Last week, Yale Police Assistant Chief Ronnell Higgins reported that a female graduate student was followed off of a Yale shuttle bus by five men. They harassed her, and one grabbed her and began to forcibly kiss her. Days before, the News reported that a male student entered a suite of sleeping female students in Saybrook.
Both of these incidents are frightening, and police reporting to the Yale community has generated discussion around campus. When shocking examples of crimes against women appear in our inboxes, they often cause us to question our feelings of safety. Though these incidents certainly stand out, sexual misconduct extends beyond “stranger violence,” — and even beyond the alcohol-fueled night at Toads that “Relationships: Untitled” portrays. Many of us have friends or acquaintances whose lives have been affected by sexual violence. Studies done by academic and criminal justice researchers consistently find that about one in four college women will experience attempted or actual sexual assault by the time they graduate. About nine out of ten of the perpetrators are people known to the survivors, and very few of the assaults will be formally reported. We are currently in the window of time — beginning the moment students arrive on campus and lasting until Thanksgiving — during which most sexual assaults of first-year women occur. Like the e-mails from Ronnell Higgins, these facts are scary. But the solution is not to lock ourselves away in fear; we need to take positive action to make our campus a safer place.
Sadly, there is no quick fix for the problem of sexual violence. At Yale, when we are informed about incidents of violence, Yale Police usually follows the report with a “reiteration” of the importance of using Yale’s security services like the Minibus or the University escort service. This admonition, conspicuously absent in the recent e-mail about the shuttle bus incident, both reinforces our fears (“Don’t you know what could happen if you walk home alone?”) and places the onus of violence prevention on its potential victims (“If only you had taken the minibus…”). Too often, we approach violence with simplistic and misleading directives. Most women have heard warnings against wearing clothes that might “suggest” our intentions or even our consent. And, on its webpage addressing sexual assault, Yale HEALTH advises students, for example, to “avoid being alone in public, particularly at night”— a piece of advice no one could consistently follow, and even if we could, one that would not always protect us.
Stopping sexual violence at Yale is a complicated process that requires looking more broadly into sexual culture and gender relations. Violence against women doesn’t happen because we walk alone at night or wear “suggestive” clothing; it happens because we live in a culture that creates and sustains violence against women. Effectively preventing sexual violence requires a focus on its root causes, the heterosexist expectations of male aggression and female passivity. Even our language gives these standards away: Men are encouraged to “score,” while labels like “slut” shame women for active sexuality. Those may feel like outdated norms, but they still shape many of our interactions, from the person who dances with you without asking to the person who begs you to set aside your boundaries.
Sexual violence hurts individuals at Yale but also hurts our community. We need to have long, thoughtful conversations about gender norms and sexual expectations on campus — and how to change them into a culture of respect and affirmation. Everyone needs to be invested in the project of ending sexual violence. As we work to build a campus that’s safe and fun for all, your activism can be as simple as not laughing at a rape joke, supporting diversity of sexual choice and expression and only accepting a full, enthusiastic, happy “YES!”
Together, we can stop sexual violence. Join us.