Students Draw the Line on Sexual Violence

Students Draw the Line on Sexual Violence

By Stephanie Gilmore

Sexual violence is a problem on this campus!”

“Your silence will not protect you!”

“What do we want Safety! When do we want it Now!”

On the limestone steps of Old West, outside the admissions building where campus tours for new students and their parents begin and end, and in front of the Board of Trustees, hundreds of students shouted these chants throughout the day on April 24, 2009 at a protest against sexual assault and rape at Dickinson College, a selective liberal arts college in Carlisle, PA. This campus is not known historically as a hotbed of activism. But when it comes to sexual violence, feminists from all walks of life stormed the campus this day, building on continued work within and beyond administrative processes and conversations about campus culture.

Sexual harassment and assault, rape, and other forms of sexual violence are not unique to my beloved community of Dickinson College. They happen on every college campus. Whether we look at the murders of Yang Xin,Emily Silverstein, and Johanna Justin-Jinich or the less personal but no less real statistics of rates of sexual assault on college campuses, our students face what is nothing less than pandemic misogyny. At its core: sexual violence.

Sexual violence is a problem on our campuses and our students are fighting back. From losing their voices as they chant at a protest to finding their voices in deep conversation with one another about how no means no and yes means yes! they are drawing a familiar line in the sand, and we are wise to pay attention to it for the feminist activism it is, the histories it draws upon, and the lessons we can learn from it.

Alas, feminist women and men coming together to confront sexual violence hardly even make the news, mainstream, feminist, or otherwise. Academics and activists alike have been arguing for several years now that “waves” that demarcate crests and curls of feminist activism fundamentally obscure what young feminists today are doing. One result of this is so (too!) much handwringing over whether young feminists today are paying attention, as Katha Pollitt brilliantly suggests in a recent column in The Nation. She writes: “you wouldn’t know it from the media, but there are plenty of young feminists who do not see pole-dancing as ’empowering’ and do not aspire to star in a Girls Gone Wild video. Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs sold very well on campus. These women don’t fit the wave story line, however, so nobody interviews them.”

I actually have interviewed some of the women who do not identify with Levy’s narrative or who eschew generational conflict in favor of grassroots work. Because the young women and men who led this demonstration at my campus do not believe that they will fuck or flash their way to liberation, they fall off the radar screen. We ignore them because they don’t fit into the second/third wave, mother/daughter divide that seems to dominate popular discourse around feminism these days. And to our peril, because they have so much to teach us about sexual politics as they continue to reemphasize how sexual violence remains at the core of feminist activism in the 21st century.

Young feminists insist that no means no, each time and every time. At the same time, they join the chorus of those proclaiming that yes means yes! As they set boundaries around what is unacceptable sexual behavior, they also create space to articulate what constitutes feminist sex, rooted in pleasure in and joy from their bodies. These calls are not new in fact, they are quite familiar, but we render them historically as yet another divide; we even call it the “sex wars.” Feminists in my circles, however, recognize that both space and boundaries are critical to imagining and creating a world without rape.

The feminists on my campus come in all shapes and sizes, genders and sexual identities, racial configurations and class backgrounds. They’re too busy building coalitions with one another to focus exclusively on differences and divides, and one site of their feminist coalition work is sexual violence.

Marginalizing this feminist work reinforces repressive action when it comes to sexuality; it shuns important conversation and change in favor of an insistence on division in the form of feminist “waves.” Feminists today are not looking to surf another wave. They are, as I call it in my forthcoming book, Groundswell: Grassroots Feminist Activism in Postwar America, part of the groundswell of feminism formed and informed by each other in their community as they fight back against sexual violence and for sexual pleasure.

Their line in the sand and the heart of their feminist work is clear: no means no, and yes means yes. Because sexual violence is a problem, on and beyond college campuses, and only when we acknowledge it can we make change. They are doing just that. Are we strong enough to follow them

June 9, 2009