttal from Abbey Francis ’14) which was making the essential claim that young men on college campuses, like myself, were being unfairly categorized as sexual predators based on new standards for sexual assault.
To be blunt, this article scared me stiff. To think that engaging in what I presumed to be consensual activity could land me in prison was something that made me, I think understandably, quite nervous. However, age and experience have a habit of changing your perception.
The article also stated, however inelegantly, that males were being put at risk of being charged because of the unclear nature of what exactly consent was. If you’re in an unclear situation, especially one with alcohol present, how could you be sure that you were in the right?
That’s just it, unfortunately. Consent is a moving target based on both parties’ sensibilities and comfort level. In our sexual encounters, partnerships, relationships, etc. it is so important to be in consistent communication with your partner. Enthusiastic consent must be more than a slogan we learn during Orientation. During my time at Wesleyan, I have come into contact with a little, very big, term called rape culture. It’s a culture that pervades the nation and certainly doesn’t leave our campus untouched. At the risk of being overly simplistic, rape culture is a systematic acceptance of sexual assault that simultaneously shames and silences its victims.
None of this, by the way, comments on the alarming projections of sexual assault victims who never report being abused or assaulted.
The natural, almost logical, response to calls for higher levels of consent and the calling out of rape culture is to say something along the lines of “To enter into these discussions, we should set the rules and parameters as to what exactly you mean by sexual assault. What are you talking about when you say consent?” The thing is, if you as a human being are faced with unwanted sexual contact, you have been sexually assaulted and that is based on your experience and the way in which you were treated.
This returns me to the Steubenville case. In watching the verdict being handed down, the thing that jarred and triggered me the most was not the victim-shaming coverage (although that certainly made my skin crawl). It was the idea that our media could take seriously a counter-claim that the plaintiff was a consenting individual because she did not “affirmatively say no”.
What does progress look like here? To me, progress isn’t seen in the conviction of the defendants. Simply jailing two young men that were already so steeped in a culture that made them think it was not only acceptable but publishable to gang rape a young woman seems to me nearly fruitless, if only it allows for the slight hope that some young men in the future will see this case as a reminder to its unacceptability.
The structure remains. The rape culture remains. Until we come to terms with the way we view and represent the bodies of those that force us to consider what we believe we are entitled to sexually and societally, then Steubenville won’t be the last chapter; it’ll just be the newest.
Dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault is hard to do alone. Support is available. For a safe space to speak contact Alysha B. Warren, LPC, Therapist/Sexual Violence Resource Coordinator or any of the therapists at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at 860.685.3217. CAPS can provide a space to help you sort out your feelings about the event(s), assist you in making decisions about what you would like to do next and help you begin the healing process.
Sexual violence is a community issue and we all have a role to play in prevention. Bystander intervention is one of the ways that we can begin to significantly reduce sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence, such as stalking, sexual harassment and relationship violence, on our campus and in our communities. For more information about how to become an active bystander, contact Alysha.
I have also attached a document from Alysha Warren elucidating the notion of consent a bit further. It can be found here: enthusiastic_consent_peer_health_advocates_fall_201211