January 31, 2013

50 Shades of Blame: Fault in Sexual Assault

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This winter break, I traveled to India, where the gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student by six men on a bus in Delhi has sparked a nationwide backlash. With more than 414 rapes reported in 2010, the national capital of India has aptly earned the name “Rape Capital.” What has driven the sense of frustration in India to such a level is not just that horrific crimes like this occur in Indian society, but also that there is a clear lack of sensitivity in the responses of several public figures. From blaming fashion to blaming the influence of alcohol, movies and Western culture, the officials blame everything but the offender. Outrage reached a boiling point when the son of India’s president, a democratically-elected member of the nation’s parliament, declared that women marching in the protests are “highly dented and painted” and that “students who go to discotheques” had no right to be participating in demonstrations. For a country that has taken giant progressive strides since gaining its independence, we seem to be moving backwards when it comes to respect for women.

Cornell saw an unusually high number of sexual crimes reported on and around campus this fall. From reports of outright assault to complaints of attempted rape, the wave of sexual crimes reported has left the Cornell community reeling. Cornellians have responded with a wave of action — from the ramped up activity of the Women’s Resource Center to meetings held to discuss sexual safety and consent. And yet frustration continues over what many perceive to be a lingering sense of apathy in the Cornell community. The biggest roadblock for victims continues to be the ambiguous public understanding of what constitutes assault. From questions of whether an act was truly forced, and not a consensual act gone wrong, to comments about the influence of alcohol or the behavior of “sluts,” I have heard outrageous opinions expressed. And the people expressing them are not 16th century barbarians, but my fellow male and female students — perfectly rational, rights-respecting individuals who by no means condone the mistreatment of another human being.

So where does the problem really lie? Strong institutional mechanisms are vital in creating a social structure where offenders cannot commit sexual crimes with impunity. I give full credit to the administrators at Cornell for trying to do their best on that front; the Delhi government also finally seems to be waking up and trying to do more than just blame the women themselves. But by and large, it isn’t a problem with the rule book but with the social norms that we live with. Global society has a problem when dialogue on sex is either completely repressed, like in Delhi, or takes place mostly in the form of lewd jokes and wisecracks on “forcible touching incidents,” like at Cornell. This problem isn’t restricted alone to the two places I choose to comment upon. It is pan global appearing from the Toronto police officer who suggested that “women should avoid dressing like sluts” to the Brazilian comedian Bastos who suggested that a rape victim “should be glad for the opportunity.” Blaming the victim is an issue that is still very much endemic.

There isn’t much difference between the comments of a public figure in Delhi — who said that “If girls don’t stay within their boundaries, if they don’t wear appropriate clothes, then naturally there is attraction. This attraction makes men aggressive, prompting them to just do it,” — and the conversations at parties and bars at Cornell revolving around “sorostitutes” or “hos who were asking for it.” There isn’t much difference between victims in Delhi who are blamed for being too “modern” or those at Cornell who are blamed for being intoxicated or walking home alone at night. The thing is, normalizing conversation that either heaps moral opprobrium on all things sexual or relegates it to poor humor is the first step in creating the social categories of “good women” and “bad women.” This leads to a social construct that makes it okay to assault “bad women,” because society believes that such things don’t happen to “good women” — because their “good” behavior doesn’t raise any chance of assault. Whether that good behavior refers to not wearing makeup in Delhi or not acting like a “drunken slut” at a party, a society in which the victims can somehow be made to share the guilt is one that normalizes the occurrence of sexual crimes. With such attitudes and mindsets pervasive in our world today, it is no surprise that sexual crimes continue unabated.

Ratnika Prashad is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Feedback can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Ratnika Prashad