What It Will Take to End Sexual Assault

Sexual abuse, Lada Gaga, President Obama, date rape

One college professor is baffled at the notion that someone who experiences rape would fail to report it, assuming students at elite institutions know full well what sexual assault is. He ignores the prevalence of a culture that says, “If you were partying with the guy, you must have wanted it, asked for it.”

What do Lady Gaga, President Obama, and the head of Harvard University have in common?

They’re all speaking out to stop sexual assault – and not a moment too soon.

The headlines call attention to the problem on college campuses: “Survey: More than 1 in 5 female undergrads at top schools suffer sexual attacks.” It’s important to have this information. But we need to remember that most rapes happen outside of campus, in every kind of setting – your kid’s school, your neighbor’s home, the community center down the block. And we can’t leave out the church, the workplace, the military – or the therapist’s couch. For gay and trans people, rape may also come at the hands of police. Stranger rape still happens, of course, but even more unsettling is the prevalence of assaults in places we expect to be safe, often by people we are told to trust.

Solutions require us to acknowledge the scope of the problem. But it’s also time to focus on the growing tide of activism. The problem certainly isn’t new; neither is resistance. Today we’re seeing a new wave of organizing on campuses and in communities that is helping to write a different narrative. With support from the administration and popular culture icons like Lady Gaga, we can focus on what’s needed and band together to make it happen.

Lady Gaga reminds us that rape is an injury with long-lasting effects. She originally recorded her song, “Til It Happens to You,” for the documentary, “The Hunting Ground,” about campus sexual assault. The video’s widespread release is a great tool for increasing awareness:

You tell me hold your head up, hold your head up and be strong
Cause when you fall you gotta get up, you gotta get up and move on
Tell me how the hell could you talk, how could you talk?

Cause until you walk where I walk, this is no joke

The Obama administration just commemorated its first year of activism on the issue. Their message is a simple one: “It’s On Us.” Stop blaming those who get raped and teaching females what to do to avoid assault. We need to focus instead on the role all of us can play to stop rape culture.

Plenty of people are not jumping on the bandwagon. The Washington Post quoted a Brooklyn College professor who’s baffled at the notion that someone who experiences rape would fail to report it, assuming students at elite institutions know full well what sexual assault is. He ignores the prevalence of a culture that says, “If you were partying with the guy, you must have wanted it, asked for it.” Interview anyone involved with the issue and they’ll tick off the barriers. Some women blame themselves for not being able to make it stop. Some are afraid they’ll get in trouble for underage drinking. Others feel like “a nobody going against a somebody” and think no one would believe them. Most see no systems to help or don’t trust the ones that exist.

Typically high schools do not address the issue. More colleges are taking it up, under requirements under Title IX. But too many colleges have online “prevention” programs with no discussion or interaction with other students, aimed at minimal compliance with the law.

Groups like Know Your IX and local campus organizations across the country are doing the vital work of helping those who experience rape take steps to seek healing and justice. They’re also working hard on prevention, to get college administrations to focus on meaningful training of students and those charged with handling intake and investigation of complaints, and to be transparent and produce regular reports on the outcome of those complaints.

Many community groups are doing transformative work as well – organizations like A Long Walk Home and Hollaback!, local rape advocacy groups, and others led by men like A Call to Men and Be That Guy, aimed at addressing the many men who are not violent but who are silent.

Lady Gaga has pledged a portion of the proceeds from her video to support groups like these. All of us can help as well. The greater the power of these activists, the closer we’ll get to ending gender-based violence.

Ellen Bravo’s new novel, Again and Again, is a political thriller dealing with campus date rape and a key U.S. Senate race.

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