Saturday, September 15, 2012

Blame the Bird in the Gilded Cage

The American River College (ARC) located in Sacramento, California has been giving out this pamphlet. (I first saw this  on ABC News last Thursday on my Facebook feed. However, my attempts to find the article ultimately proved futile.) You can see through the paper enough to identify this pamphlet as a means to educate women on Sexual Assault.  Perhaps, this was the campus response to the recent attempted rape of an ARC female student in July.  ABC News reported that the "victim told Sacramento County sheriff's deputies that around 7 p.m. Monday, a large man ambushed her from behind. The suspect wrapped his arm around the victim's neck and put a knife to her side. According to the victim, her attacker told her he was going to rape and kill her. She was able to break away and run, but the suspect also managed to escape and deputies are asking the public to help find him." (Tangentially, I'd like to point out that while the victim indicated that her life was also threatened, this is only being framed as an attempted sexual assault.)

ABC further reported that ARC students were "not surprised by the attack since the campus has seen several in recent months," with one sophomore stating "it happens around here a lot." Yet despite this apparent climate, the Los Rios police crime statistics report 0 Sex Offenses (Forcible) in 2008, 2 Sex Offenses (Forcible) in 2009, and 0 Sex Offenses (Forcible) in 2010. Not only are these crimes going unreported and under-investigated, the response by the school was weak at best. The News 10 reported "the college didn't post any bulletins about the recent attack on campus that were visible to [their] crews Thursday afternoon." While two-hand made signs were taped near the entrance to the trail where the attack occurred, there were no postings on the opposite side or other parts of campus.

It is important to note that ARC is not an anomaly. Sexual assault is highly common at universities. In its 2010 piece, Campus Rape Victims: A Struggle for Justice, NPR noted, "research funded by the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 1 out of 5 college women will be sexually assaulted." This isn't news to any woman who attended college. We've all known someone (or been the someone) who was the survivor of a sexual assault. Further, we were all painfully aware of this constant fear.  This fear of course doesn't end in college. When we walk alone at night, we walk a little bit faster, eye strangers with suspicion, and look back a little more frequently. Every now and then, I get so afraid when I walk by our poorly lit neighborhood park that I sprint across it, not slowing down until I'm safely inside my dead-bolted house.Despite our attempt to free ourselves from the gilded cage and sing freely against the claim that we are the weaker (and meeker) sex, women continue to fear this terrorism of our bodies.

The pamphlet above might have come from a good place. The thought behind it is likely that of prevention; believing prevention to be preferable to punishment, as the effects of sexual assault remain despite what punishment is doled out to the offender. When I posted the pamphlet and my subsequent outrage on the King Hall Women's Law Association Facebook page, an individual innocently inquired "what's wrong with it?"This individual had some excellent points. They acknowledged the statistics I mentioned above, observing that there are a decent amount of "creepers" who engage in this type of behavior. Instead of stating that passive is affirmative, they found this pamphlet to instead define passive as an easier target. 

Despite these excellent points, this pamphlet just did not sit well with me. Let me walk you through   exactly what I think is wrong with it, prong by prong:
Prong 1: Communicate your limits as clearly as possible. If someone starts to offend you, tell him early and firmly. Being polite is all right, as long as you are firm and assertive. Say "no" when you mean "no" and be prepared to repeat it. 
There is nothing "inherently" wrong with this statement. We all teach our children to be vocal and loud and repetitive with our "NO." However, some of the words that are used in this pamphlet evokes discomfort within me (two samples below). Further, if a woman does get sexually assault, I believe this type of language plants a seed of doubt in her mind. She'll worry: (1) was I not assertive enough? (2) did I repeat myself?

Parsing out particularly problematic language:

Being polite is all right - feel free to continue to be a lady about it, we wouldn't want you to lose your civility when someone is making you feel sexually uncomfortable. Pardon my language, but who gives a shit about being polite when you're saying no when you're being sexually offended. If you must have this language about being polite, I'd like it to also say, "not being polite is ALSO all right."  

