Emma’s Exhausted From All This Rolling Over In Her Grave: Why Universities Need to Break the Silence About Sexual Assault

by new hystericisms

Dear Emma: The past 200 years have just flown by. Unfortunately, educational institutions are still a little wishy-washy on the whole moral thing. And also the helping others part. You know how it is, they’ve had a lot of paperwork.

For those of you who were wondering, Emma Willard was that woman who said fuck finishing school (in very proper language, I am sure) because she believed women should be able to study math, philosophy, science, and anything else they wanted to study. The problem, she said, was that “the taste of men, whatever it might happen to be, has been made into a standard for the formation of the female character.” She rallied for the same public funding as the men’s schools and, “contrary to God’s will,” opened the first school in the U.S.  to offer higher education for women.

And look how far we’ve come.

In Canada:

In The States:

The possibility or plausibility of being sexually assaulted SHOULD NOT be something a woman, or anyone, should have to consider when making a decision about her education. There was a great article in The Washington Post yesterday by Aly Neal, “Wishing rape on campus away won’t make it so.” And, while the article is specifically talking about Princeton, it is obviously not an isolated problem.

The article discusses a survey done at Princeton University in order to better understand and take action against sexual assault, supposedly. 1 in 6 female students answered affirmatively to the statement: “A man put his penis into my vagina, or someone inserted fingers or objects without my consent.” The survey was never published; in fact, the survey is five years old.

Neal says it probably never would’ve been released at all had it not been recently leaked. She hypothesizes that the reasoning for not publishing was because the statistics were close to what was expected, about the national average. Because they weren’t “surprising enough.” In The Daily Princetonian, the director of the women’s center said she thought it was because other universities weren’t publicizing similar statistics, so it wouldn’t be fair for their university to be the only one to tarnish their image. I’m sorry, did you miss that? The DIRECTOR of the WOMEN’S CENTER. Frankly, either reason is terrible and evidence that the world is a terrible, terrible place. If one in six women ISN’T SURPRISING ENOUGH to risk your school’s reputation, then it may as well still be the 1800 Emma Willard America, as far as I’m concerned. Jan Wong from The Informer points out a similar problem in Canadian schools like York University and University of Toronto in her piece, “What evil lurks: sexual assault is a serious problem at universities, and our schools are overlooking the solution.” And while I do think that the “solution” is of course not as simple as posting some statistics, I do agree with Aly Neal when she says,

 “pretending sexual assault doesn’t exist will not make it go away. Putting a stop to rape and the culture that allows it to continue begins with opening our eyes.”

So how do we make that happen?

Today, the President will sign VAWA which passed in the House last week. It now includes the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (SaVE) which mandates that schools provide support, awareness programs, and reports of sexual assault and violence in their annual statistics.  In Canada, there is a list here of organizations that have received funding this year under the “Engaging Young People to Prevent Violence against Women on Post-Secondary Campuses” initiative.

The idea of protecting a school’s reputation before protecting the women who are a part of that school still worries me, though. Does a requirement of posting statistics annually potentially open the door to the question of false reporting? Aly Neal points out the examples of Landen Gambill and Lizzy Seeburg to demonstrate how schools often deal with reports of sexual assault in the media. These highly publicized cases which slandered the girls’ names in order to avoid slandering their school’s names make it that much harder for women to report a sexual assault (and thus affects those posted “statistics”).

I think it always comes back to this blame game and how that blame is subtly and not so subtly a part of the education system even before university. Last year while giving a talk on healthy relationships at a high school, I saw these posters carrying a Government of Canada logo on them, on the walls. While I do think the intention of educating young people about internet safety is a good one, I find the posters, directed at young girls, to be all about blame. “How far would you go to get noticed? Respect yourself” is the message on the posters and it operates on a frat-boy premise of girls with low-self confidence trying to “get noticed.”  Now, I am not here to talk about EGADS! THE HORRORS OF SEXTING (I think Dr. Phil already did a whole show on it, if that’s what you’re looking for), but I think the phrasing on the posters is troublesome and places the blame on the wrong person right from a very young age. I was, however, really glad to see this recent list of “5 Things Men Can Do to Raise Boys Who Respect Women” (#1 RESPECT WOMEN) on the Government of Canada website. And, this year, VAWA included unprecedented additions regarding Native American women’s rights and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender survivors. It’s great to see the ways of thinking about sexual assault are finally starting to shift– let’s not wait another 200 years to put an end to this.

Photo credit: origamidon / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND