It’s On Us

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Today’s post is brought to you by my husband, Dr. David Magill, who teaches literature and gender studies at Longwood University:

A week ago, I delivered an address on Longwood’s campus at the request of the Inter-Fraternity Council and a group of their men who were promoting the “It’s On Us” campaign at Longwood.  However, turnout was lower than anticipated by the organizers, and many of my friends wrote me to say that had not heard about the event in time to attend.  So I wanted to post the comments here.  I have edited my remarks to better fit this space, removing particular phrases that sound better when speaking than writing.  But the substance is the same, and I hope sharing it here can help get these ideas to a wider audience.

The speech:

I am delighted to see that so many Longwood students, faculty, and staff have taken the “It’s On Us” pledge over the past few days, and I am excited about the video that we have made, for it represents the ideal of what Longwood can be – citizen leaders coming together to change our campus and our world for the better.  So congratulations to all of you.  And a special thanks to the IFC and also to Erick Randolph for his help in organizing this event.  I think it’s especially important that today’s event is spearheaded by men on this campus, for reasons I will discuss.

I am honored that you have asked me here today, and I have to confess that this is a subject on which I have been thinking a lot over the past few months.  As we all know, the Rolling Stone article on UVA has led to upheaval across the nation.  85 colleges and universities are under federal investigation for Title IX issues surrounding sexual assault but many others, including Longwood, have responded to the call of duty.  And with good reason, for these acts occur.  Reports are up at Longwood, and we have had two public cases here recently.

Of course, the specific account of “Jackie” has been questioned and retracted, and I don’t want to excuse the magazine for ignoring due diligence and not working harder to get the story right.  But it is important to note that while Jackie’s story has been challenged by the fraternity accused and the friends cited, what is not in dispute from that story are the accounts of the Rugby Road drinking song sung by men on campus.  What has not been attacked are the many stories posted to Rolling Stone by UVA alumni speaking of their own experiences with rape and sexual assault, stories that include a confirmed gang rape at the same fraternity 30 years earlier as well as many other individual assaults.

But I am not here because of UVA or Title IX.  I am here for personal reasons.  I am here for the freshman who came to my office after missing class, in tears because she had walked in on her roommate’s sexual assault.  I am here for the former student who left a bar to smoke a cigarette, was followed by a man who was a “friend of a friend,” and dragged to the parking lot behind the bar, forced into a car, and raped.  I am here for my college friend who got drunk at a party, and walked home with a friend who claimed to want to escort her as a gentleman.  She passed out on her own bed, in her own room, and awoke to find him on top of her, having sex with her.  I am here for the students on this campus who report to me all the gropings and comments and coercions and bullying they endure so that they can attend parties with their friends.  I am here for my friend whose body and whose trust was repeatedly violated by a family friend.  I am here for them all and those who cannot speak, who will not speak, who dare not speak.

The numbers are frightening – two studies came to the same conclusion that 1 in 5 college women report being sexually assaulted in some form (this would include rape, sexual groping, and other related behaviors) since starting college.  That mirrors overall numbers that state 19% of women as a whole report being raped in their lifetime.  So if this statistic is correct, then we can expect that 650 Longwood women will report being assaulted during their time here – that’s clearly unacceptable.  But some individuals question these numbers and claim that the studies overstate the problem.  Even if I grant every critique and go with the lowest number I have seen – about 1% — that would mean that 11 women a year will report being assaulted at Longwood.  That number is still too high, and that number includes only those women raped, not forcibly kissed or groped or forced to endure bumping and grinding on the dance floor.  And let’s be clear that many women do not report their assaults out of shame or fear or simple distrust of the legal system – the assault numbers are estimates to an extent because we know of many rapes that are not reported to the police, including rapes in marriage by abusers and acquaintance rapes where women feel responsible.  We know that men are raped as well as women – 4% report being raped on average — yet men often refuse to report their rapes out of a sense of shame and lost manhood, so this number is an even stronger example of underreporting.  Further, a 1980 poll revealed that 75% of women reported being bullied into sex.  So even if they are not being assaulted, women in America often feel they cannot say no.

And let me be clear here – these assaults have a lasting effect on women.  Women who have been assaulted have undergone trauma, and they exhibit the signs.  These women sleep less well, having nightmares about the attack.  They are far more likely to develop alcohol and drug dependence.   They are far more likely to develop depression.  They do worse in school and at work.  They have trouble maintaining relationships both romantically and physically.  They feel powerless, violated.  They feel ashamed, as if it is their fault for not placing themselves in a better position.  As if it is their fault for looking a certain way.  As if it is their fault for being there.  And so they often do not report, as I said earlier, because they feel they are to blame.  They feel that others will judge them, call them slut or whore or tease.

But the effects reach farther than that woman.  Just the threat of sexual assault changes how women must think and act.  Talk to women and they will tell you – the threat of sexual violence changes “the meaning and feel of the night.”  I came out of Grainger after a night class last semester, wearing an outfit very similar to what I am wearing now and carrying my briefcase.  A young women was walking about ten steps ahead, and she noticed me and immediately sped up to put distance between her and me.  Now I am not the most intimidating figure, but that did not matter – that young woman had to make sure she was safe.  Women leave the library earlier, on average, and they must think to travel in pairs or groups – men do not generally think about these precautions.  The threat also changes how women view nature – I have female friends who will not run on High Bridge Trail alone because they feel unsafe.  The threat changes how women have to think about solitude, about space, about clothing and expression.  It changes how they look at others – you don’t want to make eye contact for fear of attracting the attention of someone who will then pursue.  It changes their actions and perceptions and freedoms on a fundamental level.

