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Sexual Assault Awarness Month Comes to a Close: Conclusions?

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Demonstrators with Rape Victim Advocates gather at Daley Plaza on April 29, 2011 to protest the silence that surrounds sexual violence.

This past January, a Toronto police officer told a group of citizens that the key to women avoiding sexual assault was to not dress like "sluts."

The remark sparked justified outrage; Slutwalk Toronto was born, and on April 3, over 1000 protesters took to the street to spread the message that "being assaulted isn't about what you wear...but using a pejorative term to rationalize inexcusable behaviour creates an environment in which it's okay to blame the victim."
Perhaps due in part to its provocative name, Slutwalk garnered considerable press coverage in Canada as well as in the U.S.; similar protests are being planned in subsequent cities. (Have no fear, Chicago: our opportunity comes on June 4.) But more importantly, it sparked conversation. Why would a police officer tell women that their outfits are to blame for sexual assault? Was he out of line? Or was he just telling it like it is? It was rare and encouraging to see these topics being discussed in major media outlets.

For those familiar with the rhetoric and reality that surrounds sexual assault, the comment was infuriating, but hardly surprising: it's a rather PG-13 version of what's lobbied at victims of sexual assault and attempted sexual assault on a regular basis. What was she wearing? Why was she there? What was she drinking? Why did she go with him? What's her sexual history?

When it comes to women's sexuality, we exist in extremes. At every turn, women are encouraged to base their worth on their sex appeal, but punished for actually being sexual. The confluence of those two ideas cannot lead to good things. It simultaneously robs women of agency over their own bodies and places responsibility for all sexual encounters squarely in women's hands. It reduces rape prevention education to, "Keep your legs closed," while reducing rape prosecution to, "You should have kept your legs closed."

For these reasons and more, Sexual Assault Awareness Month is an important piece in the movement to shape a public dialogue around these issues. And while I've enjoyed bringing a variety of voices to this blog (special thanks to Mothers on a Mission to Stop Violence, Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment, YWCA, Liz Seccuro, Security on Campus and Rape Victim Advocates for participating in our interview series), the month has not lacked for sore spots.  

Consider an article by Heather MacDonald, which originally ran in the National Review Online but was oddly reprinted by the Chicago Sun-Times and other papers of record, proving how willing the media is to propagate rape myths. MacDonald floats several highly problematic theories: that if rape were truly an epidemic on college campuses, parents would have rioted years ago; that the rise in women's college attendance is proof there is no crisis of rape; that rape statistics are flawed because people are confused about the definition of rape; that rather than rape, what we're seeing is a promiscuous free-for-all in which everyone is always a willing participant; and that, most egregiously, the key to not getting raped is to "keep your clothes on."

MacDonald actually trotted out these same theories, nearly word-for-word, back in 2008, where she further confused consensual sexual encounters with non-consensual sexual assault, creating a world where, if the former exists, the latter cannot. If 1 in 4 female college students were victims of sexual assault, she wrote, female students "would have to alter their sexual behavior radically to avoid falling prey to the rape epidemic." No mention of pursuing the rapists committing these crimes; the focus is on altering the behavior of the victims. (And obviously, no mention of the fact that sexual violence against women is at epidemic level even in countries where women's sexuality is harshly judged and stringently regulated.) 

There's so much victim-blaming, slut-shaming and faulty logic here that MacDonald's words  deserve a harsher take-down than I have space to give it (though it was well-done here and here). But the main takeaway is this: in proclaiming that there is no problem, she further perpetuates the harmful myths that keep survivors shrouded in silence, creating the lack of on-the-records survivors that she cites as evidence that they don't exist. She summons women who did not consider their sexual assaults "serious enough to report" as proof that rape does not exist, while ignoring the role that outspoken opponents such as herself play in convincing women that the crimes committed against them do not matter.

She also spills a considerable amount of ink blaming the "imaginary rape crisis" on overenthusiastic feminists hell-bent on fudging statistics and painting women as hapless victims. In this scenario, rape culture, in addition to being imaginary, is also an issue of concern only to feminists.  

