We don’t need any more victim-blaming or survivor-shaming, especially not at Tufts

23 02 2009

According to Massachusetts state law (Chapter 233, Section 21b), evidence of a rape survivor’s prior sexual conduct is irrelevant in any investigation, hearing or other judicial proceedings before a jury. This makes sense obviously because what isn’t being called into question is how many people the survivor has slept with before, or whether the survivor likes kinky sex, but rather the incident of sexual assault or rape that the survivor is coming forward about at the moment.

However in the part of Tufts’ Student Judicial Process booklet that details what goes on involving hearings regarding sexual assault cases at Tufts, it says (bold emphasis mine):

The University applies some elements of the Massachusetts Rape Shield Statute concerning evidence about prior sexual conduct. Usually, no questions, testimony, or evidence about the sexual activity of a complaining or responding party with anyone beside the other party in the case may be introduced. However, if a party introduces information about his/her own sexual activity with someone besides the other party in the case, questions can then be asked about that relationship.

In rare cases, if a party can demonstrate that the opposing party has reason to lie about the allegations made, testimony about prior sexual conduct may be allowed. For example, there may be a preexisting condition or factor that makes it advantageous for the complaining party to have others believe that he or she had been an unwilling participant in the sexual encounter.

Okay. Where do I start? First maybe reiterating the state law would be helpful: prior sexual conduct is irrelevant in any sexual assault / rape court proceedings. Tufts may be a private institution but it still resides within the state of Massachusetts and is not exempt to obeying state law. Even if a party introduces part of his/her previous sexual experience or conduct, it should not be considered at all because it is irrelevant to the case at hand!!!!!

And the whole bit about how “if a party can demonstrate that the opposing party has reason to lie about the allegations made, testimony about prior sexual conduct may be allowed”?! For lack of better words, WTF?!! Obviously the accused will try to show that the accuser “has reason to lie about the allegations made” because s/he does not want to be convicted as a sexual assailant or a rapist! Of course s/he is going to try and discredit and/or smear the survivor as much as possible, which sadly isn’t hard to do because we do live in a rape culture after all.

Another thing the language suggests that some rape survivors lie about being raped. Why would anyone lie about rape and come forward with that allegation?! There’s a false perception out there that many rape survivors lie about it which is total bull because what would s/he gain from lying about rape? Not only are so many survivors shamed into silence, but the ones who do come forward are rarely believed. There is nothing to gain from lying about rape and since it’s such a taboo topic in society, people do not generally lie about it.

The unfortunate reality is that it tends to be a lose-lose situation for survivors. You can be raped, stay silent and the perpetrator goes on living his/her life perfectly fine. Or you can be raped, come forward and be publicly humiliated; face the perpetrator through lengthy court (or student judicial) proceedings; be asked awkward, uncomfortable and irrelevant questions; and still not be believed while the perpetrator goes on living his/her life unscathed.

It’s been said before but it’s important to remind people that rape is the most underreported crime on college campuses across the nation. We need to hold institutions (yes you, Tufts) accountable for flawed policies that do not support survivors and we need to pressure them to improve their policies that are more survivor-friendly and survivor-accessible. Otherwise Tufts (and/or other institutions) just becomes a hostile climate for survivors. For a school that preaches active citizenship, social responsibility and all that jazz, isn’t it hypocritical to have such a broken sexual assault/rape policy?

Spotlight on SAFER

23 02 2009

The Vagina Monologues is this Friday in Distler at 7 and 9:30 (if you haven’t bought your ticket yet, buy it from Amy at the Women’s Center between noon and 3 pm any day) and the beneficiary organization is SAFER: Students Active for Ending Rape. I’m a big fan of SAFER and its work, but many people do not know about it. So here’s some information about / praise for SAFER, so you’ll be more in the know about the great cause your attendance at the Vagina Monologues is supporting.

SAFER originated as a student group in Columbia University in 1999 with the goal of reforming Columbia’s sexual assault policy. After a year of students recruiting, educating, organizing and mobilizing, Columbia adopted a new sexual assault policy with a revised and more efficient disciplinary procedure that had greater transparency and oversight, and established a new office devoted to sexual assault prevention and education.

SAFER’s victory at Columbia galvanized media attention and set the precedent for many other colleges nationwide, serving as a beacon of hope and encouraging students to take action on their own campuses. Students at other colleges across the nation began contacting SAFER for advice on how to improve their school’s sexual assault policies. Since then, SAFER has expanded into a national nonprofit organization devoted to helping student activists organize on their own college campuses to reform their school’s sexual assault policies.