Say no more than once - saying no the first time is just not enough. This makes it seem like men are just too dumb to get no the first time. I takes 3 or 5 times before they realize, wow, maybe she isn't actually interested.
Prong 2: Be assertive. Often, men interpret passivity as permission. Be direct and firm with someone who is pressuring you. 
Woman should be assertive. I have no quibbles with this advice. However, what follows really grinds my gears. Do men really perceive passivity as affirmative????  Is this all men? And is it really often? Men should find this generalization as offensive as women. Whether you believe in whether an affirmative yes is needed before sex or not (and I personally urge you to agree with the affirmative yes doctrine), we should all agree being passive cannot by its definition be any definition of yes.
Prong 3: Dress comfortably. Dressing provocatively is interpreted differently by different people Make sure the image you project is the image you want to project
This made me want to break things. Women get sexually assaulted all the time despite what they were wearing, and even if you're wearing a short skirt and tiny top, what a person wears in no way justifies being sexually assaulted.  Again, comments like these (no matter how well intentioned) simply place the burden on the woman. Further, emphasizing the word "want," implies that women want to be sexually assaulted when they dress provocatively.
Prong 4: Pay attention to your surroundings. Watch body and facial language of those around you. Do not put yourself in vulnerable situations. Look to your sides and in back of you, not just in front. 
This one doesn't make me as angry as the other three. As mentioned earlier in the post, this simply makes me sad. This is simply reminding me that as a woman I need to be constantly vigilant, a prey constantly in fear of potential predators.

Lastly, I'm surprised about what is left out. Only these four things that are mentioned, without a mention of staying in groups, reporting crimes, and a reminder that acquaintances are often sexual assailants (to name a few). A past Feminist Legal Theory blogger and recent alumni summarized this pamphlet perfectly when she said that "it should be re-titled: How to make sure they know you're not asking for it. Because if you don't assure them you aren't, you are."


Sarah said...

"this makes me want to break things" - that is so true.

I also wonder - why do you never see these brochures directed at men? With solid advice like:

1) Men, if you see a woman in a short skirt, keep your creepy hands off her.
2) Men, it is never ok to accept passivity as consent. If a woman is too afraid/drunk/passive to punch you in the face when you are trying to force her to have sex with you - leave her alone. Better yet, make sure she gets home safe. Who knows, she just may reward you with actual consent, and not a warrant.
3) Men, women who walk around naked are no more likely to want you to touch them without their permission than women in snuggies.
4) Men, try to be the kind of person who would not be the villain in the movie your female friends might write about you.
5) Don't wear socks and sandals.

CET said...

I totally agree with Sarah that campuses should distribute the same type of brochure, but target men. On a more serious note, I think what would really prevent men from committing sexual assault would be helping them understand what sexual assault actually is.

Something like: If a woman is unconscious or if her judgment is impaired, she cannot consent to have sex. If you have sex with her in this state, you are committing a sexual assault.

Patricija said...

I totally agree with your comment Courtney. So would this pamphlet define sexual assault how it is defined by law? I think it is particularly helpful to give these scenarios (as you gave). I think this is ALSO helpful for the women's pamphlet. Women do not report these crimes for many reasons, but one (especially for younger girls) is that they simply do not know what constitutes sexual assault.

Pali said...
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Sam said...

“Dressing provocatively is interpreted differently by different people. Make sure the image you project is the image you want to project.”

This is a facially ridiculous statement. If dressing provocatively is interpreted differently by different people, then you have no control over what image you “project.” For Mormons, sleeveless dresses are provocative. For certain Muslim denominations, anything but a burka is provocative.

“Often, men interpret passivity as permission. Be direct and firm with someone who is pressuring you.”

This is rape culture. Consent is just one more obstacle to “getting laid.” And a “no” is simply a challenge. In rape culture, sex is about conquest, not mutual pleasure. And especially not about women’s pleasure.

KRB said...

"The News 10 reported 'the college didn't post any bulletins about the recent attack on campus that were visible to [their] crews Thursday afternoon.'"

This is such a shame. It seems to me that circulating information about recent attacks would not only put people on alert, but would also deter the attackers.

My good friend from UCLA is in her second year at USC Law, and she receives a weekly email from the administration detailing crimes against students. I think all universities should do this- not just those that are located in particularly high crime neighborhoods.

I also agree with many of the comments above that point out a need for education about what exactly constitutes sexual assault. I also think this is something universities should take ownership of- especially if they distribute pamphlets like the one Patricija describes.

Pali said...
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Pali said...

Ah, Sarah, I literally laughed out loud.

I don't know why there was never a module in sex ed directed towards boundaries. Most men understand beating the crap out of a woman isn't right, but beyond the black and white, both men and women are lost in the grey. Rather than introducing these concepts after an awful fraternity or dorm incident in college these principles should be instilled at a younger age.

Nine years ago I took a class at ARC over the summer, and there had been a sexual assault a few months prior then as well. The parking lots were huge and poorly lit. I got out of class at 10PM and had to buddy up to a single car and then drive others to their cars. It is sad security is so still so vulnerable at that school nearly a decade later.