But rape is not just a "women's issue," and not only because 10% of rape victims are male. Rape is more than a women's issue because 98% of rapists are male. And if there is an epidemic of rape at our colleges, on our streets and in our homes, then it is an epidemic that is sweeping through men just as powerfully as women. And it needs to be addressed at the source.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not in any way suggesting that men (and women) who commit rape are not to be held responsible for their crimes, or should not be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. I'm not suggesting that they have been tricked into becoming rapists, or that someone else should be blamed for their crimes. But while we're warning women to watch their drinks and have a buddy system, we should also be teaching boys and men about the concepts of consent, permission, boundaries and respect. 

Rape culture exists outside of frat parties and dive bars and encounters with mysterious strangers. It exists in homes. It exists among relatives. It exists among friends. It exists in places of worship. It exists in the workplace. It exists in the military. It exists, basically, everywhere. And if we've created a world where women cannot attend a party, leave their homes, walk the streets, go to work, have male friends, serve their country, wear skirts, drink alcohol, go to church, be around other people drinking alcohol, go to a bar,  go on a date or have sex without silently consenting to the possibility of being raped, then we have created a world that is broken. And it's not the women who need fixing.

Telling women not to "dress like sluts" or "get drunk" will not curb our rampant sexual assault rates.  Having honest conversations with boys and men about consent, respect and sex, will.

Keeping women away from frat parties, bars or anywhere else where they might encounter men will not stop rape. Changing a culture that celebrates male sexual conquest and shames female sexuality will.

Admonishing rape victims for "asking for it" or disbelieving their claims for any number of exponentially ridiculous reasons will not lessen the spread of rape. Understanding that no one asks to be raped, and holding rapists responsible for their crimes, will.  

Victim-blaming screeds such as Heather MacDonald's, far from being banished to extremist corners of the Internet, have a tangible effect on the lives of rape victims. As Denise Rotheimer pointed out, prosecutors want victories--they want cases they can win. And that's why language, whether it's The New York Times blaming an 11-year-old's gang rape on her "makeup and fashions," or the New York Daily News terming the statutory rape of a 16-year-old sex trafficking victim a "sex romp," matter so much. This victim-blaming language, consciously or unconsciously, shapes our perception of sexually violent crimes, and directly undermines the law's ability to bring justice to its victims. (Not to mention that assuming all men are just latent rapists waiting for the right short skirt or intoxicated female friend to come along is damn insulting to men.) If we've been told repeatedly that a woman who has consumed alcohol cannot be raped, then that belief will be reflected in the actions of the law.

Indeed, why even waste energy denying that a problem exists? It's useful to no one. Is it fear of admitting that something so incidious could exist among our family and friends? Or is it simply that we value the lives of women a little less? RAINN activist Mick Foley recently noted, during an otherwise cringe-worthy segment on Fox News, that, "The world gets an F in their treatment of women. But we're getting a C-minus and we're bragging about it." The importance we place on supporting women, and the language we use to describe it (whether it's ensuring they have equal pay, have access to affordable health care, or are able to prosecute their rapists in a fair court of law) is all interrelated. Glenn Beck calling women who rely on Planned Parenthood "hookers" today affects the ability of a woman to convince police to take investigate her acquaintance rape tomorrow.

During the course of producing this interview series, a friend texted me. "I've loved/loathed your series this month," she said. "Loathed only because the state of things is so depressing and sickening." I knew exactly what she meant. I've felt privileged to bring these voices to Today's Chicago Woman, but at the same time, they're difficult facts to face--and to react to constructively. I am genuinely floored by the commitment and dedication of those who work, day in and day out, to end sexual violence against women and men. 
 
I do believe that things are changing, and due to the hard work of people like those I've profiled here, the conversation is shifting. Vice President Joe Biden's new guidelines on the responsibility of colleges to prevent gender-based violence and deliver justice to victims are one sign of this; these guidelines have already been put into action at Harvard Law School.  

It's certainly encouraging to see these types of discussions, as well as those that ignited around incidents like Slutwalk and The New York Times' rape coverage, taking place in mainstream spaces. But it's clear we still have a long way to go. Until then, I salute the activists and survivors who diligently work on this issue with grace, bravery and respect for the dignity of those affected by sexual assault, both victims and their friends and family.

Special thanks to TCW intern Ana Valentine for her help in producing this series.  

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