I am guilty of taking the path of least resistance. In my Women’s Studies classes we have been talking about sexual harassment, specifically street harassment or cat calling, which my students tell me happens every day in their lives. They say it happens all the time on our campus as they walk to class. This week I was walking across campus and I witnessed such harassment. A group of guys shouted at a young women walking by them: “Hey, baby. What’s your phone number…” She kept walking. I kept walking. When I was a little distance away, I turned back, thinking to myself that if I don’t stand up for women on campus (as a teacher) then how can I expect my students to stand up for themselves. By the time I walked back to the area the group has disbursed and I wasn’t sure who had made the comment. I felt guilty for not intervening in the moment—telling the young men that it is not O.K. to harass female students. In my classes we talk about how we all have many choices each day about whether we support the status quo or resist and try to change it. I felt like I took the easy way out and took the path of least resistance. Next time I will intervene.
In today’s local newspaper, there was an extremely offensive column by Bud Stevenson. He calls his column “Mr. Nice Guy,” although he is the opposite of nice. His columns are usually full a hate and bigotry, and I find myself amazed that a newspaper would give him a platform. Unfortunately, he represents some in our community as evidenced by others who similarly write hate speech. Today his column hit a new low for me, as he joked about and mocked a new law intended to prevent the rape of women on college campuses. I did not take the path of least resistance today. I wrote back. Here is my letter to the editor. There was much more that I could say about the messages in Mr. Stevenson’s column (Ugh), but I kept it brief in hopes that the newspaper would print it in full.
One in five young college women will be sexually assaulted during their time in college. It is not alright to joke about this issue. Bud Stevenson’s column, mocking and belittling new legislation that aims to decrease campus rape, is deeply offensive to me as a college professor working with young people and to all women who are victims of sexual violence. The legality of consent is not new: it is illegal to have sex with another person without their consent. It is unfortunate that there is such a strong myth in our culture that when a woman says “No, it really means Yes”, that legislation was necessary to clearly define affirmative consent as, “Yes means Yes.”
Mr. Stevenson is correct that SB 967 clarifies that sexual partners must give “affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement” in order to protect individuals from sexual assault on college campuses. And yes, a person can withdraw consent at any time during a sexual encounter—that is coded in existing law. Mr. Stevenson states that affirmative consent “fits in the world view of our governor” and jokes about “saving” a young woman’s “wholesomeness.” I believe that rape prevention initiatives are part of a world view that all decent people share in our community, all people who care about the safety and wellbeing of women and girls. It is unconscionable for Mr. Stevenson to suggest that rape prevention is some sort of weird idea from a weird governor, and efforts to protect women from violence (“wholesomeness”), is something to joke about. Mr. Stevenson concludes his column by talking about himself as the “victim of aggressive young women” in college, attempting to disqualify the whole problem of the rape of young women—a sobering, one fifth of all women in college.
Mr. Stevenson leaves out important information about SB 967. This new law gives campus authorities new powers to effectively deal with sexual assaults and has opened up new education campaigns for campus communities, male and female. This California law is part of a larger effort to address the problem of sexual assault on college campuses. President Obama has initiated a campaign at the federal level and campus safety provisions were added to the reauthorization of the Violence against Women Act. New federal guidelines will follow soon to assist college campuses in developing meaningful strategies to prevent sexual assault and to provide support to victims. The Chief of Police of my college district is working hard to implement these new initiatives to make positive changes in women’s safety—we are not laughing or joking about this important issue.
My students use the term “rape culture” to talk about the ubiquitous nature of messages in our culture that sustain this cycle of violence against women. When Mr. Stevenson, a leader in our community, and our local newspaper support messages that denigrate and make fun of efforts to protect women from sexual violence, this is clearly an artifact of rape culture. I will show my students Mr. Stevenson’s column as sad evidence of rape culture in my own community. It disturbs me greatly that such messages come from those who have a public platform that could be used to educate and work towards ending violence against women.