Listening Up: Students Blow the Whistle on Sexual Violence

Listening Up: Students Blow the Whistle on Sexual Violence

by Stephanie Gilmore and Sarah Barr

As women – a faculty member and a student – at Dickinson College, a top-tier, selective liberal arts college in south-central Pennsylvania, we are horrified by the acts of sexual violence that happen on our campus. We are also part of and witnessing a resurgence in student-led activism to eliminate this threat to women’s safety, well being, and educational participation.

Sexual violence encompasses a wide range of behaviors, from verbal harassment to rape, and we hear about sexual violence on a near-daily basis. Someone calls one of us or other women on campus a “bitch,” “cunt,” or “slut” in ways that deny us any opportunity to reclaim these words. We know peers who have been assaulted verbally or physically. And we both are survivors of rape and use our voices to tell our stories, which in turn invites others to share their own.

We also notice how often sexual violence is discussed so casually, and at times, euphemistically, as people talk openly about being too intoxicated to remember going home with someone else. Women describe saying “no” only to have the other party believe she really meant “yes.” We hear how dismissively people use the term “rape” — as in “that test raped me,” or worse, “ass-raped me.”

These sentiments reflect norms, attitudes, and practices that create and sustain a sexually violent culture on the backs (and fronts) of women’s bodies. College campuses are not immune nor do they provide space wherein students are safe from the many forms of sexual violence.

Students Speak Truth to Administrators

In April 2009, students – Sarah among them – took over Dickinson College to protest sexual violence here. This protest took faculty, administrators, trustees and students by surprise, but what might have been most surprising and rewarding was the rapidity of institutional change. Our college now has a dedicated rape advocate on campus twice a week and available 24 hours a day. It has redoubled efforts to make resources on and off campus available to all students. And, there has been a thorough revisiting of campus policy regarding sexual assault and rape.

Yet colleges and universities around the country lag when it comes to addressing sexual violence, and rapid action can often grind to a halt. Institutions often stop at piecemeal solutions, solutions initiated only when students demand them. Many students feel that they are left to insist that their colleges and universities protect them from predators or speak up against cultural practices that foster chilly climates in which women cannot speak out about sexual violence.

Students want to push forward
the idea that rape is preventable

Sexual violence is neither a new nor unique phenomenon at our beloved Dickinson College, where we live, work, and thrive as intellectuals. We love our community here and for that love, we seek to follow the lead of the activist and educator Andrea Smith, who argued in Conquest that we must create communities “where violence becomes unthinkable.”

Our mission is difficult because violence is not only thinkable but it is also the norm on college campuses around the country.

Statistics compiled by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) make this point abundantly clear. One in five women will be raped or experience attempted rape during her time in college. First-year women are most often targeted, vulnerable because they do not know the campus culture or the men and women who participate in it. They’re not doing it to themselves: one in 16 college men interviewed by psychologist David Lisak reports engaging in behavior that meets the legal standard of rape – and they boast about doing so.

Serial rapists, who rape on average six women, commit the majority of rapes on college campuses. Less than five percent of victims of sexual violence will report it to authorities on or off campus. It is most likely that they will know their attackers, which contributes to gross underreporting. But what also inhibits women from telling campus authorities is that the on-campus conduct system by which a student reports and prosecutes sexual violence is often opaque and shrouded in secrecy.

We have known victims who drop or fail out of college while assailants go on to graduate; this is obvious not only anecdotally, but also statistically. Colleges and universities know that sexual violence is a problem on campus – every campus – yet according to the Center for Public Integrity, they often inadvertently perpetuate a culture of silence around harassment, rape, and other forms of sexual violence.

They challenge perpetrators
who thought it was okay to
have sex with someone who
was too drunk to say “yes”.

This culture of silence promotes what one student we know recently identified as “open secrets.” College- or university-wide mores on campuses around the country promote the tradition that upperclassmen should size up first-year women and seek to have sex with as many of them as possible. College-sponsored pageants and traditional events occur in which homophobic, racist, or sexist comments and behaviors are the norm, but rarely, if ever, are challenged by administrators. It seems to us that institutions and people within them reinforce language and behavior that normalize heteronormativity against women, buttressing a culture in which the statistics are still horrifying, but not particularly surprising to us.

Many colleges and universities assume that rape will happen, as evidenced in the availability of resources for students after an assault has taken place. Counselors and public safety officers are on call; students can get rides to area hospitals to collect physical evidence; conduct systems are in place to enforce community codes of conduct when students commit “sexual misconduct.”

Yet these institutions of higher education and dedicated sites of engaged learning provide little discussion or effort to prevent sexual violence in the first place.

