For the past month, Michigan State University has faced an uproar from students who blame the university for failing to stay transparent on issues of student-on-student sexual harassment. The administration’s inaction and denial of responsibility for accusations made by a female student against former MSU football player Keith Mumphery reveal the indifference of authority and the threat of public backlash that discourage survivors of assault from bringing to light issues of sexual violence. Claims that the university had also covered up the crimes of former MSU doctor Larry Nassar only serve to emphasize the ever-present need for support systems and prevention initiatives on college campuses.
The prevalence of retaliation in response to women coming forward about their experiences presents a pattern that pervades society and ultimately prevents justice for survivors who wish to report crimes, yet fear the consequences of doing so. Furthermore, making blanket statements that patronize women by advising them to say “no” to sexual advances does not provide a solution, but rather twists the situation into victim-blaming. This degrading attitude is apparent in a New York Times column response to harassment allegations against comedian Aziz Ansari. Author Bari Weiss shames the victim for failing to verbally deny Ansari’s advances from the start. She describes the story as an “unpleasant moment” rather than an encounter with sexual assault, the definition of which applies to a range of unwanted sexual activity that extends to physical as well as psychological coercion. When facing distressing situations, Weiss advises women to “stand up on [their] two legs and walk out [the] door,” and suggests that the solution to the our “broken sexual culture” is for women to simply be more verbal in expressing their true desires.
While Weiss’s argument may present a prima facie logic to some, her defense of Ansari intends to shame the woman. Moreover, it embodies society’s all-too-frequent response of questioning the stories of victims instead of just listening and attempting to understand the circumstances. Walking away from uncomfortable sexual situations proves easier said than done, as worry of immediate or indirect retaliation often influences decisions of victims during those overwhelming moments. Take the case of 23-year-old Paris Sashay, who was pushed to the ground and lost consciousness after rejecting a group of men that had been harassing her. 24-year-old Caroline Nosal was shot after ending a relationship with a coworker that she believed had become inappropriate. Just three weeks ago, 16-year-old Mujey Dumbuya was found murdered in the woods after she finalized a court date to testify against her rapist. The end to unfounded retaliation against survivors of sexual violence will only come once we stop minimizing the seriousness of women’s experiences and begin fostering an environment of empathy and respect in place of blame and apathy.
We must additionally become aware of the gender socialization that impacts women’s decisions from a young age. The enforcement of gender complementarity, which teaches women to remain dependent on men and submissive to the impulses of their male counterparts, manifests itself in sexual encounters. By casting doubt on allegations of sexual misconduct, we minimize the seriousness of situations and do not consider the widespread, yet inconspicuous effects of placing women in roles of inferiority. We additionally exacerbate the guilt that women may feel following sexual assault, and consequently normalize placing all responsibility on a single individual while inadvertently urging women to justify what happened. Just because they don’t qualify as the extremes of sexual violence doesn’t mean that the actions of others are acceptable. Combatting the status-quo requires that we do not discredit the harm that women endure, but rather empower them by recognizing the context of the story and leaving open the choice of coming forward, without pressure to make any decisions. We should also educate ourselves on the necessary qualifications of true consent and work toward ignoring the gut reaction to question those who have had the courage to publicize their encounters with sexual assault.
I am proud of the resources and sexual education courses that Boston College has provided to its students. BC requires that all incoming freshmen complete the mandatory Haven course that gives detailed information on sexual assault, and also requires students to attend Bystander Intervention presentations at orientation and throughout the year in residence halls. It’s crucial that college students learn the meaning of consent and apply these lessons to their own experiences with sex in order to eventually eliminate all instances of sexual assault on campus. Education represents a key step in promoting healthy sex habits among students that are not constantly associated with manipulation, forcefulness, and victims. BC has also made the important effort to make students aware of the existence of confidential, pressure-free support systems like SANet and counseling services.
Still, there is more work to be done to adequately educate students and remove the stigma toward sex that prevents students from engaging in active discussions about the behaviors that can be deemed healthy. BC’s administration should publicize the ability for students to receive STI testing at University Health Services and even provide students with information on where they may obtain contraceptives or additional counseling resources off campus. The BC community must also stress how sexual behaviors can be enjoyable if clear consent is involved, rather than solely emphasizing the consequences of engaging in unhealthy or harmful behaviors in the sexual-education courses offered on campus. Establishing an openness to talking about sex, reassuring students that their voices will be heard, and creating a caring environment that does not resort to victim-blaming all constitute actions that both BC administration and the student body should collectively pursue. Sexual assault should not be what is expected on college campuses, and universities can work toward healthier sexual cultures alongside an end to all sexual violence through the reconstruction of societal and institutional expectations.
Featured Graphic by Nicole Chan / Graphics Editor