Friday, May 22, 2015

"It's safer to be quiet": Cultures of retaliation~Cultures of sexual violence

So many voices have created the current level of visibility and activism around campus sexual assault. This week we are hearing them speak about retaliation in light of recent events that reveal the connection between cultures of sexual violence and cultures of retaliation against victims and allies who speak out.

Arguably the most visible story this week is out of New York. Columbia University graduation was this past week and Emma Sulkowicz was among the class of 2015. Sulkowicz has been carrying a mattress around campus this past year as part of a performance art piece. She vowed to keep carrying the mattress until Columbia kicked her rapist off campus. They didn't. There is an extensive back story to Sulkowicz's experience which is marked by administrative ineptitude that has never been explained or accounted for. Columbia should be apologizing to Sulkowicz but instead the university president refused to shake her hand* at last Tuesday's Senior Day ceremonies where Sulkowicz, with the help of friends, carried the mattress across stage; the last time she would carry it.

Her assailant, Paul Nungesser, also graduated this week. He was on stage a few minutes prior to Sulkowicz. He has filed a lawsuit against the school in relation to Sulkowicz's project/protest.

There has been great support for Sulkowicz, and the mattress project has inspired other activists across the country to take up the mattress as a symbol. But there has also been significant retaliation. The university contends that President Bollinger did not slight Sulkowicz--who made a concerted effort to make eye contact and shake his hand--but rather that the mattress was in the way. Given that various administrators worked very hard to keep Sulkowicz from carrying the mattress on stage, I find it hard to believe that the lack of a handshake was really due to the fact that the mattress was blocking such a gesture. Only symbolically!

Sulkowicz said she would not participate in the ceremony if she was not allowed to carry the mattress. Because of the attention to her case, this would have been even worse PR for Columbia. Though the recent posters calling Sulkowicz a "Pretty Little Liar" have not been great either.

These posters, found around campus, are part of a larger effort to silence and discredit Sulkowicz and all those who would think about reporting their assaults, those who support victims, and even those who participate in investigations (which I will discuss in a moment).

This anonymous piece in Jezebel speaks to the culture of retaliation at Columbia. Written by the woman who reported that Nungesser sexually assaulted her--a year before what he has called consensual sex with Sulkowicz, the author details her experiences and why she remains anonymous.   She is one of 4 people who report being sexually assaulted by Nungesser. The very visible and violent backlash against Sulkowicz had a silencing effect on this woman--who has only ever commented anonymously about her case--her and most likely other victims. There are so many pieces of this editorial I would like to quote (I recommend reading it all) but the most chilling phrase comes towards the end: "it's safer to be quiet."

That is certainly what a Stanford undergraduate learned this past semester. (Not a great week for Stanford.) This student is being held responsible--by the masses--for getting the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity kicked off campus. She never reported the behavior she saw on pledge night; behavior that she found offensive and so left after 30 minutes. But she was asked to give a statement as a witness. She was not assaulted and never claimed to be. Somehow fraternity members found out her name and began harassing her. So despite the other factors that contributed to SAE's expulsion, this undergrad is being blamed. And when the harassment started against her specifically, this triggered an additional investigation into the fraternity. It was going to happen with or without her participation and after much thought (given her that her initial participation had gone so badly) she did decide to participate.

Her editorial is also startling and speaks to the climate of retaliation on college campuses that is barely (if at all?) being addressed as part of these larger issues.  She writes:
"My only chance to protect myself was to participate in the same Title IX process that had made me a target in the first place. I knew that any decision I made would affect not just me, but the culture surrounding reporting on campus. I am a victim of harassment and retaliation, and this experience has been among the hardest I have ever had to deal with. I cannot imagine what it must be like for victims of violence and assault. Given the retaliation I faced for merely being thought to have reported harassment, I don’t know if I could face actually reporting a case of assault. And I am not willing to become a cautionary tale, an example of the reasons why people shouldn’t report."

These stories, in addition to the ones presented in The Hunting Ground,  of women who spoke out  all include anecdotes about other victims who come to them for advice because they are too afraid to report. Too afraid of the treatment they will receive by administrators, by law enforcement, and from their peers. This is an integral part of how rape culture is perpetuated and more needs to be done specifically addressing this component.