This year, we watched our country condemn Brock Turner and then elect an alleged rapist for president in a span of less than six months. We made endless cracks about the absurdity of “Pussygate” and witnessed a confession of sexual assault be casually dismissed as “locker room talk” but forgot to fully consider the many women whose traumatic accounts were made light of as their attacker ascended to the presidency. We chastised Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey’s foolishness and lamented his role in threatening a political candidate’s credibility but forgot to condemn his inconsiderate victimization of the 15-year-old survivor at the center of it all. The issue of sexual assault has weaved its way through the public and political arenas, always lingering in the background as we consistently fail to sustain dialogue about it both on campus and in the country more broadly.
Our own school has had several cases of sexual assault come up in the past semester alone. In September, a U.S. District Court invalidated the ruling of a Brown disciplinary hearing, allowing the undergraduate found responsible for assault to return to campus. Two weeks later, news arrived of a former student suing both the University for mishandling her case and the student who allegedly spiked her drink. Then earlier this month, another woman filed a lawsuit against Brown and two deans for violating Title IX, failing to promptly or effectively respond to her assault and ultimately neglecting to pursue disciplinary action against her assailants. I can recount incidents of campus assault at Brown throughout and even before my time as a student here, petitions to suspend assailants or demand disciplinary action against them and protests rallying around the cry #moneytalks. But this semester, we’ve seen a muted public response as these instances tragically continue, and the administration has failed to implement a specific plan to address the crisis. I worry that these issues have started to fall on deaf ears — that we’ve accepted this half-assed action as the status quo.
Time and time again, incidents of sexual assault ignite fiery community responses that quickly fizzle out, if they aren’t immediately shelved altogether. Public outcry, initially intense, often wanes as observers’ calls for justice give way to a toxic indifference to the eventual legal outcomes and sexual violence’s effects on our community. Those who actually sustain their concern start to see their cries fall on unsympathetic ears. The matter fades away, and as a survivor, you feel your pain and self-worth rendered ultimately inconsequential. Why do we keep allowing public dialogue to die out? Why do so many of us only act reactively, allowing these terrible incidents to keep happening? Why do we often forget our outrage and start the vicious cycle all over again?
Though the immediate violence of sexual assault occurs between the victim and the perpetrators, society shares the blame. We as a collective community are all also responsible. By doubting survivors’ accounts and hurt, by only offering an expensive, invasive and tedious judicial process that guarantees nothing, by victim blaming and offering insufficient support to survivors’ well-being and by failing to sustain dialogue about all these injustices, we cultivate a culture that allows these incidences to happen routinely. By tolerating this violence, we implicitly concede that this is okay, when this is far, far from okay.
Demanding justice isn’t as simple as seeking out the bad guys. Like so many other pervasive issues, it’s about holding ourselves accountable as responsible community members, which requires a sustained effort from us all. And that doesn’t mean invoking a sense of protection just because you’re the father of a daughter or the brother of a sister. It’s about the moral imperative to be a decent person and recognize that this terror and violence shouldn’t happen, period. None of us should be comfortable living in a society that tolerates this sort of invasive violence toward anyone. And it shouldn’t take extreme cases of sexual violence to incite our desire for justice. Guilt and anger are insufficient and unsustainable motivators; allowing them to primarily fuel our efforts will inevitably burn us out. We shouldn’t need to hear statistics and gruesome details as shock value in order to will ourselves to care, as we certainly have been prone to in the past.
It is imperative that we remember this and take sustained actions. Our behavior must shift if we wish to build safer and more inclusive communities. So take extra care of your friends at parties and don’t be afraid to interfere. Educate yourself on how to support and respect survivors, learn to prioritize their voices and recognize how this violence disproportionately affects certain populations. Demand that our university hold itself accountable for not effectively dealing with cases of assault, respond to these situations with due process and provide resources and support for survivors. Through these actions, we can show that our communities, and nation at large, must confront and deal with this pervasive problem.
It is not easy to navigate the fallout of a sexual assault, since each case has its own complications and nuances. But that is all the more reason why we need to sustain an active dialogue, take accusations seriously and simply keep caring — there is no question about this. Justice isn’t some abstract ideal or a wordy court ruling — its pursuit starts with each of us and how willing we are to confront painful realities.
Margaret Hu ’18 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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