Columns

Malik ’18: A societal problem

By
Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The recent date-rape drug and sexual assault cases have many criticizing or lauding the University’s maneuvering around the issue and have made way for many suggestions on how to address such cases in the future. In a March 12 letter to the editor in The Herald, the Undergraduate Council of Students outlined policy changes it would like the University to adopt when addressing future cases involving date-rape drugs and sexual misconduct, all of which I agree with.

Though there are substantive policy changes that need to be considered — in particular the council’s proposal to amend the Student Code of Conduct — we also need to continually remind ourselves of the culture outside Brown in our discourse around sexual violence on campus.

According to a December article in Slate Magazine, “Non-student females are victims of violence at rates 1.7 times greater than are college females,” and adult women not living on college campuses are more likely to experience sexual violence. These statistics clearly show that sexual assault is a societal epidemic, not a plague that emerges from college campuses.

Discussions about sexual violence among students and faculty members should broaden beyond “the campus climate at Brown” that Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey ’91 MA’06 and Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services Margaret Klawunn wrote about in a Jan. 19 campus-wide email. We are taught at Brown — as we were in my first-year sexual assault awareness orientation — that “no” means “no,” but we still arrive on campus with harmful ideas that we have adopted from the world outside the University. The culture of the society we live in is a major contributing factor to campus sexual assault, and if we do not consider this, then we may not be able to tackle the problem as best we can.

In addition to its current presentations and workshops on preventing sexual assault, which provide concrete advice — such as urging that people who attend a social gathering together ensure each other’s safety — the University should establish mandatory programs that highlight the ways in which societal attitudes can lead to sexual violence. Such attitudes, according to the article “Why Do Men Sexually Assault Women?” in Psychology Today by Noam Shpancer, psychology professor at Otterbein College, are the acceptance of violence and the objectification of other people. These ideas should be brought to light so they can be reshaped, and this can hopefully lead to fewer occurrences of sexual assault in the coming years. New programs might help us consciously reject the constant messages we see in the media about the acceptability of violence and treating others like objects.

The media reinforces gender stereotypes that male characters need to use violence to solve problems, as the Representation Project — an organization that uses film to combat stereotypes — described in its video “Demand Better Media in 2015.” Therefore, society influences us not only to think violence is acceptable, but also to think it can be used to reach specific ends.

Shpancer notes that women are often reduced to sexual objects in popular culture. Many of us are aware of this; we see this in advertisements, movies, television shows and other media. The sexual objectification of women has been so prevalent and pervasive that it may be ingrained into the minds of both men and women. According to a July 2012 Atlantic article, a study found that both men and women “are guilty of taking in the parts instead of the whole” when viewing images of fully dressed, average women. It also indicated that “the cognitive process behind perception of objects is the same … when looking at women.”

The subconscious objectification of women has to be brought to light in order to prevent sexual assaults from occurring on campus. I wish I had learned this information from my orientation at Brown instead of from the Internet. Only if we know the ways in which our minds work can we consciously act and think in ways that challenge these deeply embedded processes.

Yet objectification is not always sexual in nature. In her paper “Objectification,” Martha Nussbaum, a former Brown professor who currently serves as a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago’s Law School, explained that there are seven attitudes involved in treating someone like an object. Two of these include when one treats another person merely as a way of achieving one’s end goal and when one disregards another person’s feelings and subjective experience.

The scary thing is that we are often guilty of these ways of objectification. This attitude, I believe, has crept from society into college campuses. I have often been told to spend my years in college trying to network with people in order to gain benefits in the professional world. The relationships formed through networking would be based solely on what other people can do for me, and I would not have to even think about them as humans with subjective experiences and feelings. Even in other types of relationships, I fear that a lot of us focus too much on what other people can do for us. This could be the by product of the individualistic attitudes in our culture.

I am not saying that objectification of these kinds is morally wrong per se, but that our culture allows us to deny the humanity of others. It is culturally acceptable to pay attention to ourselves rather than others. But if we see our individual selves as humans and others as less valuable objects, we are more likely to treat each other poorly. Combine this with our inherited acceptance of violence, and we open the door to being aggressive and violent toward each other.

This socially acceptable form of objectification can also be undermined by the University. I remember taking an online course for my psychology class about how to treat human test subjects humanely when conducting a study. I do not see why the University cannot sponsor programs or workshops that emphasize the need for students to see and treat each other as human beings. There is already a consciousness on campus that favors social justice, emphasizing fairness and equality. On a practical level, the University instilling these values among its students can help build a stronger community and a more unified student body

I am not suggesting that we are all likely to commit acts of sexual violence, but I seek to point out how attitudes that we possess that we are not aware of can contribute to incidents of sexual assault at Brown. I also do not think we should focus less on specific efforts to change University policies and procedures regarding incidents of sexual assault. It is completely suitable that, due to recent events, protests and panels at Brown have emphasized particular policy changes and strategies that the University should adopt. But we cannot leave any factors related to sexual assault unconsidered. This means we have to broaden our discourse to include the world outside the University.


Ameer Malik ‘18 can be reached at 
ameer_malik@brown.edu.

  • Greek Alum

    Brown will never go for this – campus rape can’t be anyone’s fault (including the rapists themselves) but the Greeks.

  • ShadrachSmith

    Alternative frame of this issue

    Universities have empowered feminists [unloved women] to harm those who don’t love them [Fraternity men] and they are getting about the job of destroying fraternities without much regard for the law or truth.

    The University’s devotion to the War on Women Democrat campaign meme gave these unhappy people the power to destroy the campus social life, and they are well advanced in that task. Thanks Obama 🙂