SAFER provides resources and support to empower students with knowledge and skills to take leadership in reforming their school’s sexual assault policies. There are organizational training workshops, short term instructional programs that help students critique their school’s policy and teaches them how to effectively organize to transform it. There is also a campus activist mentoring program which pairs a student activists with an experienced organizer to guide them through the process of fighting and changing their school’s policy over a longer period of time.

These resources are available for free or charge a fee based on a sliding scale charge to accommodate different budgets of different activist groups. SAFER wants to be as accessible to all students and give them as much as it can while asking for as little as possible in return.

Tufts’ sexual assault policy certainly is flawed (as some may say, it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen) and some folks from SAFER are coming to conduct an organizational training workshop to help the newly formed Sexual Violence Student Advisory Board figure out what’s wrong with Tufts’ policy (we’ve already got plenty), changes to make to improve it and how to go about this (especially since the administration can be so frustratingly bureaucratic and conservative).

So in summation, go see the Vagina Monologues, SAFER is awesome, and we need to start thinking more critically about sexual violence on this campus, and it’s important to have an administration that is supportive of survivors.

NO, you CANNOT have my number!

23 02 2009

I plan my route home based on my gender.  If it is light out, I will take the back streets. Besides the obnoxious kids in the house on the corner that scream “Baby got back!” at me as I pass, this is a relatively painless route. But if it is late, I will take Boston Avenue back, because there are shops along this route and it just seems safer. Boston Avenue is not my path of choice. I tend to get cat-called and honked at repeatedly nearly EVERY time I take this route home. Sometimes a random creeper will follow me for a while, until I duck into the corner store to escape him.

I find myself angry at nearly everyone on my walk home. The other day, an older man was sitting on a bench watching me. What right did he have to stare?! I put my Jedi-hood on and looked down at the ground. As I passed, I was embarrassed to hear a nearby woman say “My husband and I really like your hat!” I had snubbed two people who were just trying to be nice.

Sometimes I am infuriated by my trips home, but other times I am merely amused. The other day, a man was following me shouting “DAMNNN, girl, DAMMMN.” I completely abandoned my feminist indignation and burst out laughing. At the time, I didn’t take it as an insult, and I didn’t get creeped either.

What are the societal implications when sexual harassment is treated as a joke? If I followed a man around shouting demeaning comments, I doubt he would laugh. I doubt he would smile. But I don’t know what he would do. I have never thought to sexually harass a man. Nor would I want to. This is not to say women cannot participate in sexual harassment against men, but it certainly isn’t seen as the norm.

The situation reminded me of this MADtv skit.

The skit is actually quite funny.  But despite the “funny because it’s true” aspect, there are some things that bother me about the portrayals of the characters. The man (played by a woman) is obviously a black male stereotype. Black man harasses white female…sounds like a familiar stereotype…Am I reading too far into it? I don’t think I am.

The woman is a model of femininity. She rejects his advances not through blatant honesty or indignation, but through backhanded replies that she just doesn’t give out her number…in theaters. The woman is uncomfortable but not threatened, resistant but not indignant. Imagine how different reactions to the skit might have been if the woman had harassed him back, yelled at him, left the theater, or even (gasp) kicked him in the balls! She is, instead, passive and polite. She answers his questions with a sheepish smile, even though he has no right to ask her questions in the first place. And did you notice how nobody in the background of the skit defends Yvonne?

A lot of the stereotypes in the skit were probably intentional on the part of the writers. Darrell navigates the theater freely, moving his seat multiple times. Yvonne, on the other hand, sits with legs crossed and only moves her seat to escape Darrell. But this is the way women are taught to react to harassment, isn’t it? It would be unladylike to react in any other way, even though the harasser has no problem invading our space and our privacy.

Women experience sexual harassment every day. Whether the encounter is mildly annoying, outrageously insulting, or downright frightening, we are expected to respond passively. But, even though many of the perpetrators seem to think that sexual harassment is a joke, the experience is anything but funny. Sexual harassment is humiliating, and serves as a way to reinforce gendered power hierarchies. Even though the perpetrators may seem to most often be male heterosexuals, harassment occurs in many contexts and is always insulting and demeaning.  What about the LGBTQ person who is harassed for his/her sexual orientation or deviation from gender “norms?”  What about the heterosexual boy or man who is harassed daily because he does not correctly conform to the masculine ideal?  What about girls who harass other girls because they aren’t pretty, cool, popular, etc?  Or someone who is taunted and demeaned not because of gender or sexuality, but based on their race or ethnicity.  Would these topics still be funny in a MADtv skit?  Let’s be careful what we laugh at.

Do you think that we can find more empowering ways to deal with harassment, without putting ourselves in danger? Do you think that it is appropriate to treat sexual harassment as humorous? Does humor provide a good outlet to talk about harassment, or does it trivialize the issue? Share your thoughts in the comments!