Opening a Dialogue About Sexual Assault

By Alexis Charles

Last Friday Jezebel posted an article entitled “Stanford Student Compares Rape to Not Locking Up a Bike.” In the article, Jezebel reports on and criticizes statements made by two male undergraduates, one from Stanford and another from Harvard. The Stanford student cited claims that women should be doing more to protect themselves from sexual assault, and that men assume an unfair share of the burden.

He reportedly said, “Some men feel that too much responsibility for preventing sexual assault has been put on their shoulders. While everyone condemns sexual assault, there seems to be an assumption among female students that they shouldn’t have to protect themselves by avoiding drunkenness. Do I deserve to have my bike stolen if I leave it unlocked on the quad? We have to encourage people not to take on undue risk.”

Bloggers from across the Internet picked up the story and lamented its shortsighted and entitled assumptions. If our social networks are any indication, many students at Stanford feel embarrassed and angry that such a statement has been attributed to a student at our university. It reflects poorly on all of us, and it should concern us to know that our peers and neighbors are thinking about sexual assault in these terms.

The statement is certainly alarming. A woman’s body is not a piece of property, and she shouldn’t be made to feel she lives in a world in which this “property” can be taken.

The student who made the comments, Chris Herries, issued a reply in The Stanford Daily stating that his views were “grossly misrepresented.” Herries’ claims that he never meant to suggest that women’s bodies are like property and that sexual assault was akin to theft. Herries also insists that he never condones victim-blaming. We appreciate Herries’ efforts to clarify his opinions in his reply. While we still have significant qualms with his position, our intention in this post is not to continue targeting Herries.

The point of view that there are two parties “at fault” in sexual assault cases, even if taken out of context in the Jezebel article, is not an aberration. Victim-blaming is a distressingly common occurrence on college and university campuses across the United States.

Acknowledging the insidious reach of victim-blaming, Jezebel’s article, among others, questions why such statements are even published in the first place. Relating such views on sexual assault, the author of the Jezebel piece argues, legitimates them.

However, some of us at the WCC want to suggest that publishing problematic statements about sexual assault isn’t all bad and doesn’t necessarily legitimate them. Comments like these remind us that there is still a crucial need for a larger conversation about sexual assault, victim-blaming, and accountability. Only by getting opinions like these aired we can directly address them and dismantle them. It doesn’t do anyone any good to censor the men who understand themselves to be oppressed. Rather, we should listen and do our best to explain why analogies like these are destructive and misleading. Ultimately, we want men to understand that being vigilant about sexual assault isn’t a mechanism for their oppression, but for everyone’s liberation, and that men have nothing to fear from a system that only wants to ensure consent from all parties involved.

What if instead of condemning male students who feel unfairly burdened we asked them questions about their views and probed them for deeper answers? What if we hold a very real dialogue about personal responsibility, respect, and consent? What if we talked with them about these issues and about gender oppression, about women everywhere who are being reduced to objects who are there for the taking—like money on the ground—when they’re incapacitated? Women shoulder the burden of confronting sexual assault and harassment every day. This isn’t immediately obvious to some. But we can help to make it so.

Changing male culture is key to ameliorating rape culture. Men can be feminist allies, and changing hearts and minds requires a lot of listening and patient explanation. No one student is responsible for perpetuating harmful masculinist culture, and every voice has a right to be heard. After all, for every one comment published many more are made. Let’s address the issue instead of silencing it.

Many thanks to my WCC colleagues Annie Atura and Mackenzie Cooley for their thoughtful input on this post.

To read more about these issues, check out Stanford student and former WCC staff member Sarah Roberts’ powerful piece 15 Reasons Why #YesAllWomen Matters!

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