A Response: The Misconceptions of Sexual Assault
By: Juhi Varshney
It is so wonderful to see so many UGA students, men as well as women, speaking out against sexual assault. However, it is a very complex issue, and there are many misconceptions that still surround our understanding of this pervasive scourge. I hope to dispel a few in this response.
”Fighting Sexual Assault: Let’s Unite, Not Politicize” raises some important issues, and it challenges men to step up in the fight to end sexual assault. I laud the author’s effort to speak out for this cause, but there were a few points in his analysis that I would like to challenge, not to attack the author but to offer a new perspective because many men (and women too) may not realize how some of these assumption may hurt others and the anti-sexual assault cause as a whole. It is distasteful for feminists to automatically condemn others who maybe aren’t “radical” enough or “committed” enough. Vitriolic responses that put others down are not productive, so instead I humbly offer my own understandings as contrast. I am by no means an expert, but rather a student who is actively and eagerly learning about these issues through theory and through activism.
One of the author’s first points is about distancing himself from the perpetrators of sexual assault. “Men who have remotely thought about committing these acts are not the people with whom I surround myself…The males who commit these crimes are in our classes, clubs, and social circles” he writes. I applaud his eschewing of sexual predators, but assertions like this imply that there is a faction of men who singularly commit sexual assault within the larger pool of gentlemanly, chivalrous bona fide Southern men: monstrous, creepy, shadowy men who prey upon unwitting women in dark stairwells late at night. But it isn’t always like that.
Sadly, many perpetrators of sexual assault are often our acquaintances – the seemingly “normal” ones that we don’t even question. The men the author is trying to distance himself from cannot really be filtered and separated out that easily. (This is NOT to say that all men are rapists- not all men are rapists. In fact, most of them are great people who sometimes need to be reminded of this fact in the midst of sexual assault discussions). It is overly simplistic to view perpetrators in this “stranger danger” way because only a fraction of sexual assault cases are perpetuated by strangers. Most instances unfortunately involve acquaintances or friends – 67 percent of reported sexual assaults are committed by someone who knew the woman in question beforehand . Since these cases don’t align neatly with the misconstrued, aforementioned idea of sexual assault, many are brushed off as cries for attention, as women tempting men with their sexually provocative attire, or as women changing their minds after consensual encounters. This leads to slut-shaming, victim-blaming, and report mishandling.
The author expresses his support for women on campus by reminding us that they are all “our sisters, girlfriends, and closest friends” — yes, women are all of these things but more than that, we are our own individual people. We are constantly defined in terms of our relations with men. Constantly. While we love being sisters, girlfriends, and closest friends, we also love being people in our own right. The author may not have meant to discount individuality by reminding his audience that women in our lives are some of our most cherished relations, but it is a stale point that does little to empower women.
I admire his vulnerability when he admits that he “often feel[s] ostracized by the typical campus voices on women’s issues”. It is tough to be ostracized. Not being welcomed into a space. Feeling like you don’t fit in. Having people question your presence in a place you genuinely want to belong. Constantly being reminded that you might not be wanted there. In fact, the vast majority of female students, students of color, poor students, non-gender-binary students, LGBTQUIAP* students, immigrant students, non-Christian students, and disabled students have felt like this at some point in their college career, if not every single day.
I want to point out that male privilege comes along with a wide selection of perks, but being welcomed into a feminist space is probably not going to be one of them. Feminism and feminist issues like sexual assault aren’t supposed to be easy for guys. They aren’t going to be comfortable. They are certainly not going to pander to men by making our daily struggles palatable for a population that barely realizes its own privilege. They’re not issues that guys can just swoop in on like white knights in shining armor, ready to save damsels in distress.
Sexual aggression is an incredibly complex epidemic that forces men to examine their privilege and the norms of masculinity. For some, understanding sexual aggression may call into question what it means to be a man. It isn’t all that easy to untangle these social constructions and learned behaviors to contribute to change, but that doesn’t mean feminism hates men. It doesn’t mean we want to exclude them. Of course we want men involved – we want anyone and everyone who cares about equality, safety, kindness, decency, and basic humanity to contribute to the cause; we just need everyone to make a sincere effort to understand the intricacies of these complicated issues first.
The author issues a challenge to his male peers when he says they need to “step up.” He even touches on a few ways he plans to get involved, including open and honest dialogue with his female friends and sharing his new learnings with his male friends. These are wonderful ways to contribute, but they are not the only ones. Recent trends have seen a lot of men getting on board with this cause – which is great – but their hazy generalizations about effecting change are not much better than “meaningless” Twitter activism. In fact, tweets about real facts, statistics, and experiences do a lot more than bands of men just saying that they can fight off sexual assault if they just work together.
It is great to see so many men support the cause, but they have to do more than just toss around buzzwords. Men need to hold other men accountable for their actions. They need to chastiseguys who objectify women. They need to call each other out on fat jokes and on rape jokes. They need to not take advantage of a tipsy woman downtown. They need to not ogle the women who choose to wear revealing clothing. They need to challenge norms of masculinity that validate men who — insert vulgar verb here — with the most women and brag about it afterwards. And they need to understand their privilege by considering the experiences of those different from themselves — sincerely trying to seek out new understandings that enable them to develop a healthy respect for women and other groups who don’t share their same privileges. Sexual assault is pervasive in societies that devalue women, and one of the best ways to combat assault is to challenge the culture.
I’m being sincere when I say I’m happy to see more men and more women coming to care about issues like sexual assault. Women don’t need need men to save the day yet again, but it’s encouraging when guys can speak out for us and support causes that are close to all of our hearts. Sexual agression is not an issue that should be divided along party lines and we should all unite against it. However, it is important that our assumptions and our understandings aren’t murky or problematic. It is equally important that people continue to share their thoughts and feelings on sexual assault and on activism because dialogue like this is always a constructive opportunity for change.