A few weeks into my first term at Oxford, I got into an argument with a guy who called me and some of my friends – both male and female – pussies. As I explained the derogatory nature of the word, the hurt response it has the capacity to evoke, and the problem of equating women’s anatomy with weakness, I received the usual “God, it’s just a joke” as a response.
On Friday, I overheard a group of students discussing the rape and attempted rape allegations that have been brought against the Union president, Ben Sullivan. The group seemed to divide into two sides, as I heard two male students asserting that it’s too late for these girls to come forward with rape allegations – “If they didn’t come forward right away, they shouldn’t have a chance to at all.” I heard the second group (of both male and female students) respond, explaining that in a world where rape victims are often blamed for the acts committed against them, or at a minimum have serious doubts cast on their claims, it isn’t always easy for someone to come forward right away.
Then last night, as I was writing a paper on gender based violence in refugee communities within the Middle East, I came across the video of men in Oxford walking around chanting about rape.
Let me start by saying – that in the latter two examples I’ve mentioned above – I don’t know the whole story and I won’t pretend to. I believe in the presumption of innocence, and in following due process of law, so if Ben Sullivan is innocent and has been wrongly accused, then I certainly hope that as the investigation proceeds, that will be brought to light. I also don’t know what the aim of the boys chanting in the streets over the weekend was. I would be very happy to learn that they were standing up in protest against sexual assaults committed in university communities, or globally, or anything along those lines, but I can’t say either way without having more information.
All I can say is I can’t believe we’re still having these conversations. Still in a world where in 2014 an educated graduate student thinks it’s appropriate to say something degrading because “God, it’s just a joke.” Still in a world where people don’t understand that rape victims can’t always just “come forward right away” – and that that misinformed perspective on rape and its victims is often the very reason why victims feel uncomfortable reporting the acts committed against them. Still in a world where survivors of sexual assault may have to cross paths with people chanting about rape in the center of town (especially, if indeed this was meant to be a joke or an attempt to degrade rape victims and delegitimize their claims).
On Wednesday evening, I along with Oxford Women in Politics and the Oxford Union, had the pleasure of hosting Alyse Nelson, President and CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership. Alyse’s organization is committed to empowering women leaders worldwide and to addressing problems of ranging from economic and political gender inequality to sexual assault. As she responded to a question from the audience following her speech, Alyse called gender based violence “the great unfinished business of our time.” And I couldn’t agree more. As we’ve seen within our own community in recent days, weeks, and months, GBV isn’t just a problem that we as privileged, educated Oxford students have to go out into the world to address – among refugee communities in the Middle East, or in Nigeria following Boko Haram’s recent actions, or elsewhere. Gender based violence is not just a third world problem. It’s a problem right here – and every time someone thinks it’s appropriate to cast off a legitimate discussion about discrimination against women because he was “just making a joke,” we take one step in the wrong direction – one step away from making any progress towards gender equality and freedom from sexual violence.
I commend the efforts of WomCam, and It Happens Here, and all of the other organizations in Oxford dedicated to empowering women and eliminating gender based violence. But it’s going to take a lot more than those already committed to the cause continuing to fight in order to make real progress. It’s going to take a 20 year old guy at a club having the guts to tell his friend, “That’s not cool” when his friend makes a rape joke or calls someone a pussy or a cunt. It’s going to take all of us understanding the difficulty sexual assault survivors face every day – from the moment they decide to go (or not to go) to the police to living in a community that trivializes their trauma.
And if you’re not convinced that making the world – or Oxford – an equal place for women is a good enough reason (even though I sincerely hope you are) – remember that all of the problems I’ve discussed have a serious impact on men too. As much as a woman faces stigma if she decides to press charges against someone who sexually assaulted her, men face just as many if not more. A community where a man is a pussy, or loses his masculinity, if he is a victim of sexual assault is a community where men will also be hesitant to come forward against their assailants. And that’s a world where rapists get to continue committing these horrible acts, because we’re not standing up in solidarity to stop them.
Thank you to Alyse Nelson, to WomCam and It Happens Here, and to those students I overheard explaining the difficulties sexual assault victims face to their friends. I hope that many more will follow your example, in ways big and small, until gender based violence is no longer the “great unfinished business of our time.”
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