The presence of Sexual Assault Awareness Week on campus has had a sobering effect for many of us at UR. Unfortunately, as college students, most of us have friends or acquaintances who have been subject to sexual assault or harassment; just as many of us may bear the guilt of perpetrating an unwanted sexual act.
However, while meditating on the presence of these issues in our lives, it is important to remember that the line between perpetrator and victim does not always fall cleanly on either side of the gender divide and that simplifying the issue by assuming that women must learn to “protect themselves” is not the best answer. In fact, rampant assumptions regarding the position of women as “prey” to sexual violence not only have the effect of marginalizing male victims of sexual assault, but they can also make women more vulnerable to sexual assault, as they are framed as an “easy catch” for sexual predators.
This, of course, is not to say that the strife of female victims of sexual assault is to be ignored; after all, one in six women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, as compared to one in 33 men. However, to approach the issue of sexual assault from the angle that women are victimized by this monolithic male-dominated crime often has the effect of painting women as “helpless victims.”
No matter how many self-defense workshops we host, events like Sexual Assault Awareness Week will never be effective as long as their focus is centered around women. In the end, the focus on the plight of women in the sexual assault issue constructs an image of sexual assault as a plight that preys on the assumed “vulnerability of women.” When sexual assault awareness is framed as a paternalistic effort to “protect” women from the big, bad world, it merely encourages the assumption that attacking women is easy to do? and to get away with. The fact that Sexual Assault Awareness Week is primarily supported by Women’s Caucus is a product of the image that sexual assault is a woman’s problem and not a cultural issue to be addressed.
The answer to this problem is to construct events like Sexual Assault Awareness Week so as to empower victims of sexual assault rather than establish a protectorate of the susceptible college woman. UR’s Sexual Assault Awareness Week has been a success in this regard.
In particular, the “Clothesline Project,” in which anonymous victims of sexual assault could share their stories on T-shirts to be hung around Wilson Commons, served as a powerful, gender-neutral display of the prevalence of sexual assault – and also the ability of many to overcome assault with strength and perseverance.
Hopefully, the tradition of empowering sexual assault victims in an effort to quell statistics of sexual violence on campus will grow: please participate next year to help us end sexual assault once and for all.
Stephens is a member ofthe class of 2011.