Content Warning: Rape Culture
“But what about the vengeful women?”
I had just completed my “speech to change an attitude” assignment for Persuasive Communication class, arguing that in sexual assault cases, universities should presume the accused individual’s guilt. The challenge was to speak for ten minutes on a topic with which most of the class disagreed. For my topic, everyone disagreed. Many had questions.
“Won’t all these vengeful women just accuse men of rape to, like, get back at them?
Blood boiling, I could barely collect my thoughts into coherency. I had spent the past ten minutes unraveling the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses, the inadequacies of the current system for addressing it, and the reasons to use presumption of guilt of the accused instead of innocence.
Some of the statistics might feel familiar, and others less so: one in four college women are assaulted, twelve percent of university cases get reported, three percent of rapists serve time in prison, and the list goes on. The numbers add up to a toxic rape culture – both in college and in society at large – signaling the need for radical change, especially in the way that universities address sexual assault.
Presumption of guilt is radical. It turns the current system, in which we presume innocence until guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, completely on its head. Most importantly, this change does two great things:
1. Presumption of guilt institutionalizes the practice of affirmative consent.
This legal precedent requires individuals to ensure that their partners consent to sex in an ongoing, explicit, and enthusiastic manner.
2. Presumption of guilt relieves some of the trauma of the process from assault survivors.
The survivor no longer has to prove that he/she was assaulted. Sexual assault is traumatic, and the presumption of guilt relieves the survivor of some of the trauma of the process of obtaining justice.
Upon presenting my case, I found myself confronting, face-to-face, the misogynistic culture I had spent the past ten minutes problematizing. In particular, I found myself struggling to decide whether to push back and explain what makes these attitudes problematic or to step back, recognizing that explaining is not my responsibility. In this situation, I wanted to do the former because it terrifies me that my peers do not know better.
“Why didn’t you share your personal experience? It would have made you so much more credible.”
I cringed, folding my bottom lip inside my mouth to activate the “f” sound in “fuck you.” But I stopped, almost involuntarily. I wanted to explain why a survivor of assault should never have to share their story, especially not for the sake of credibility. But I didn’t. Amidst anger, vulnerability, and fear, all I could muster was, “That would have been inappropriate.”
“If we used the presumption of guilt, I would never ask a girl on a date.”
Truthfully, I hoped that this man, unwilling to ensure consent, would promptly stop asking girls on dates. But instead of expressing that, I half-heartedly re-explained the advantages of using the presumption of guilt, grasping for each new word with demonstrable effort. I felt paralyzed.
In retrospect, I recognize that the shock of confronting such blatant misogyny at an institution lauded as one of the most progressive in the world left me virtually speechless. If my peers are this misogynistic, what does that say about the rest of the world? What does that say about those who have not had the privilege of studying under the auspices of esteemed liberal academics? If Brown’s progressive ideals have failed to shake its students of their misogyny, what will?
These questions scare me, but they also inspire me to action. That is why, after deep breaths and a night of sleep, I decided to email my classmates with a list of thorough, thoughtful responses to their post-speech questions. See below:
In class the following day, a male student stood to give an impromptu speech. The class shouted out topics for him to speak on: robots, rowing, kale. I called out “feminism”; the class erupted with laughter. Amidst all this, a different male student – one who had been particularly vocal after my sexual assault speech – stretched out his arm, pointed his finger at me, and yelled, “STOP.”
Eyes wide, jaw unhinged, face blank – I was stunned. Never had I been so directly and so violently silenced in a classroom. I felt as if this boy had reached down into my throat, grabbed my voice with a clenched fist, ripped it out and placed it in his pocket. Meanwhile, the rest of class proceeded as normal, blissfully ignoring the interaction. I detected not a single comment, pause, or raised eyebrow in the room. Non-reactions like this are not neutral; this form of silence is also oppressive, if more subtly so.
The boy’s outstretched arm, pointed finger, and deep, quick shout established a certain masculinity and dominance that men have been socialized to embrace and display, like a weapon carried around to be cocked, aimed, and fired. Often the wound does not immediately hurt; only once it has sunk in does the gravity of the offense become fully apparent.
After class, he approached me to say that my suggestion had made the whole class feel uncomfortable. “Why would you ask him to speak about feminism? You know he’s not well-versed in that stuff,” he enjoined. This time, I refused to be silent. First things first, I demanded that he never shut me down like that again. I have a right to speak and be heard, which brought be to my second point: discomfort surrounding the idea of feminism indicates deeper-seated personal issues that ought to be addressed. An inability or unwillingness to talk about equal rights for a single minute represents passive subscription to a system that perpetuates inequality. Here, he accused me of imposing my ideology onto others. “Suggesting a topic of discussion is not an ideological imposition, and neither is equality an ideology,” I replied. To silence a woman in a classroom is bad; to silence her attempt to discuss experiences of inequality and marginalization is deplorable.
In light of my recent speech on restoring and upholding survivors’ rights to innocence and justice, this incident felt particularly poignant. The oppressive systems that give assailants permission to rape without punishment are the same systems that give men permission to silence women in the classroom. I do not mean to crudely compare the experiences of sexual assault and classroom silencing, but rather to illuminate the many manifestations of a patriarchal society.
This classroom event is not an isolated one; microaggressions like this happen all the time. Importantly, we must be careful not to fall victim to the behavioralist dismissal of cultural prejudice. In other words, these episodes of classroom misconduct are not committed by select “bad” individuals but instead are the manifestation of a culture that deems women’s voices less important. They are the product of a society that privileges men with a platform on which to speak and be heard. Sometimes this privilege makes men talk more frequently and for larger portions of time during class. Sometimes it makes them interrupt women when they are speaking. Sometimes it makes them point at women and tell them to stop.
However it manifests, this privilege must be recognized. I want us to notice the space we take up in the classroom and to actively work towards an equitable balance. Some women may not feel like they have difficulty making a point in class just as some men may have trouble speaking confidently. While these feelings are completely valid, they are also individual, and the tendencies we see across classrooms in general reflect a systemic inequality that we need to address.