Sexual violence cannot be addressed through risk reduction alone

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Author: Kenda Woolfson

 

At first-year orientation, Occidental’s newest students learn that the best way to prevent rape is to travel in pairs, carry a rape whistle and not get too drunk. While this advice may be useful, it is directed towards potential victims, not potential perpetrators. It is no wonder, then, why so many survivors of rape face challenges telling their stories. Because the predominant method for the prevention of rape has consistently relied on risk reduction strategies aimed at women, the question will always remain phrased as, “What else could an individual have done to stop rape?” While Occcidental’s “Zero Tolerance” policy was developed with the commendable intention of providing recourse for survivors, it has done little to eliminate a culture of victim-blaming that continues to frame much of our student discourse about sexual violence, or perhaps more importantly, create a community-based strategy to combat sexual violence.

There is a fundamental disconnect between the reality of prevalent sexual violence on our campus and the majority of the student body’s perception of it. The college’s “Zero Tolerance” rape policy means that anyone found guilty of rape through Occidental’s disciplinary procedure will be expelled from the college. This seems to be common knowledge amongst our student body; however, many students do not realize that an individual could be charged with rape without having engaged in vaginal sex or even while they are in a romantic relationship. According to school policy, rape constitutes of “vaginal penetration by a penis, object, tongue or finger, anal penetration by a penis, object, tongue or finger and oral copulation (mouth to genital contact or genital to mouth contact), no matter how slight the penetration or contact . . . that is without consent and/or by force.”  

After having survived an assault, the rape victim may choose to reclaim their power by reporting the crime, and in doing so, they might regain a sense of justice. The policy’s broad definition of rape can be considered a more comprehensive protection of a victim’s rights, but when it comes to the already-complicated question of consent, especially in on-going personal relationships, the line between a misunderstanding and non-consensual sexual conduct becomes much more blurred. It is hard to understand why anyone would lie about having been raped or why they would go so far as to press charges, and yet a reconciliation or resolution of two conflicting accounts is an alarming potential outcome of the disciplinary process.

Victim blaming extends beyond the after-the-fact treatment of rape survivors. It is implicitly perpetuated by the administration, owing to the lack of sexual violence prevention programs on campus that reach out to male and female students alike. It is explicitly perpetuated every time a student dismisses the traumatic experience of a peer as an over-reaction or immediately assumes “it wasn’t really rape”—in doing so, a survivor is suddenly stripped of his or her own experience and forced to prove themselves to an audience of bystanders. Survivors of sexual assault encounter difficulties at nearly every step of the reporting process, but when those difficulties are more often than not the negative reaction of their peers, it indicates a failure on the part of the college to educate the student community about sexual violence and prevention.

Perhaps the innately intimate nature of sexual violence explains why it is treated so differently from other criminal acts. There seems to be an overwhelming sense among students that rape is something that the two people involved should be able to work out—that, with a good apology, all should be forgiven. But at its core, rape is a crime. Rape is a theft of something very, very precious, and it should be regarded as such. Survivors are often given the same false suggestion: “he was drunk,” they’re told, by friends and peers – as if somehow that should excuse the perpetrator. That suggestion is far from uncommon. Should that be the response to the issue of sexual violence? Should a drunk driver be forgiven for recklessness because they were drunk? No, they’re arrested. The same must be true for sexual violence. The change that needs to occur will not be the result of a more complicated policy—it must happen in education. By making the end to sexual violence a priority on campus, the administration can show students that they have a place in making that happen.

 

Kenda Woolfson is an ECLS senior. She can be reached at woolfson@oxy.edu.

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