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The Backlash Has Begun

This enormous, amazing, and long-needed attention to sexual assaults on college campuses is making–and will continue to make–our world a better place. The national public attention to this problem is recent but the work that led us here has been going on for decades. It has been a difficult journey to get to this point and no change of this magnitude comes without resistance. Resistance was predictable, some is understandable, but we need to move forward with the momentum we’ve earned towards positive, effective change.

Backlash is actually a sign of progress. It happens every time there is a substantial shift that appears to threaten common beliefs. For activists and educators, backlash is an opportunity to improve our teaching. It’s the common beliefs about sexual violence that are hurting us all.

The fact that sexual violence is a gendered issue contributes to the confusion for many people and fuels the backlash for some. A colleague once said to me “You believe all men are guilty,” an assumption made because I worked with survivors who were predominantly female and assaulted by males. I know many other advocates have heard statements like that, or were affected by the unspoken assumption of misandry which dismissed their knowledge and commitment. We’ve made some progress, but that belief has not entirely vanished.

It is true that the majority of the perpetrators are male and the majority of victims are female and that is an important fact to consider as we look for causes and solutions. However, that is just a part of the story of gender and violence, and stopping there leaves some men feeling accused and some women feeling confused. Almost all women have men in their lives they trust and love. Almost all women know that every man is not a rapist. Stopping there keeps us from adequately recognizing female perpetrators and male victims and contributes to making those who don’t conform to these two genders invisible.

There is much more to the story of gender and violence. For example, societal expectations for boys and men to be masculine can push them into strict roles and behaviors that are unhealthy for them and the people around them. Think about the words used to bully boys and men–pussy, wimp, mama’s boy. These are gendered words and they reflect and support beliefs and attitudes that can lead to violation.

Aspects of the current backlash come out of that limited interpretation of gendered violence as a gender war between men and women. While sexual violence is a societal problem, the particulars are what affect individuals, which is why other forms of backlash are so intensely personal and can sometimes become legal struggles. Just as the Clerys reacted to the horrible assault and murder of their college-student daughter by working to have federal legislation enacted, many students today are suing their schools for not abiding by Title IX regulations. On the other side, some parents believe their offspring are falsely accused of assault. In turn, they will fight by opposing the systems and the movement they hold responsible, specifically through the system of adjudication which jeopardizes young men who face the possibility of expulsion from a college. And so, we’ve turned to the legal system for support and legislation to fix the social issue of sexual violence, lawsuit by lawsuit.

The legal approach is in some ways necessary. It is necessary that we figure out how to hold sexual predators accountable and do it in a way that also respects survivors. The way that we’ve changed the response to these violations via the law, policies and procedures is one mark of our progress. However, the problem of sexual violence cannot be solved through mastering the nuances of rules, regulations and statutes, or winning lawsuits—if only it were that easy. We all know the underlying issue goes far deeper than that. While changing law is an important step, it is still a reactive one, and only a part of the puzzle.

The biggest proven impact on both prevention and response is comprehensive education. Comprehensive education will build a wider and deeper understanding of these issues in our communities. It does not require people to read the statutes or understand the precise letter of the law. It is education that makes what appears to be complicated simple, cuts through the misconceptions and ignorance about sexual violence, and helps people to better understand the intent, meaning, and implementation of the law.

Sexual violence is gendered violence and it affects all genders. Knowledge and understanding of the problem will help all genders. Jurors will make more informed decisions on whether the law was broken. Parents will be able to talk to their children about consent. Asking for consent for sexual activity will not be considered weird, but merely something one does. Survivors will be more confident of being believed and receiving help. The sexual predators among us will be more easily recognized, and, as recent studies have shown, their peers will feel more comfortable telling them that their behavior is unacceptable and try to prevent future instances of violence.

Backlash shows us how far we’ve come and also gives us some direction for where to go next. Let’s move past emphasis and resources devoted to lawsuits and put our energy toward better understanding and solutions.

 

 


Carol Mosely, Director
We End Violence

 

 

A Leap Forward in Understanding Confidentiality and Reporting

Sexual assault is unlike any other crime. Survivors need—and deserve—help from those who have studied the issue and received training in how to help victims most effectively. One of the most integral components to a survivor’s well-being is confidentiality. The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault agrees, and their report offers an excellent explanation as to why this is the case: “if victims don’t have a confidential place to go, or think a school will launch a full-scale investigation against their wishes, many will stay silent.” In addition, “insensitive or judgmental questions can compound a victim’s distress.” Some victims require “time and privacy to sort through their next steps.” As such, campuses should “give survivors the help they need to reclaim their educations” such as “a confidential place to turn for advice and support.” We agree.

