**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.