In the United States, April is Sexual Assault Awareness month. Many use this as an opportunity to shine a light on statistics, such as how an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds, or how 1 in every 6 American women will be the victim of attempted or completed rape. Nonprofit organizations like the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) use the month to give an extra push to their campaigns. But what does it mean to students? To survivors of sexual assault? I interviewed seven women – Abigail Symonds, Aryana Kubiak, and five women who wish to remain anonymous whom I shall call Rose, Alice, Kelsey, Zoe, and Eloise – about their thoughts on and criticisms of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
“As a survivor of sexual assault, recognition and respect of my existence is important,” says Abigail Symonds, a junior at Clark University. “Too many people experience sexual assault. We need to have conversations about the topic.”
Such conversations sparked around the month are vital for letting survivors know they aren’t alone. Survivors of sexual assault like Clark University sophomore Aryana Kubiak can feel ashamed of and even repress their experience.
“It wasn't until I had learned that my own mother had been sexually assaulted that I felt as if I could confront my own experiences,” says Kubiak. “Knowing that I wasn't alone and that my own mother had gone through something similar empowered me; I just want other survivors to know that they are not alone either and that this is a serious issue that needs to be addressed.”
This month, alongside the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, is working to change the culture around sexual assault. The recent outings of sexual predators such as Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer call out powerful individuals for their wrongful actions.
The fame of these individuals and the widespread coverage these allegations received do “start conversations about assault in places that have never had them before,” says Rose. Not only do these movements start conversations, but as Kubiak brought up, they bring attention to the ineffectiveness of society’s current practices in dealing with sexual assault.
That being said, students do have concerns over the effectiveness of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Students like Alice acknowledge how these movements can “spread the message and give those assaulted a voice,” but question the effectiveness of hashtags at affecting meaningful change.
“[Sexual Assault Awareness Month] isn’t that important to me because I don’t think it actually has any demonstrable impact on reducing sexual assault,” says Eloise.
While our cultural consciousness was captured by the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, he was still able to sell his company for millions of dollars. As a result of the lack of any real punishment, students like Eloise find it “hard to tell what, if any, lasting impact [these movements] will have when the men accused aren’t facing consequences outside of temporary cultural judgment before the cultural consciousness moves on and forgets them.”
The problematic short-sightedness of society’s attention is only made worse through the movement’s press coverage, which controls whose stories get told.
“The story of a rich white famous woman that everyone knows is going to get a larger audience than the stories of ‘unknown’ women,” says Rose.
This is indicative of the movement’s inclusivity problem. While many of the women who have recently come forth are wealthy celebrities, women of color and indigenous populations experience the highest rates of sexual violence, but receive the least amount of coverage.
“I have seen very few times when women of color and low-income women are given the stage alone,” says Zoe. “I think there needs to be more opportunities to actually hear the voices of marginalized groups, as opposed to offhandedly saying that it is also a problem.”
The problem lies in that the current movement’s narrative remains largely centered on wealthier and usually white female celebrities.
A more controversial marginalized group within the sexual assault survivor community is men. While 1 in 10 rape victims are male, we still assume that in cases of sexual assault, the attacker is male and the victim is female.
“Many times their experiences with sexual assault are ignored or minimized because of their gender,” says Kelsey.
The gendered nature of the movement negatively affects men, especially when considering how the majority of rapists and assaulters are men.
Among those I interviewed, there are mixed views on how much focus should be given to male victims. Rose attributes the reason as to why men don’t report assault as “directly related to toxic masculinity,” an idea shared by Symonds who also believes the current movements should “start by calling out toxic masculinity.”
Kelsey, however, is hesitant. “As much as we should believe, validate and support male-identifying victims, we also need to recognize that men are not the most at risk group.” Zoe shares this concern and states that while she believes it’s important to create a space for men, such inclusion may “scream ‘all lives matter’.”
Sexual Assault Awareness Month and the movements that push for it clearly have a long ways to go, particularly in regards to establishing effective solutions and including marginalized groups. There are innumerable layers of nuance to the issue of sexual assault, but going forward, Kubiak advises that while “people cannot deny their privileges, we can use them to empower others and help those who belong to underprivileged groups.”
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