Many campus advocates have struggled to maintain and protect their ability to offer confidentiality. It should be a relief to everyone on all sides of that struggle to read the Department of Education’s clarification that yes, advocates are confidential resources. Confidentiality has been an issue partly due to the confusing collection of laws governing sexual assault and sexual harassment on campuses. It is also due to the widespread lack of understanding of the unique nature of this crime.

For centuries, the word rape was only whispered. Sexual violence was never openly discussed, rarely acknowledged as a problem, and then only as a sad and inevitable happening to a certain kind of woman. What most people knew was whatever they garnered from these whispers and furtive looks. Unfortunately, what most people know today is not at all accurate either, particularly those beliefs about survivors based on assumptions about how one would react if sexually assaulted.

In recent decades, activists and educators have worked to bring the subject of sexual violence out of the shadows and have public discussion of the realities of assault, increase public knowledge of the widespread problem, and support for survivors. The current national attention to the problem in the military and on college campuses is the result of that work.

Along with the advance in understanding of confidentiality comes encouraging progress in understanding the complexities of reporting. Ignorance about the unique nature of this crime was again a factor in the laws and policies—and interpretations of those laws and policies—used on campuses and in the military regarding reporting. And again the assumptions about how survivors feel, or should feel, contributed.

Many people believe that if they were assaulted, if a righteous crime has been committed, of course they would report it. The reality is quite different. When it actually happens, most people don’t report it. Survivors raped or assaulted by an acquaintance often don’t know what to call it due to the stereotypes and lack of education surrounding sexual assault. It can take some time for them to come to terms with what happened. Those that do tell someone, or report to authorities, are many times not believed and not supported.

A common assumption is that the only way to stop these crimes is to catch and punish the perpetrators, and victims of the crime have a duty to report to make that happen. But it’s not that simple.These cases rarely go forward to a conviction, not least because juries are comprised of people who have no understanding of the problem or knowledge with which to evaluate a case. Sexual assault is a societal problem, and we should not expect the survivor to solve it. We must all work to solve it and improving the criminal justice response is only a part of the solution.

The language in the Task Force report shifts the concept of reporting from the legal sense of the term to the sense of telling someone who can help with the survivor’s healing process, and now that someone can be confidential. It is widely understood by advocates and law enforcement that victims who are given time and informed support are much more likely to ultimately go forward with an official report and the criminal justice process. A campus must still take official action, but it is clear that the campus’ action can be apart from the individual case. We believe that prevention education is still the best action of all for learning communities to take in creating supportive, healthy places for their staff and students.

The language and explanations of the report are a huge leap forward for activists, educators and institutions. They offer hope that someday soon the need for confidentiality will not be as great because everyone will better know how to support survivors. And someday soon after that, sexual assault will be a rare occurrence.

 


Carol Mosely, Director
We End Violence

If a Friend Is Accused of Assault

What would you do if someone you know is accused of sexual assault? This is a question we may all face, possibly more than once, in our lives. We know that sexual assault happens a lot, and we know that most assaults are not reported. That means all of us know both victims and perpetrators, although, most of the time, we don’t know that we know them.

Perpetrators of sexual assault are among us. Sometimes they are our friends or family members or famous people we admire. It is painful to accept and difficult to know what to do when faced with that situation. Each of us will react differently, but coming to terms with how we hold perpetrators accountable for their actions is an unavoidable task for all of us.

The friends and family of former NFL player Darren Sharper are being asked this question by reporters right now because he is a well-known athlete and in the news for multiple charges of drugging and raping many women. Sharper’s high school football coach, Gus Allen, has a photo of Sharper hanging on his wall. Allen and his wife, Jeri, said they will not be taking the photo down.

“I don’t plan to take it down because that’s not the Darren we knew,” Jeri said. Darrell Jenkins, Sharper’s high school basketball coach, said, “But when (the allegations) first broke, I was just completely shocked. At first you want to say it can’t be true.”

This is how most of us would react. We don’t want it to be true, and, most of the time, the person we know is not someone we would suspect of hurting others. One of the most persistent misunderstandings about sexual assault is that it is committed by someone abnormal, someone not like us. When it’s a friend, this misunderstanding contributes to the belief that the accusation must be a mistake, or malicious, and we grasp for other explanations—maybe the survivor didn’t say no clearly enough, or is confused, or lying. This misunderstanding about sexual predators is among a set of beliefs and assumptions that allows us to sidestep the pain of holding someone accountable for not asking for sex, not respecting the answer, and not caring what another person wants.

