Tuesday 27 October 2015

Opinion: Why we need the SAAC - Mollie LeVeque

Last Wednesday afternoon, I was in the Hive collecting signatures for the Sexual Assault Awareness Campaign petition. To be precise, due to late buses and a labyrinthine post office queue, I managed to help for the last hour we had the booth. Even that was long enough to convince me - well, reaffirm to me - that we have a way to go before this issue's impact is seen for what it is, and not just here, but at virtually any other university campus. All around us, students were chatting, tapping at laptops, sipping mochas, and revising.

I marveled at the fact that few of them bothered to see what we were doing. While nobody was scathing about it, I was asked twice why "this" was important.

That question demonstrates why we need to challenge the prevalence of campus sexual assault. To change policies, we have to change the idea that it's a normal university experience. Confronting this normalization has been one goal of recent activist movements, films, and artworks in the US.

Despite progressive shifts in policy and practice often instigated by students, though, a culture of acceptance remains in the states and here in the UK. There are worrying reminders that it's all still trivialized. Dismissed.

Just head to Google and run a search remotely connected to the topic. (Be careful.) Take the clickbait title Oops, I Guess I Just Raped Emma Sulkowicz, which can't be regarded as appropriate or clever in any context. It's in reference to "Ceci n'est pas un viol," a sex-tape performance piece that Sulkowicz posted online this past summer.

Her introductory text says, "Please, don't participate in my rape. Watch kindly."

Cynicism aside - the SAAC petition is important. I have a laundry list of Anglo-American reasons. It’s important because when I introduced Sulkowicz’s "Carry That Weight" to seminar students last fall, women did not participate in the discussion. (Then, the main question was whether I thought she was lying.) It’s important because a National Union of Students study shows that one in seven woman-identifying students experience sexual assault. It’s important because I overhear conversations about how getting groped - or raped - in a club is normal. It’s important because the concept of consent is so poorly comprehended that a lack of "no" is regarded as a "yes." It's important because people still believe that a rapist will look "bad" - as though predictive qualities are written on one's person.

I could keep going, but I'll stop with this: logically, students, and by extension, staff, know someone who has been sexually assaulted, whether or not that person is open about it.

Maybe they've been a victim themselves. Likewise, they know rapists.

Problematically, because of how people are often treated when they come forward about being sexually assaulted, the numbers we have only come from those who decide to disclose. Pair that with the tendency to underreport sexual assault through official channels, and we've only hit the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Silence and shame won't help. We do have an endemic, as evidenced by the NUS study and surveys conducted in the US. For example, a recently released survey of 150,000 students at 27 American universities revealed that one in five “female undergrads” were victims of sexual assault.

Clearly, then, the issue is not the fault of individual universities. Rather, it is an underlying, poisonous problem in higher education. Overall, avoiding discussions of sexual assault or consent only helps perpetrators. Victims do not benefit from any ambiguity in policies, procedures, or official stances. UEA can set an admirable example by being proactive, and I hope it will.