Students learn about sexual violence less from administrator- and peer-led talks at orientation about rape or campus rape aggression defense courses (known as RAD) courses, and more from each other telling their stories, often in one-on-one conversations or safe spaces such as Take Back the Night speakouts. Some professors and administrators are valuable allies, and we are reminded of the power of intergenerational dialogue in which we learn from one another – and we have valuable spaces such as women’s centers, feminist professors’ offices, and student-led spaces (at Dickinson College, the Feminist Collective operates as openly feminist space for students; while many campuses have these kinds of spaces, many more need them).

Changing the Way the Dots Connect

At these speakouts and in feminist spaces, students share their experiences, yes; but time and again, they articulate that theirs are individual moments of shame. They do not see them as evidence of structural and cultural sexual violence that creates and sustains the chain of pain that ties so many of us together.

When it comes to rape, we all have too many stories to share, and we know that the terms by which we talk about, share, and report crimes against our bodies are not our own.

In remarkable ways, however, students on college campuses around the country are seeking to renegotiate the terms. At our college, they are meeting with each other, faculty and administrators to discuss not only response to sexual violence, but also prevention. While the college is working to revise its policy regarding sexual violence, students want to push forward the idea that rape is preventable and all of us can shoulder the responsibility to teach people to not engage in sexual violence. They are proclaiming that marginalizing, even eliminating sexual violence is possible. In the meantime, they do not want to live assumed to be or to become a victim, a faceless and nameless number that may or may not be reported in annual Clery Act or uniform crime statistics.

Students reject any suggestions that if we are raped, we must stay silent; if we talk, we have to talk about it in the passive voice – “I was raped,” not “He raped me.” They insist that we put the action of the verb onto the person who committed the crime (and it is a crime, even while it is also a violation of community standards) rather than remaining passive, indicated by the passive voice. The blood, at times quite literally, is on the hands of perpetrators — not only for committing acts of sexual violence, but also for perpetuating a culture in which it happens or ignoring sexual violence when they see it happening.

Students hold each other accountable, even when structural forces do not. They challenge bystanders who do nothing, and they intervene, refusing to leave any woman vulnerable to potential or real sexual assault. They challenge perpetrators who thought it was okay to have sex with someone who was too drunk to say “yes.” And they’re willing to lose social capital or face being ostracized in order to call out cultures and actions that violate women’s bodies. They protest campus events that promote a culture of sexual violence, challenging their peers to understand how the pervasiveness and severity of rape culture are menacing. If administrators do not step up and say something, students certainly will.

Beyond interpersonal interactions, students want to name names, knowing that being able to do so allows them to reclaim stories and lives. And while it may be a legal violation under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to name a perpetrator before conduct hearings have been completed, students are also aware that they have rights under Title IX.

They argue that sexual violence bars equal educational opportunity and benefit for female students. Indeed, the 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, held that a student may have a civil claim against an educational institution under Title IX for student-on-student sexual harassment when the administrators are “deliberately indifferent to sexual harassment, of which they have actual knowledge, that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.”

Students know that the system on campus works only at the point of crisis and it does not prevent abuse from occurring. They want administrations to help foster a climate of prevention by speaking out loud that sexual violence in any form will not be tolerated. At bottom, the students question if they can belong to a community that does not protect them or does not develop community standards that respect their needs.

Students today, like many in preceding generations, refuse to be the passive recipients of a culture grounded in sexual violence. Like those who grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s, they want to be sexy and sexual without being treated as sex objects, and are working out the nuances of that tension because prevailing ideologies around sex and sexuality do not allow them to be one without the other. They reject the idea that “hook-up culture” is their fault — and they reject the cultural handwringing that blames women for casual, even anonymous, sex. They insist on separating rape from consensual sex, knowing that casual sex can be good, while rape never is. As they seek to renegotiate the terms personally AND structurally, they are creating a better world for the next generations and for themselves.

Stephanie Gilmore is a feminist activist and assistant professor and chair of the women’s and gender studies department at Dickinson College. She is currently writing “Groundswell: Grassroots Feminist Activism in Postwar America” (Routledge, 2011) and has started a new research project on how students negotiate sexual violence on residential college campuses in the United States. Sarah Barr is a women’s and gender studies major at Dickinson College, where she is an active member of the Feminist Collective.

Also see On The Frontlines: A Counselor Must Address A Gauntlet of Lies by Mary Lou Greenberg in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See SWEPT AWAKE! Negotiating Passion on Campus by Bonnie Pfister in the Spring 1994 edition of On The Issues Magazine.