So we want to change this and that is what It’s On Us is all about.  So let’s think about us for a moment.  Monday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch carried an editorial by Robert Holyer, a higher education consultant, who offers some further damning statistics.  He cites a recent study of college men which found that 31.7 % of the respondents stated that they would force a women to have sexual relations. He notes that the expanding influence of alcohol on college campuses contributes to this trend of sexual assault on campuses.  Alcohol is involved in 50% of campus sexual assaults, and 90% of those incidents involve both parties drinking.  On campuses like Longwood, that drinking often takes places in fraternity parties.  And nationally, the statistics show that fraternity members are 3 times more likely to commit rape than the general population.  Fraternity members are more likely to become sexually coercive after joining a fraternity, according to a 2007 study.  Sorority members are 74 % more likely to be victims of sexual assault and even more likely if they live in a sorority house.

Let me be clear — I am not condemning the Greek system.  I think they contribute positively to campus life in many ways.  But we have to attend to these facts and address them if we are going to make headway on this problem.  I am also not saying let’s get rid of alcohol, but perhaps we can think about responsibility as well as rights.  Some of my favorite memories are of sitting on a porch with friends, drinking a beer or sippin on gin and juice, and making jokes, talking about our week, hanging out and enjoying each other’s company.  But we also have to think about the dangers of binge drinking and party culture.

It does not help that our culture supports these views of men and women.  Rape victims are blamed for their clothing, their inebriations, their flirtations, and their gyrations.  Often they are accused of false reports – though FBI studies show that the number of false reports is small, and no different than any other crime.  But we promote an idea that the woman could misunderstand the man’s intentions, regardless of her own.  Films such as Twilight, Revenge of the Nerds, Wedding Crashers, and Old School to name a few, promote sexist notions about women and depict “rough sex,” forced sex, and rape in manners which glamorize these events as acceptable and link them to definitions of masculinity.  Pornography is ever more accessible online and its images have changed how this generation thinks about sex and romance.  And we can see the results in the stories of Bill Cosby’s alleged actions and Darren Sharper’s admitted ones.

And our culture’s definitions of masculinity contradict many of the claims I am making.  Men are told “you gotta get a lot of sex to be a real man.”  And you gotta drink a lot to show you’re a real man.  They attend seminars and trainings that tell you one version and then you get to that party and everything around you says, “Go for it!  She wants it!”  Our culture defines women as sexual objects in so many ways, from Victoria’s Secret and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue to movies, television, and advertisements.  So it is not surprising that men come to believe that women are there to serve men sexually.  It can feel frustrating, confusing, and the lines can feel blurred.  I know the problem is not just fraternities and parties, but it is a focal point.  So we need to make those spaces, and all spaces on campus, safe.

So what are we to do?  Should Longwood University institute a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault?  Well, that would be nice and a good statement to make.  But given the stats I quoted above, it would seem that while such a policy would remove those found guilty from the campus community, those individuals would be only a fraction of the total offenders on campus.  And this policy would not target visitors from other schools, or community members, or many other possible attackers.  So I think it’s crucial that students started this initiative and I would argue that a bottom-up approach is much more likely to get at the root of the problem.

Student culture at Longwood and at other universities – that’s where we can make a true difference.  And Longwood can, and should, be a leader on this issue in Virginia and in America.  “It’s On Us” becomes important here because it is an important rallying point for recognizing our responsibilities to each other, and an opportunity to change that campus culture.  But it is a starting point.  I am here today to ask you all to take a stand – not only sign a pledge but be willing to take action.  Longwood’s student body is 66% women – that’s about 3200 women on this campus.  Now they could decide as a group to exercise power and say, “We will not attend parties by any group where women are treated incorrectly.”  That approach would certainly work – but that’s asking women to take all responsibility.  Instead, we need to change student culture to make it so everyone is invested in preventing sexual assaults, women and men.  We need a stronger campus climate that is accepting of different genders, but also accepting of different races, sexualities, and religions.  And that starts with us.

We can follow Title IX to the letter, issue all sorts of policies and procedures, and offer hours of training and online quizzes.  And Longwood will, because it cares and because it is the law.  But without students taking up the challenge and refusing to allow these acts to occur on our campus, we cannot eradicate this evil in our midst.   And that starts with thinking not of you but of us, not of I but of her or him.  Michael Kimmel describes an interview with a young man who admitted, “I know I should act differently.  But then I’m drunk and I want to get laid and she’s there.  So I lie and act interested and say I won’t do things and then I do them anyway.”  Notice that language – “I want to.”  “I lie.”  “I do things.”  But what if the thought process started with “What does the other person want?  Would she really want me to take this action?”  That’s a shift from me to us – to a larger sense of communal responsibility.

So I challenge you to change Longwood from the inside out because I want a better Longwood.

I want a Longwood where every student feels safe.  It’s on us – demand that of yourselves and of each other!

I want a Longwood where women can go to a party without fear of being groped or squeezed in a crowd, pulled or pushed onto a dance floor.  It’s on us – demand that of yourselves and of each other!

I want a Longwood where consent is sexy!  It’s on us – demand that of yourselves and of each other!

I want a Longwood where students, faculty, staff, and administration are all working to end rape and sexual assault.  It’s on us – demand that of yourselves and each other!

I want a Longwood where everyone looks out for each other and steps up to make sure no one endures the pain and trauma of sexual assault.  It’s on us – demand that of yourselves and of each other!

I want a Longwood where having a few drinks does not make someone sexual prey.  It’s on us – demand that of yourselves and of each other!

I want a Longwood where women’s bodies are their own, not the property of men.  It’s on us – demand that of yourselves and of each other!

I want a Longwood where women are individuals, not objects for consumption.  It’s on us – demand that of yourselves and of each other!

I want a Longwood where I can hold my head high and say I am Lancer Proud, knowing that we all have created a community where everyone can thrive without fear.

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