In Jamil Smith’s piece in the New Republic, he discusses ways in which social figures are proposing we address sexual assault on campus. He highlights two different responses to combatting sexual assault: (1) enacting a “reasonable person” standard to determining whether an act should be considered sexual assault, and (2) enacting conceal-and-carry policies on college campuses as a reasonable way to prevent sexual assault. While both proposals are prone to their own dangers, Smith highlights a fundamental schism in the debate around sexual assault on college campuses: we have no idea what is reasonable.
For example, gun-rights advocates are pushing to legalize firearms on college campuses as a way to prevent sexual assault. Similar bills have been proposed in ten states, and as stated by Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, the logic goes as follows:
If these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them. The sexual assaults that are occurring would go down once these sexual predators get a bullet in their head.
All this argument does is make the victim responsible for preventing their own assault, while refusing to address the patriarchal culture and underlying causes of sexual assault in the first place. Additionally, this argument completely overlooks the fact that if enacted assailants will also get guns, which would even further perpetrate a culture of violence, both sexual and otherwise, on campus.
Additionally, the New York Times piece that discusses these proposals in depth also points to the fact that proponents claim conceal-and-carry laws will prevent school shootings similar to that of Virginia Tech, because faculty and students will also be able to carry. This argument also does not sit well with me. If more people are carry guns, that seems to only lead to even more gun-related accidents, especially given the culture of excessive alcohol and substance consumption that leads to poor choices among many college kids.
How does arming the entire student body do anything to address endemic sexual assault apart from creating a culture of campus violence? How is this a reasonable response?
Smith also discusses another proposal recently put forth by a New York Times op-ed – to use a “reasonable person” standard when determining whether one is culpable of rape. That is whether a “reasonable person” would consider the accused innocent or guilty.
Given the extreme differences in responses to sexual assault (see conceal-and-carry above), how would there be any consensus on what is a “reasonable person”? Katie Rose Pryal, an attorney interviewed by Smith, stated “The reasonable-person standard kept our legal system oblivious to women and people of color since at least the 1700s.” This captures the idea that there is no universal reasonable person, and the “reasonable person” standard used often comes from a place of power. The perspective of a reasonable person is going to be different from that of a reasonable woman; from that of reasonable male; from that of a reasonable firearm-carrying, white, college-aged student – and all these individual perspectives will further differ based on race and socio-economic status. As author Jessica Valenti stated in an interview with Smith,
We’re not very reasonable when it comes to rape. As a society, we don’t have a reasonable understanding of what rape is, we don’t have reasonable responses—we’re still a culture that overwhelmingly victim-blames. When Steubenville happened, the kid who walked in on the assault said he didn’t know that was rape. Teenagers have gotten the message that you shouldn’t drive drunk, but not that penetrating an unconscious girl is rape.
As a wide-array of campus sexual assault solutions and responses gain media attention, it is even more crucial that a feminist lens is used to analyze sexual violence that disproportionately and endemically affects women nationwide. And considering one in five women are on college campuses are either sexually assaulted or experience an attempted sexual assault, this is first and foremost a women’s issue.