April 29, 2013

EDITORIAL: Inclusive Sexual Assault Education

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On Friday evening, students and members of the Ithaca community participated in “Take Back the Night,” a national event held in support of the movement to end sexual violence. While survivors of sexual assault and abuse spoke to the crowd about their traumas and efforts to move forward, one male individual announced to marchers that he had raped someone. The action to which he confessed cannot be excused by his expressed remorse or call for action to the event’s cause — and it was not the proper forum for his statement. Still, we believe a forum where such an admission can occur is necessary.

Although organizers characterized the march as otherwise positive and well-received, the incident left some participants deeply shocked and offended. The time and venue of the confession was unquestionably inappropriate. It was inconsiderate to survivors of sexual violence who may have been unprepared for the potentially triggering remarks. For those who gathered the courage to speak publicly about their painful experiences, hearing firsthand from a perpetrator might have violated the sense of a “safe space” that Take Back the Night seeks to create. Nonetheless, this occurrence reminds us of a part of the conversation that needs to be had — but is often avoided.

The harsh reality is that many instances of sexual assault involve two parties who hold different truths. More frequently than we might imagine, a perpetrator will not see him- or herself as a perpetrator. Lacking awareness of one’s actions is certainly not an excuse for committing a heinous crime. It does, however, expose a root cause of sexual violence; and it highlights the need to educate those who might espouse alternative, even misguided, definitions of sexual assault. If we are serious about spreading awareness, this means expanding the dialogue about sexual assault well beyond survivors.

It is those who are confused about the line between sex and rape — and perhaps even those who acknowledge they have crossed it — who are in most dire need of education. We know that a cultural shift must occur in order to change outdated perceptions about what constitutes healthy sexual interaction. We know that preventative education is a key to eradicating sexual violence. But to truly make effective strides toward this goal, we cannot limit preventative education to those who are already on board.

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