Naturally, because it is the end of the semester and I am drowning in papers to write, I’ve been marathoning Ally McBeal on Netflix.
For those of you not as immersed in the pop culture of the late 1990s, Ally McBeal ran on Fox between 1997 and 2002. The titular character is a young lawyer who is as brilliant in the courtroom as she is clumsy and confused in love (there’s a point to this, I promise). Back when Ally was new, she was this big feminist character: quick to defend her right to wear miniskirts to work, vocal about harassment in the workplace, and eager to form supportive bonds with other women.
I have considered myself a feminist for a long time, but this year at Michigan has caused me to question that identity more than ever. Not to question what I believe – never – but to question the effectiveness of my personal crusades.
I realize now that that is because my personal crusades have been more Ally McBeal than anything else – important, sure, but maybe less so than what I want to talk about in this article. I walked around thinking that lipstick and miniskirts and a quick wit was all it would take for me to start a revolution. I walked around, little white financially stable me, using words like revolution.
So, naturally, I was actually surprised when I was let down.
Back in November, I wrote an article for this blog titled “Do We Really Believe That ‘It’s On Us’?” wherein I questioned the usefulness of “awareness” campaigns for issues like sexual assault. I argued that sexual assault could not be eradicated through profile pictures and online petitions. I stand by that argument. But thinking back now, I wish I had put less blame on these campaigns themselves. After all, the goal of campaigns like It’s On Us is to start conversations that need to be started.
Yet it seems like over and over again the same people are talking. I go to speak outs, and rallies, and dialogues and events every chance I get, and I see the same fraction of the campus – the faces becoming more and more familiar with each passing month. How do we expand our numbers? How do you make people outside the auditorium care?
The responsibility of a university president is to make the university money. I feel cynical typing that, and I shouldn’t, because it’s true. When universities fail to take punitive measures against rapists, or when universities urge sexual assault victims not to hire counsel, or when universities purposefully underreport sexual assault, it is all about the money. Nobody wants to go to a rape school, so the school would lose money. Never mind that every school is a rape school.
I was naïve about all of this, and now I am disappointed. I have been knocked off my pseudo-feminist pedestal because I realized that it is extremely difficult to convince an administration that people’s lives should matter more than money.
For a lot of victims on this campus, I must seem like an idiot. You have gone through this process already. You have been blamed or intimidated or ignored or condescended to, or you have not reported at all for fear of the same. For many victims (like the ones interviewed in the new documentary The Hunting Ground) the sentiment is the same: being raped was awful, but what came after was worse.
But when Dr. Schlissel said that he would make combating sexual assault a priority on this campus this year, forgive me, I believed him. I wanted to. I thought: well, we (like many other universities in this country) are currently under a Title IX investigation. Everyone in the country is talking about this problem. It’s time, right?
My initial criticism of “awareness” campaigns was that they didn’t seem to lead to concrete action. I didn’t think that awareness or education would convince the small percentage of people who commit a large percentage of sexual assaults to stop. But I know now that these campaigns are not to blame. They do not have the power to expel sexual predators, to promise consequences.
See, it is easy to sign a petition or change one’s profile picture for the sake of activism. But sometimes that’s all you can do.
But if you are a university administrator, that is not all you can do. If you have the power to set a precedent, to stand up and show us that you care about the safety of your students, it is not enough to tweet:
On the same day you fail to send anyone from your administration to speak at the Take Back the Night rally in your stead.
It is not enough to send out surveys about campus climate. Not when those whose feedback is most valuable are triggered and therefore silenced by them.
So far, I have talked about this in a selfish way – I have written on how the university’s empty promises have affected my identity as a feminist. That’s true, but much more important is the understanding that the sexual assault epidemic is not a feminist issue. It’s a human issue.
Next year, I resolve to take it all more seriously. I’m done fighting for my right to color my hair. I want to get over myself and fight alongside the victims – the survivors – as they do whatever they can to have their voices heard. They deserve to have their demands met. They have the right to demand, even if it drives you “nutty,” Dr. Schlissel. And even if it’s hard to make people care, we have to keep trying. That’s “on us.” What’s “on you”?
My own, constantly-evolving feminism is deeply important to me, but you don’t have to be a feminist to know the difference between right and wrong. Next year, I am going to do more and I am going to do better.
I can only hope that after everything, this university will resolve to do the same.
Blog Editor, What the F Magazine