There are very few false reports of sexual assault, so when someone discloses an assault, it’s important to believe them. Many people are working hard to change the world so that survivors will feel supported, feel able to speak out and tell someone, or report what happened. Our success will mean there will be more reports, more survivors talking about what happened, and therefore more of us will know perpetrators. If the accused person is a friend, it’s a natural first reaction to want to believe and support them. Just remember, you don’t know what happened but you do know that the vast majority of victims are telling the truth.

If you decide to remain a friend, you can still confront your friend about behavior and attitudes that contribute to sexual violence. You can listen, and be sympathetic to the situation without being sympathetic to perpetrators. Consider your own safety if you continue to spend time with your friend, and be aware of what you say publicly about the accusation and the people involved. For instance, publicly declaring the accusation a lie reinforces the myth that survivors lie about rape and might prevent someone from reporting in the future. It might be damaging to those who are survivors, confirming what they feared about not being believed.

So what do you say publicly? Here are some ideas:

• I don’t know what happened in this case but I know that sexual assaults do happen a lot.

• Nobody but the two people involved know exactly what happened, but I learned that there are very few false reports of rape.

• I’m just sorry that there’s even a possibility that something like this happened.

• This is upsetting for everybody, me included, and I guess it’s an opportunity to think about sexual assault and why it happens.

You may decide that you cannot remain friends. Our societal search for ways to hold sexual predators accountable must include methods beyond the criminal justice system. They must receive a clear message from everyone around them that their behavior is not acceptable, not excusable. Ending the friendship and telling them why is a clear message.

Sexual violence and abuse will end when enough of us learn what it really looks like and acknowledge that perpetrators are sometimes people we know. Predators are surrounded by the rest of us; even when we don’t know them, we can make it clear that disrespectful and violent language, attitudes and behavior are not acceptable and will not be supported.

 


Carol Mosely, Director
We End Violence

Alcohol Education AND Sexual Violence Prevention Education

College campuses have a problem with alcohol and a problem with sexual assault but they aren’t the same problem. Nor can they be solved using the same educational theories and methods. The connection between the two issues is undeniable, but how we think about it, talk about it, and how we choose to educate in light of that connection are currently a challenge. The strong and differing opinions are based in a desire to solve both problems so let’s keep trying to find what works and quit trying to use patches to alcohol programs as sexual violence prevention.

Alcohol education on college campuses has developed and progressed over the past 30 years with the help of grants from the federal government and many other sources, including the industry that makes and sells alcohol. According to the BACCHUS Network, there are 26 federal grant-making agencies and over 900 individual grant programs that award over $350 billion in grants each year to study or educate about alcohol abuse. This money allows alcohol education to receive institutional support and dedicated campus resources. There are many institutes, councils, research centers, and coalitions that study the problem. The result is a great deal of expertise and understanding about student alcohol abuse, and there’s some indication that the educational efforts have led to a reduction in binge drinking. This is a good thing. Yet there has been no corresponding reduction in sexual assaults.

This should not be a surprise to anyone. None of this work on alcohol has studied sexual perpetrator behavior. That is not the goal. The goal is to help students understand why they drink and reduce the amount they drink. The hope was that this would reduce assaults.

We are now devoting much more time, energy and money to the study of sexual assault perpetration and the best ways to educate in order to prevent assaults from happening. There have been decades of work in this field, too, resulting in knowledge about approaches and methodology that are promising.

Sexual predators use alcohol as a weapon but it is only one of the weapons they use. They also use common beliefs about drunk sex and drunk women as a weapon, and as a cover, for their crimes. Predator motivations are power over another, and sexual gratification obtained by violating another. Alcohol is not a factor in these motivations; it does not contribute to the beliefs about violation. These beliefs and motivations are present with or without alcohol.

The alcohol industry however, does contribute a factor in sexual violence, not through the product they make but through the promotion of that product. One of their primary advertising techniques is to connect drinking and sex, and, for heterosexual men, to link drinking to obtaining stereotypically beautiful women. These advertising messages contribute to a culture that supports beliefs about drunk sex and drunk women and blurs the lines between sex and sexual assault. This culture supports the sexual predators who act on those beliefs. These messages influence some young men to believe they need alcohol in order to obtain what they want, and that using alcohol and obtaining what they want is what makes them a man. Some young women are also influenced to believe that’s what makes a man.

