The importance of consent and rejecting rape culture

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Content warning: sexual assault, sexual harassment, rape

The Life section’s Valentine’s Day issue is all about love and the many forms it comes in. Some of the other featured articles today are fun and lighthearted, but it’s also important to acknowledge the emotional and physical harm that may arise in romantic, sexual and even platonic relationships. Now more than ever, society needs to reexamine the deeply ingrained patriarchal values that perpetuate rape culture — the responsibility should not be left just to survivors, the people who personally know and sympathize with a survivor or other female-identifying individuals. To that point, even more importantly, people in positions of institutional power such as University of Connecticut administrators and the UConn Police Department need to expeditiously and effectively implement solutions of accountability for perpetrators, restorative justice for unacknowledged survivors and preventative measures for the safety of all.

Alexandra Docken and her brave, lone stand in the rain on Feb. 3 has ignited much-needed conversations and student-initiated action on social media and on campus about sexual assault, a long-going issue at the University of Connecticut and other institutions. Unfortunately, Docken’s experience of hoping for accountability for such a serious, impactful transgression, only to be met with an “invalidating,” ultimately unfruitful outcome is not an outlier. As previous coverage of sexual assault at UConn mentions, other UConn students similarly experienced a drawn-out — months to almost a year — investigation with little emotional or personal support from the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE), Community Standards or the Office of Dean of Students, the first two bodies which handle and investigate such matters, and the latter which should support students. In fact, in 2014, UConn paid $1.28 million to settle a lawsuit filed by five female-identifying students, charging the university with indifferent and ineffective handling of their sexual assault and harassment claims.

Since then, UConn tied with Brown University for the highest amount of reported rapes on campus, according to a 2016 report by The Washington Post. To this point and to the point about the common experience of sexual assault being minimized, there are surely many more incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment that go unreported or unaddressed, whether because the survivor feels nothing would happen or even that the reporting process would make them feel more distressed, or because they may not even understand that they were being violated. The responsibility placed on those who identify as female stems as early as childhood, with female-focused dress codes, and persists for the rest of their lives, with reminders of locking one’s door as soon as they get inside and pepper spray marketed towards women. However, the issue of rape culture is further compounded in college: according to RAINN and the Department of Justice, “Male college-aged students (18-24) are 78% more likely than non-students of the same age to be a victim of rape or sexual assault.”

I wholeheartedly agree in other Daily Campus coverage that UConn needs to address its failure of appropriate action and meaningless responses towards its pervasive sexual assault problem. The responsibility should not solely be on survivors like Docken or student-led organizations like UConn Collaborative Organizing, UConn UNCHAIN, the Undergraduate Student Government and Revolution Against Rape — although their efforts are truly appreciated and have proven effective in continuing the conversation around sexual assault. However, as these groups continue their advocacy; the university scrambles to appropriately address this entrenched issue; and we as members of the community grapple with how to continue our support of survivors,  I would like to address the previously-mentioned topic of rape culture, which was a large issue mentioned at the protests in Storrs on Feb. 7 and Feb. 9.

2/9/2022 Walk Out Against SA by Sofia Sawchuk UConn students, alumni and faculty gather outside the Rowe Building on Fairfield Way in Storrs, CT. for a walk out against sexual assault on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. Protesters gathered and held up signs as survivors shared their stories and supporters spoke out against sexual assault at UConn.

According to Rape Prevention Education, rape culture exists “in a society or environment in which common social beliefs, attitudes or morals normalize sexual violence, encourage people to associate sex with violence, and minimize the seriousness of sexual violence. Within rape culture, sexual violence is accepted, justified and not challenged enough by society.” Victim-blaming falls under rape culture, which also includes the common reminders of women needing to watch their drinks while they’re out and to not walk alone at night. Rape culture is not just perpetuated by men: Kylie Angell, one of the students in the 2014 lawsuit, said she was told by a female campus police officer, “Women have to just stop spreading their legs like peanut butter,” or rape will “keep on happening till the cows come home.” And sometimes, rape culture is more subtle, such as survivors being asked what they were wearing when they were sexually harassed or assaulted: it puts the blame and responsibility on the survivor, as opposed to the perpetrator.

An important part of rape culture is the concept of consent. Consent is the agreement to engage in something and is often used in a sexual context in that consent from both participants to engage in sexual activity, or the act would be sexual assault. However, consent can and should also be used in other contexts to define individual boundaries, such as platonic forms of physical touch, like hugs. As Saprea explains, teaching consent is an important part of educating children about sexual health because it lets them know their voice matters and they have choices, and they’ll also learn to respect other people’s choices.

In any context, consent should be freely given — without coercion, manipulation or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Consent should be reversible, in that an individual can change their mind about doing something at any time, or that just because they’ve done it before doesn’t mean they consent to doing it again. Consent should be informed, in that the participant has all the information they need to know to engage in a healthy sexual activity. Consent should be enthusiastic, in that it should be given positively — the absence of no is not consent. Consent should also be specific, in that agreeing to one act does not mean they consent to other things.

Asking for consent, as opposed to waiting for it to be offered, makes the situation more comfortable and clear for both participants. If you are unsure about engaging in something, such as if you are unsure if someone is drunk, or if you don’t feel that their consent is enthusiastic, it is better not to engage in any activity — wait until you both feel comfortable and safe.

College, love and relationships are tricky enough to navigate. Nobody should have to experience emotionally traumatic instances of sexual assault or sexual harassment, which are all valid. Even the act of living in a society and on a campus that perpetuates rape culture is exhausting. Continue to do what you can in supporting survivors, your loved ones and yourself, while those in power hopefully do the same.

Other pieces addressing rape culture:

Student Health Services (Confidential) 860-486-4700 (24 hours) 

Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence (Confidential) 888-999-5545 (24 hours)

Statewide Domestic Violence Hotline (Confidential) 888-774-2900 (24 hours)

The Women’s Center

The Rainbow Center

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