by Trevor Tezel
No one is ever asking to be sexually assaulted regardless of their attire, behavior, previous sexual history, or alcohol consumption.
A few years ago, 18-year old Jennifer Moore had been out drinking in New York City, when she discovered that her car had been towed. After wandering the streets for some time, she was eventually approached by an unknown assailant and brutally raped and murdered. Soon thereafter, Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly and conservative commentator Michelle Malkin were discussing this topic on their show. The latter made the point that “At some point these young women have to take responsibility for putting themselves in vulnerable positions.”
Malkin’s remarkably offensive comments were panned by the media and blogosphere, and the incident gave Fox News and Co. a black eye. However, her comments touched on a greater undertone that pervades many discussions of sexual assault. After reading about a case of sexual assault, some may privately point out steps that could have been taken by the survivor to “prevent” the incident from occurring. What we must understand is that no one is ever asking to be sexually assaulted regardless of their attire, behavior, previous sexual history, or alcohol consumption.
The first step in changing the dialogue is to change the language we use when referring to sexual assault. Too often, we use “survivor-based” language instead of “perpetrator-based language.” By shifting toward the latter, we can effectively place the blame where it solely belongs: on the perpetrator. After making her offensive statement, Malkin went on to say “Obviously, you don’t want to blame the victim.” (Which, for the record, she totally did.) The use of the term “victim” here is part of this outdated language. A more appropriate term would be “survivor” in order to avoid the stigma and perceptions of victimization. Also, when looking at policies that address the issue of sexual assault we should opt for the term “sexual assault risk reduction” instead of “sexual assault prevention.” The latter once again puts the onus on the survivor and implies that this is an issue that can be stopped by the survivor. The only person that can prevent sexual assault is the perpetrator.
Once we have our vocabulary straight, we can begin changing the culture around sexual assault. We can’t accept an outdated expectation that our safety is at risk if we’re not wearing the most conservative clothing. Clothing is a lifestyle choice and, oftentimes, a means of self-expression. “Survivor-blamers” like Michelle Malkin need to think long and hard about the implications for the free speech and individual liberties that they preach so much about when they argue that women are “putting themselves in vulnerable positions.” Furthermore, if we at Georgetown promote or even allow this perception to persist, are we truly creating a safe atmosphere in which students can feel at ease?
Another common misconception on campus is that if alcohol has been consumed, the survivor is at fault. This is absolutely untrue. Georgetown’s sexual assault policy, while not perfect, has clear language that indicates that even if alcohol was being consumed, a lack of consent is still grounds for punishment. By knowing and understanding these key facts, we can fulfill two goals: (1) educate survivors about their rights under the Student Code of Conduct and (2) change the culture that believes that alcohol consumption invalidates claims to sexual assault.
Finally, we should be clear that previous sexual history, or what is perceived previous sexual history, has no bearing on the acceptability of sexual misconduct or assault. Consent is key here, and a lack of it puts the blame right at the feet of the perpetrator. Taking into account previous sexual history absolutely ignores the key issue – any sexual encounters between two individuals should not progress based on previous history, not even if the two individuals involved have a previous history. Circumstances dictate that each encounter is a new one and must treated as such.
The example used throughout this article was a massive media story, but what we need to understand is that we and how we discuss sexual assault is the contributor to rape culture. What is undermining survivors and the safety of our community is not a major blow up on Fox or CNN but rather a question: What was she wearing? Was he drinking? Or a comment: “prostitutes can’t be raped,” “but they were married.” If we understand the power of our impact and our conversations, then as a campus community, we can change the attitude towards sexual assault.
By engaging in dialogue, educating ourselves and our peers about university policy (particularly with regards to alcohol), and recognizing that a safe campus starts with an attitude that solely targets the perpetrators, we will be well on our way to creating a Georgetown that is vocal and proactive on this issue,
Not to mention, we can try shutting up people like Bill O’Reilly and Michelle Malkin along the way.
If you find this post in any way triggering, please know that a wide range of resources are available.