It is the culture that perpetuates sexual violence which must be explained and discussed with students. They need to understand how this affects all of us and what we all do to either support or oppose this culture.

After her talk at the Dialogue at UVa: Sexual Misconduct on College Campuses, Catherine Lhamon, the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, was asked about the connection between sexual assault and alcohol. She was clear that alcohol abuse was a problem on campuses and we should continue to do all we can to prevent it. Then she said, “but sexual assault and sexually hostile environments persist totally independent of the use of alcohol and the culture change has to be focused on not assuming that alcohol and drugs are an excuse or a conduit.”

Prevention of sexual assault requires an examination of gender roles, discussions of consent, and yes, discussions of the culture that includes beliefs about alcohol. That is not alcohol education, nor should it be. The time is long overdue to treat these issues separately, to recognize the different goals, and to stop confusing students by telling them that ending alcohol abuse will end sexual violence, because it won’t.

 


 Carol Mosely, Director
We End Violence

 

Ten Years After Kobe: Sports, Sexual Assault, and the Media

The current sexual assault case involving Jameis Winston has brought back memories of the Kobe Bryant case. They are both famous, elite athletes who are lauded for their physical ability. They have fans who will defend them beyond reason; in Bryant’s case, literally to the point of threatening death to his accuser. The media coverage of the Winston case, especially sports media, has been extensive. As the case progressed, I started thinking about differences and similarities in how the cases are reported and discussed, and whether anything has changed.

Ten years ago, Kobe Bryant was arrested for sexual assault. The ensuing media coverage and widespread discussion had a huge negative impact on sexual assault survivors, on advocates who respond to survivors, and on educators talking to the public about the problem of rape and sexual assault. The most damage was the silencing of survivors who were surrounded by media discussions and common conversations questioning the validity of the report and the integrity of the survivor.

The overarching theme from that coverage was Bryant’s fame and ability as an athlete. That’s why the case was important. That’s why the enormous amount of coverage and discussion. The same is true of the Winston case. It’s only important because his team was ranked number one in the country, and he was a Heisman trophy candidate. Students at Florida State University who agreed to be interviewed after the announcement that no charges would be filed were relieved because now he could get back to playing football.

The sports media emphasis was, in both cases, on legal technicalities. Reporters and commentators interviewed legal experts who know very little about sexual assault cases. They rarely interviewed anyone knowledgeable about these issues or these cases. Although there seems to be more recognition in the Winston case that these are difficult cases to investigate and prosecute, there is virtually no informative discussion about why they are so difficult, including no conversation or commentary about consent, which is the heart of the matter as well as the most common and effective defense.

Sexual violence is not a problem that can by solved by lawyers, and sexual violence isn’t really the topic in these cases. The important questions for mainstream sports reporters and the majority of fans commenting on those reports are: will he be kept off the basketball court or football field or baseball field and will he receive Heisman votes?

In the ten years since the Bryant case, the use of comment sections after articles and blogs has increased so it’s possible to spend many hours reading opinions. However the current level of discourse isn’t encouraging if you’re looking for signs of a deeper understanding of sexual assault. Here’s some succinct examples from the comment section following the Daily Beast article:

Michael Christensen: Ok let me explain how it works. If your a high profile athlete, you can get away with rape and if your lucky sometimes murder. Its been proven over and over. I not saying this guy did it. But look at big Ben. [sic]

Jacob Fisher: Also if you are a high profile athlete, you get targeted by people looking for “hush money”. Im not saying she did it, but look at Kobe. [sic]

During the Bryant case, Charles Barkley said star athletes are in a position to be maliciously, falsely accused. He didn’t point out that stardom also surrounds them in a sphere of entitlement. I have had a few chances to talk with young men accused of sexual assault. Several of them couldn’t believe it, were convinced they did nothing wrong even though they admitted to behavior that was clearly an assault. Why? Because they think that what they did is what every man does; they think that’s what sex is, and what women—or some women, THOSE women—are for.

Images and ideas that merge sex and violence, something that happens often in the world of sports, contribute to the confusion about what is sex and what is sexual assault. Think about the language that little boys hear early in their lives as athletes. Sexual terms are tied to scoring, to overpowering, to winning, and they’re all used to define a real man. That’s the only sex education some boys ever receive.

I’m hoping for the day when consent, entitlement, and how we teach young people about sex and gender are part of the discussion any time a high-profile athlete is charged with sexual assault.

 

 


Carol Mosely
Director, We End Violence


 

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