Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What is reasonable: current issues in campus sexual assault policy

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.


Jessica S. said...

I agree that our understanding of rape is painfully inaccurate and perpetuates injustice. I think the guest lecturers we had demonstrates how important it is to obtain real facts and women's experiences when teaching others about sexual assault.

Ahva said...

I agree that we need to come to some sort of consensus concerning what is considered "reasonable" behavior, both in terms of what constitutes sexual assault and how to combat it. While what constitutes sexual assault might be difficult for students to identify, I think there are some baselines of understanding that our society can agree on, and those baselines are also reflected in our penal code. One important step toward lessening instances of sexual violence on campus might be to develop a more effective method of educating college students about what constitutes sexual assault and rape. For example, instead of having students to go to a one-day orientation regarding sexual assault and rape, or having them to complete a brief online educational program on sexual violence, maybe universities should require students to enroll in a semester-long (or trimester-long) course on sexual assault during their first term.

Moreover, I was surprised to learn that some factions are actually pushing for the legalization of firearms on college campus as a way of dealing with sexual assault on campus. The statement by Assemblywoman Fiore that this problem can be dealt with by "sexual predators [getting] a bullet in their head" is both disturbing and ridiculous. Does Fiore realistically think that justice will be served by allowing a victim or potential victim of sexual assault to shoot her assailant? This sort of logic just causes more problems and, as you say, does not get to the heart of the issue.

Jessica S. said...

Ahva brought up a good issue: how are victims to know what to do during an assault? Schools from K to grad levels often punish women who fight back, and the police jail them for pushing a man or drawing a weapon. We need to talk about this. It's stupid to refer to guns in a day-dream fashion.

Rebecca F. said...

First, I have to agree that the Fiore quote is absurd. Just as Juliana mentioned, this makes the victim or potential victim responsible for preventing an assault without any attempt to address the culture that makes the assault possible. And I think Jessica raises a really important point - we've seen numerous women stand up and fight back against their rapists/attackers only to end up being punished to the fullest extent of the law.

While potentially useful in theory, I worry about the reasonable person standard for the reasons Pryal mentioned. Too often the reasonable person standard is used as a way to marginalize women and minorities. But I also worry because of the "baselines" that Ahva mentioned. I don't think the law adequately defines rape or sexual assault. Maybe it's unrealistic, but I think meaningful change and improvement can happen when we as a society start working with the right definitions. And then education as to what those standards are is certainly needed.