Friday, March 26, 2010

Sexual assault, triggers, and the problem of male privilege in activism

**Trigger warning: sexual assault**

Over the past month or so, a lot of talk about sexual assault has been happening on my college campus.

Here's the situation.

I am president of a feminist group at my school, Students Against Sexism in Society (SASS). Last term there were several reported incidents of sexual assault on campus. These (rightly) caused an uproar among students who wanted to see immediate and concrete action taken by the administration after several years of pressure to see certain changes by groups like SASS. The outrage felt by students was displayed in ways ranging from student organized open forums, zine creations, students attending faculty meetings and speaking out about their concerns, and even some anonymous actions.

It was one such anonymous action that provoked a large amount of controversy. One day, early in the morning, large banners were hung up in a high-traffic building on campus. The banners covered most of the windows leading up to the cafeteria in that building and were difficult to ignore. The banners made exclamations about the state of sexual assault on campus, saying things like “2 sexual assaults, one weekend: where is your outrage?” and "Knox is no exception to rape statistics." (For more information on these banners, click here*).

The reason for the controversy over these banners focused on two things: The way they presented the problem of sexual assault and their placement in a high traffic area of campus and the possibility that they may trigger survivors of sexual assault.

The latter was an issue we discussed at a SASS meeting the week the banners went up. The group knew the meeting was going to consist of a lot of discussion about sexual assault, but what no one was prepared for was the behavior of a male student who showed up to the meeting. He is not a regular member of SASS, and right away he attempted to dominate the discussion by talking at length about topics of his choosing without letting others give their input. This behavior forced me to cut him off at several points and he did not take kindly to that.

When a woman brought up the issue of the banners being triggering to survivors of sexual assault, the male student appeared ignorant of what the term meant and said that it shouldn't matter if the banners "made a few people uncomfortable" because it was more important that people be aware of the problem.

This attitude prompted many at the meeting to try to explain to this student that triggering a sexual assault survivor was more than just making them uncomfortable and how it is important to offer a trigger warning when a discussion may be difficult for survivors to hear. The male student listened to everyone, but did not seem to completely understand. He then went on to accuse students, by name, of rape. The group listened uneasily to his stories and a discussion took place about using names when accusing people of such crimes when they have not been found guilty of anything. However, the male student stood by his conviction that it was important to "warn the campus" about these people who he was personally convinced were rapists.

Then he went on to name another male student by name and told, in great detail, about the supposed rape he committed. All of this without a trigger warning. This act triggered a member of the group and I had to leave the meeting with them. The meeting was called to an end during our absence as most of the group was, as I found out later, very upset by the male student's behavior. The atmosphere was uneasy at best and felt downright unsafe at worst.

I spoke with this male student after the meeting. I told him that if he wanted to be a productive member of these sorts of discussions, he needed to educate himself on how to talk about them appropriately. He told me that he wanted to educate himself. He apologized to me and the other student that had to leave the meeting. He said he wanted to be part of the solution. Despite this student's good intentions, this meeting brought to light some important issues facing women activists working for solutions to problems regarding sexual assault.

First, the necessity for male activists to check their privilege at the door. During the SASS meeting, the student's male privilege showed in the way he handled himself. He disregarded other (female) members' attempts to add to the conversation, as if he had more right to speak than they did, and he ignored their explanations about triggers before he told unverified stories that hurt people who were listening. This was the most infuriating part of the whole ordeal to me. This student walked into a meeting that was meant to be a safe space, especially for the women there, and totally disregarded the feelings/advice of those he should have been working with, people he had a hard time even allowing to speak. Overall, his attitude and actions created an atmosphere in which producing meaingful activism seemed difficult.

Second, the importance of taking survivors into account when coming up with solutions. The male student was not a survivor of sexual assault, and was not well-educated when it came to understanding how survivors might feel about some tactics that he was ok with using. I understand that there is some contention over the idea of survivors being treated as fragile vs. trying not to revictimize survivors, but this experience made me believe that work on the issue of sexual assault that does not take survivors into careful account (providing trigger warnings, getting their input, etc.) is not work I want to pursue.

Has anyone else ever had a similar experience? I'm curious as to how this male student can be integrated into a working solution about the problem of sexual assault on this campus, or if he should even be allowed the chance after his behavior. Opinions?

