It seems like everyone is talking about consent these days. Or more appropriately, it seems like everyone’s talking about sexual assault. Part of it may be due to the political climate right now, when we have politicians speaking out about legitimate rape and abortion laws, about women’s rights and access to healthcare. But that’s only part of the puzzle because there are thousands of conversations happening all over the country, in homes, with friend circles, in political debates, and on college campuses.
Now, perhaps more than ever, there’s more dialogue around sexual assault on college campuses. A recent op ed in the student newspaper at Amherst College about her rape and the subsequent actions of the administration have caused a revamp on the policy around sexual assault (we’re actually super excited about their new Sexual Respect website). But Amherst isn’t the only college that’s talking about sexual assault, dealing with reported sexual assaults on their campus, or making changes to their policies. Sexual assaults happen on every campus across the country. Perhaps spurred by current events with sexual assault and rape on the tips of everyone’s tongues this political season, more and more survivors are talking about their assaults on campuses, whether it’s formal reports with the schools or informal conversations with friends. But most importantly, they’re talking about it. The more we talk about it, the more language we have around sexual assault. With language, we give ourselves and each other permission to articulate what happened, what needs to happen. National statistics show that up to 1 in 4 college-aged women will experience attempted or completed sexual assault, but less than 5% of those assaults are ever reported to law enforcement. In one study, over 40% of women who reported being sexual assaulted on a college campus told no one about their assault. The policy framework provides a necessary structure to help survivors report sexual assaults, but what about prevention? Where is the structure and dialogue about prevention?
There is a need for colleges to have proper framework and clear policies around sexual assault and how reports are dealt with. There needs to be a proper structure to support survivors and help them through the reporting process, should they choose to pursue it. And if we’re going to talk about structure when sexual assault happens, we must talk about prevention. And part of talking about prevention is actually talking about it instead of skirting around sexual assault. An article published two days ago in “The Nation” calls for an end of rape illiteracy and how we talk about sexual assault, rape and survivors.
“If you’re married, you’ve contractually agreed to be available for sex whether or not you want to. If you’re a woman of color, you must be a liar. If you don’t have as much money as your attacker, you’re just looking for a payday. If you’re in college, you shouldn’t want to ruin your poor young rapist’s life. If you’re a sex worker, it wasn’t rape it was just “theft of services.” If you said yes at first but changed your mind, tough luck. If you’ve had sex before, you must say yes to everyone. If you were drinking you should have known better. If you were wearing a short skirt what did you expect?”
All of these situations make excuses for the perpetrator and blame the survivor. Without consent, it’s sexual assault. It doesn’t matter who is involved in the sexual situation, if there’s no consent, it’s sexual assault. But it all comes back down to language.
“The reason we have qualifiers—legitimate, forcible, date, gray—is because at the end of the day it’s not enough to say ‘rape’. We don’t believe it on its own and we want to know what “kind” of assault it was in order to make a value judgment about what really happened—and to believe that it couldn’t happen to us. “
We have the power of language. President Obama spoke on the Tonight Show about his thoughts on these qualifiers, saying “Rape is rape. It is a crime. And so these various distinctions about rape don’t make too much sense to me — don’t make any sense to me.” You can watch President Obama on the Tonight Show here.
Whether it’s getting consent, telling our sexual assault stories, asking for help or asking for action, we need to keep talking about it, and talk about it more. Have these conversations with your friends, call your college alma mater and ask how they’re prepared to deal with sexual assault and prevention, participate in the dialogue and let’s make changes.
“The time is ripe for going big. The American public, young women especially, are ready for a new message about sexuality and for a definition of rape that is accurate, strong, progressive and indisputable.”
We might not have all the answers, and we aren’t going to change the world, but we will keep talking about it. We will continue to have these conversations. The more we use and expand our language, stop victim blaming and slut shaming, stop making excuses for perpetrators and can start calling rape what it is, the more we are making progress with sexual assault prevention. We will educate our peers, our students, our leaders, ourselves, and it will all start with dialogue. We will continue to speak about it, will you?