Editorial: Sexual assault: finding the words

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Sexual harassment and assault have emerged as the most high-profile, hot-button issues of the past year, covering an immense range of highly public incidents from the revelation that Today Show host Matt Lauer kept a secret button under his desk that would lock his office doors to the accusations made against comedian Aziz Ansari. The latter incident left many feeling uneasy and needing to parse the terms used to describe a debate that still continues. Still, we cannot ignore the liminal space occupied by that all-too-common tale of a perpetrator who believed they did no wrong nevertheless finding themselves caught unaware by accusations of assault.

You may have heard statistics about rape in the United States — one in five women and one in 71 men, they say, will be raped in their lifetimes — but the National Sexual Violence Resource Center has also released numbers that tell a more complex narrative. In a 2010 survey, 46.4% of lesbians, 74.9% of bisexual women and 43.3% of heterosexual women reported experiencing incidents of sexual violence that were not rape, while 40.2% of gay men, 47.4% of bisexual men and 20.8% of heterosexual men experienced the same. According to these values, women are almost three times as likely and men are almost 25 times as likely to experience “sexual violence” rather than rape, and this survey does not even take into account the further variances of gender identity, race, income, abilities and more that go beyond the simplified and outdated division of male and female.

But what does “sexual violence” mean? Does it include Ansari’s actions, which, as Michelle Rajan ‘21 wrote in an article published last issue, seem to have been taken as cues from popular narratives, where men are rewarded for their “persistence” with eventually requited love?

The answer is that the language used to describe these occurrences is insufficiently clear. Without the ability to articulate and clearly delineate what constitutes assault, harassment, misconduct, or any other terms of variously connotated severity, there can be no proper action taken against any of these wrongdoings. Certainly, the consequences for someone who gropes someone else without their consent should be different than those for someone who catcalls from a distance, but what exactly should that difference be? With the definitions for each of these terms floating in a gray area, a solution seems out of reach.

Still, perhaps that solution need not start at the end of the story, when someone has already been hurt and the action cannot be undone, but at the start before it even begins — by working to maximize education about the importance and parameters of consent and adding a focus on the less obvious examples of sexual misconduct that many more people are likely to find themselves in. Here is where labels for different degrees and forms of assault may be useful, as people could be made aware of actions they may never have known caused harm. By not grouping in the Aziz Ansaris with the Matt Lauers, by paying special attention to the causes of each and investigating how they can be specially addressed in their own specific ways — whether it be working to redesign the popular image of the relentless romantic or instituting sexual harassment training in workplaces nationwide — the gray area becomes not a stark binary between bad and good, but a multiplicity of very real scenarios, each with their own course of action to address the problem. Of course, there is no way to make a template to fit each and every situation, but perhaps widening the scope of known ones and spending some time collaboratively thinking about what allowed them to happen and what happens next is a start.

Here at Muhlenberg, that start begins with conversation and education. Beyond simply taking matters to trial if the situation is deemed severe enough, there need to be discussions about what “severe enough” means, and how to deal with and support those involved in incidents that don’t meet that requirement but still result in harm to survivors. There needs to be more than a simple online course or session of wellness class dedicated to educating students of all ages about navigating sexual or romantic encounters. But above all, there needs to be widespread acknowledgement that this problem exists, even here.

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