It sometimes feels like everything there is to say about sexual assault on college campuses has already been said. The words “sexual assault” are thrown around so frequently these days that they’ve long since lost their edge. They’re practically cuddly.
For example: Sumana Palle’s Michigan Daily Viewpoint on U-M’s efforts to rally the troops and finally address the issue of sexual assault (see? You didn’t flinch, right?) on this campus. In it, she writes: “Social justice has become a trend on this campus (and this nation) and sexual assault awareness is only the latest avatar of this trend. Absolutely no one is concerned with centering the voices and experiences of those affected by this issue. The ultimate purpose of those seeking to get involved is not to enact real change, but the appearance of change, the appearance of effort.”
I disagree, a little bit. I think those who get involved in awareness campaign truly want to make an effort. And yet…
It’s easy, I suppose, to get behind the idea of sexual assault awareness. In the abstract, it is a very nice cause, particularly because the current image it conjures is that of a thin, white woman clutching her knees, long hair falling in her face. Who wouldn’t want to protect her?
The language we use implies that college girls are susceptible to rape, the way one might be susceptible to the flu if they forget to wash their hands frequently.
We say: “1 in 5 women are raped while in college.” We are careful, still, to use the passive voice. Sexual assault doesn’t even sound violent anymore. It sounds like an accident, and the thing about accidents is that there’s no one to blame.
I’m usually of the opinion that what the millennial-challenged media calls “slacktivism” is generally a good thing – people sharing posts on Facebook, turning their profile pictures different colors for different causes. Or rather, I’m of the opinion that it’s better than nothing. And I suppose awareness campaigns like It’s On Us are better than nothing. It’s just that they don’t feel like much more than nothing.
Where are the voices of survivors – from different races, socioeconomic backgrounds, and sexualities? Do they feel comforted by the It’s On Us Twitter badges, do they feel protected by legions of eager men joining the vaguely positive ranks of #HeforShe? Do we really feel like things have changed? Do social justice student orgs mean anything in the moments where consent seems optional?
There was a post that went viral back in 2012 on Feministing titled “I don’t want to be a feminist anymore.” I think we all have that moment at some point: “I am tired of being consumed by confusion and anger, typing, typing, typing and typing a seemingly endless response.”
As I am typing, typing, typing, I feel paralyzed by the sheer number of survivors close to me, by the constant, underlying worry that informs the way I live my daily life. I am frustrated. I don’t want to raise awareness anymore. I am tired of documentary screenings with the volume turned up loud enough to drown out the opinions of the people we should be listening to.
Sexual assault “prevention” has been commodified and cuteified and diluted down, and I have to wonder if it’s due to fear. I think this University and all universities are afraid to call upon survivors because of the way they have been complicit in their trauma. It seems sometimes that the men who are so eager to sign pledges and petitions and earn online badges are eager to do so because it’s an easy way to feel like a part of a solution – without actually confronting their own actions, or the actions of their friends.
I think as a community we are afraid of what it really means to confront the issue of sexual assault head on; to make activist efforts led by survivors, by people of color, by queer people, no longer niche, but normative. We are afraid of acknowledging our privilege and the inhospitable environment it creates. We’re afraid, above all, of guilt.
But: sexual assault is not a slacktivist issue. There’s no Kickstarter, no ice bucket challenge. If we’re going to fight it, we have to fight. We have to stop silencing the experiences of survivors, and we have to take tangible, punitive measures against assailants.
But I’m not saying anything new.
See, the problem with sexual assault awareness is that we’re perfectly aware – of what the problem is, and what we as a community, as a nation, have to do. We just don’t want to do it. We don’t want to believe it’s really “on us.”
Is it even worth it to pretend?
Blog Editor, What the F Magazine
University of Michigan, Class of 2017