In the late 1990s, JMU was a hotbed for social awareness. Few days went by where I didn’t walk across campus only to see a table set up or a group distributing information about yet another idea I needed to be aware of—which of course also meant I was supposed to thereby be compelled to act in some way in an effort to remedy the injustice. It was here that I learned a tremendous amount about apartheid, a sneaky method that administrations use to get rid of tenured faculty, and the one that would have the most profound and far-reaching effects on my life and its trajectory—sexual assault prevention and victim support.
I attended my first Take Back the Night rally with a handful of friends. We sat on the hill, listening to personal stories designed to help heal while raising awareness, tying knots in the purple ribbon for every person we knew who’d been affected by sexual assault. While I cannot remember everyone I was with (definitely my friend Lee) or everything that was said (I can see the fraternity brother standing there telling the story of losing his mother to domestic violence), I can honestly say that for the last 15+ years, I have dedicated my time, financial resources, and energy to the cause.
The last few weeks, my news feeds have been overwhelmed with the latest in the Harvey Weinstein “scandal.” As more names are brought forward, I read tales of boycotting networks, questions about the reliability of the accusers, and social awareness campaigns like #metoo designed to give victims a forum to share their experiences.
I could not be happier to see that we are finally openly talking about the real problem of sexual assault in the United States. And while for each headline I read or each hashtag that gets used I know we are taking bold steps that are drastically needed, I can’t help but be angry that it took a studio head’s fall from grace to get us there.
While I am the first to encourage anyone’s outrage relating to sexual assault, when we choose to politicize it or to cloak it in incredulousness at celebrities acting poorly, we fail to see this problem for what it really is—a failure of our culture to acknowledge how problematic our attitudes are when it comes to sexual assault.
In 2016, USA Today reported that across the United States, there were at least 70,000 untested rape kits waiting to be tested. The writers further noted that they believed the number to be in the hundreds of thousands. Rape kits. Untested. In the United States. Take a moment and let that sink in.
As more information was made available about the decades’ worth of evidence that sat on shelves while victims have yet to see justice and perpetrators have yet to be tried, I didn’t see any of this on mainstream magazine covers. It may have been a blip on my news feeds, buried below economic and international news, but it faded away into the recesses quicker than a new Kardashian fashion trend.
When Brock Turner, otherwise known as the Stanford Swimmer, was charged and then sentenced to 6 months in jail for sexually assaulting a woman behind a dumpster, his mugshot graced a few checkout stands, but the judge’s decision to give him such a light sentence even with irrefutable testimony from the two grad students who saw it, chased him when he tried to run, and then sat on him to restrain him until police came, got more coverage than the victim’s letter, which she published after his sentencing.
The judge defended his position that Turner was more than paying for his transgressions since he would lose his scholarship, and his father is on record saying that the 3 months Brock ended up serving in jail “was a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action” ( Washington Post July 2, 2017). Yet the public outrage died down as soon as there was a new issue du jour to focus our attention on.
By now, you’ve probably seen the memes making their way around social media, the ones that demand that we stop teaching how not to get raped and we start preaching not to rape. Ideologically, I could not agree more with the sentiment. However, the rhetoric doesn’t slow down the frequency by which sexual assault is currently occurring in the United States. Right now, RAINN estimates that an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. Most sexual assaults are committed by individuals the victim is familiar with—acquaintances, family members, friends. The vast majority of these perpetrators will not go to jail either because the instances are not reported, because the system—whether intentionally or not—often delegitimizes or minimizes the effects of sexual assault on the victim, or maybe it’s because there are tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of victims still waiting on their rape kit test results.
All I know is that if we continue to pretend it isn’t happening or if it is just easier for us not to talk about it for whatever reason, then it is going to continue. And the longer we point the finger at “Hollywood” types or justify those actions as “playful” and “harmless” while arguing people coming forward are of questionable character or are “too sensitive,” then we are failing to hold the system—and those who commit these crimes—accountable.
That night on that hill at JMU changed me. And every time I feel too overwhelmed or like every ounce of work we do is met with a mountain 10x our size, I think of the commitment I made that night to my nieces and nephews, my friends, my future students, my friends’ children, and every other person whom I will never know that might have benefited from some small action I participated in.
It is often easier to scroll by the hashtags and headlines, but I make myself do it. Because every one of those voices deserves to be heard. Even if it is by a stranger thousands of miles away. One who will remain faceless, like so many victims—those who may choose to come forward as well as those who don’t. I hope that by listening, there is some small comfort that there is no shame in their choices or their circumstances, that their experiences are important. More importantly, I hope it helps to lead them to the services they need and the help and support they deserve. Because the effects of sexual assault don’t simply go away just like the frequency by which it happens. Both require patience, support, and justice. And until those things are achieved, we will continue to fail the vulnerable and exposed. Strangers and friends. People we love. And that is simply unconscionable.