*The article from The Knox Student quotes me as president of SASS. For more information on the situation at Knox last term, visit the school's student newspaper for coverage of the events.


Tiberius said...

I don't know if I'd call it "male privilege." This guy might just be a jerk in any situation. I think there should be some clear indication of what is and isn't allowed at discussion, and zero tolerance for violations. Someone who doesn't follow the rules should be asked to leave, or maybe given a warning and then asked to leave if it happens again. This particular guy just sounds like someone who likes to hear himself talk so I don't know how much open-minded discussion you can expect.

Amelia said...

Now that I'm thinking about it, maybe entitlement would be the better word? This student seemed to assume that he had more of a right to speak than our regular (female) members, and the like. Hmm.

I have interacted with this student in the past and I can say that, yes, he did come off as a jerk in this situation, and I even think that his story which triggered people was a willful act(group members had previously explained that such an action could be harmful to survivors), but I still think he had good intentions -- although I am confused as to the basis for those intentions.

Like I mentioned in the post, I would call this student ignorant. He did not know how to handle the topic he wanted to address in a way that was comfortable to everyone participating. He did not even understand the idea of what a trigger was. However, I do believe in his genuine interest in seeing an end to sexual assault. I cannot speak to where that interest comes from, as he seemed to have a difficult understanding (or even imagining) how it would feel to be a survivor, but he has dedicated a lot of his free time to trying to work on this issue outside of SASS.

I still am not sure what to make of him. I am very cautious when it comes to working with him at this time, but I do not want to see a possible ally (if he gets the proper training) being alienated without getting another chance if he deserves one.

Marcella Chester said...

If you have any men involved with your program who don't have this same problem they may be able to help this guy understand how much he doesn't understand.

Too often men who mess up assume that they didn't mess up and are simply rejected because they are men. Another man might be able to get through to them.

Amelia said...

That's a great suggestion, Marcella. SASS does in fact have several men who are involved in the group who do not have any of the issues that this particular student displayed. I will bring this up with them.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the guy sounds like he's honestly interested in helping so I would definitely keep trying to work with him. But it seems the first thing he needs to learn is how to listen and empathize.

Maybe suggest he attend a few meetings without speaking up. There's no better way to learn than to sit back and just listen.

Queers United said...

I agree that this student needs to be educated but your post seems to suggest that males are not ever the victims of sexual assault and I would say that it is important to keep in mind that both men and women can be victims of abuse.

Amelia said...

@persephonepom: I think your suggestion is a great one. I wonder if it would be something this student would be able to do, however, because he seemed to have such a sense of urgency about the topic that he didn't seem to want to just sit back and listen. I will suggest it, though. Thanks!

@Queers United: If it came off in my post that males could not ever be the victims of sexual assault, it was most definitely a lapse in clarity and not intended. I absolutely acknowledge the fact that people of all genders and sexes can be victims of sexual assault.

However, in the context of the situation I wrote about, SASS is a predominantly (not exclusively) female organization, and the male student in question was not a victim of assault.

When I wrote "I'm curious as to how this male student can be integrated into a working solution about the problem of sexual assault on this campus, or if he should even be allowed the chance after his behavior," I meant only this particular student and it was not meant to be a commentary about men in general. Was there another troublesome part of my post?

Queers United said...

"First, the necessity for male activists to check their privilege at the door."

I appreciate your response I suppose I just initially read that and felt like it suggested that males can only be activists or perpetrators of sexual assault. While there is indeed male privilege there are many males who are victims and are neither activists nor perpetrators of crime but merely suffering in silence.

Amelia said...

Queers United,

No, I did not intend to suggest that those were the only roles that men could occupy. Again, my apologies if I was unclear.

What I did mean was that when men choose to be activists, especially when it comes to issues like sexual assault, they need to make sure that their male privilege does not hurt anyone they should be working with, and in this case the student was supposed to be working with a lot of women.

Thanks for the comment.

Toysoldier said...

" The male student was not a survivor of sexual assault"

Did he tell you he was not a victim of sexual assault, or are you assuming that he cannot be a victim of sexual assault because he is male?

Amelia said...

He made it clear he was not a survivor and that his motivation for engaging in this sort of activism stemmed from his friends' experiences.