FRITZBERG AND LOOFF: Towards a culture of sexual respect

We live in a culture where rape isn’t surprising. Sexual assault fits too neatly into our expectations about sex and gender: normalized sexual pressure lays the foundation for coercion and force. When things go wrong, we too often blame the victims (“Why was she drinking?” “Why didn’t he say ‘no’ more clearly?”) and excuse the perpetrators (“Why didn’t anyone tell them this was wrong?”).

And we work hard to push back against this narrative that it’s our fault — even as we take self-defense classes, watch our drinks and stick with our friends late at night.

We must go farther, however, than learning defense strategies that normalize the occurrence of sexual assault in our society, and our responses to it. Highly (and troublingly) publicized incidents of sexual assaults in Steubenville, OH and Torrington, CT make it imperative that we change this culture, rather than learning to survive within it.

In 1978, a group of activist women took a stand against rape. Their goal in organizing the first Take Back the Night was to shatter the shame and silence that too often surrounds survivors of sexual assault. TBTN is now an annual event on college campuses and in communities across the country, traditionally incorporating a march through local streets and a speakout encouraging survivors to share their stories. We acknowledge that traditional Take Back the Night events offer necessary space for discussion and public support of survivors. We do not, however, believe that this format actively challenges our society’s problematic contextualization of rape.

Take Back the Night speakouts, however well intentioned, normalize a narrative of sexual violence, and set a script that survivors may feel obligated to follow. Marches through local streets shift blame away from the majority of perpetrators of sexual assault on our campus, who are themselves Yale students.

This year, we want to do something different. While we acknowledge the need to hold our community responsible for sexual assault, we also recognize the need to emphasize positive avenues for change.

Let’s create a culture where sexual respect is taken for granted. What does this look like?

Sexual respect means respect for yourself. It means having the opportunity to notice and validate your own desires, rather than feeling pressure to conform to social expectations regarding sex. It also means having the opportunity to participate, judgment-free, in all the glorious consensual sex you want.

Sexual respect means respect for your partners. It means getting rid of the expectation that a short skirt or a tight shirt means that someone wants to hook up. If they do, it means moving beyond “tell me when to stop,” and instead paying attention to what feels good between you and your partner(s). It means that just because he wanted to last time doesn’t mean he wants to tonight.

Sexual respect means respect for those around you. It means recognizing the validity of all types of consensual sexual relationships and people’s right to label (or not label) these relationships, or themselves, in whatever way they want. It means not making people’s physical appearance subject matter for casual conversation. Respecting those around you means recognizing the pressures put on people of all genders — pressure to make (or not make) the first move, to want to have casual sex (or to save it for a relationship), to bulk up (or slim down).

Fully realizing a culture of sexual respect will not be an easy transition. Events like this year’s Take Back the Night are a start. The event will be a campus-wide discussion sponsored by campus groups ranging from Yale Women’s Center to Greek organizations. On Saturday afternoon, April 13, Yale students, faculty and performance groups will gather on Cross Campus to lend their voices to this movement for change. We challenge you to join this conversation.

What does sexual respect mean to you?

Suzanna Fritzberg is a junior in Calhoun College and and Rachel Looff is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. They are, respectively, the Public Relations Coordinator and the Business Coordinator for the Yale Women’s Center. Contact them at suzanna.fritzberg@yale.edu and rachel.looff@yale.edu .

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