Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault
Sexual violence is not inevitable. Individuals, communities and institutions can do a lot more to prevent it. I am writing in response to College freshman Zack Ashley’s editorial “Sexual Assault: Can It Be Stopped?” that was published in the Wheel on Sept. 13.
Positioning sexual violence as an “inevitable” reality trivializes the harm it causes and mutes conversations of individual, community and institutional accountability. Sexual violence is everyone’s issue and prevention is possible.
Ashley’s usage of statistics from the Department of Education that show that sexual violence has increased from the year 2000 to 2011 is flawed. The statistics alone do not tell the whole story. Yes, those numbers have increased; however it was not due to the fact that there was a dramatic increase in instances of sexual violence in the last 10 years.
These numbers went up because colleges became more equipped to support survivors, and thus more survivors felt comfortable reporting the trauma that they experienced. Additionally, sexual violence education that focuses on debunking myths about victim-blaming can make people realize that they experience violence — which would also explain the hike in sexual assaults reported.
Ashley writes that there is no evidence that shows that sexual violence prevention programs are effective. This is inaccurate; studies ranging from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Department of Justice show that prevention programs are effective, especially when they include exploration of power, gender, gendered roles and race and how these affect sexual violence.
Many in our community and in our government share Ashley’s perspective. It is a very reductive understanding of sexual violence as individual acts of harm and assault. Ashley wrote: “Only once we outwardly and aggressively scream that these perpetrators have no place in modern society, will we see a decrease in the number of sexual assaults.” This goes with the narrative that ‘strange men hiding in the bushes’ enact sexual violence. Of course, instances like that happen, but the overwhelming majority of violence is enacted by acquaintances of survivors.
This perspective ignores the reality that sexual violence is not only a behavioral error, but is a reflection of social dynamics in our society. Community prevention and intervention is vital in addressing the systemic causes of violence. Ashley’s point that only extreme punitive measures are a way to deal with this issue has no historical base. Sexual assault and rape have been criminalized in this country for decades now with no drop in the rates of violence. This means that we must invest in preventative measures and initiatives that seek to promote survivors’ well-being along with criminal measures.
I do agree with Ashley on the point about working toward a more survivor supportive community. We can and must do better to support survivors in our community by making legal options accessible when survivors want to use them, by accommodating survivors’ needs in classrooms, providing culturally competent psychological services, etc.
From the creation of rape crisis centers starting in the 1970s, advocates have been pushing for these services for a long time. At Emory, the Center for Women was founded in response to sexual violence in 1991. And since the early 2000s, the Respect Program began specifically to address sexual and relationship violence.
On the federal level we have people in the Department of Education and in the White House who are taking this issue seriously and who want to invest in prevention programs and strategies. The national attention around this issue and the movement in federal legislation would not have been possible without the brave advocacy of survivors of sexual violence who told their stories, pushed college administrations to act and advocated for justice.
Saying that all of these efforts of prevention have been fruitless and that “education at this point is obsolete” is disrespecting the labor of survivors and advocates who have brought this issue to light in the first place.
I hope that the conversation around sexual violence at Emory remains nuanced. I hope that people who read Ashley’s editorial were not discouraged from getting involved in sexual violence prevention programs. There is a lot of work to be done politically and culturally, and we need your help doing it. And most importantly, I hope any survivors reading Ashley’s words didn’t for one moment think that their trauma doesn’t deserve our efforts.
Nowmee Shehab is a College Senior from Dhaka, Bangladesh.
If you have been affected by violence and/or would like to speak with someone, students can get free confidential advocacy and support through Wanda Swan, the Respect Program Advocate, at [email protected] or 404.727.7388