Last week, the Silence is Violence campaign at Wesleyan went around distributing pamphlets to bring awareness to incidents of sexual assault on campus. I unlocked my front door to find that five pamphlets had been slipped under the door of the apartment I share with my roommates. The pamphlets each had the words “Have You Heard This Before?” on the cover page along with a helpful trigger warning for sexual violence. None of us had the opportunity to refuse the pamphlets; we had to confront them as soon as we entered the house. There have also been quite a few flyers around campus reminding people of the issue. I fully support the idea behind Silence is Violence, and I agree that there is an immediate need for dialogue on campus. That said, in framing a conversation about consent, we all need to make sure that people are consenting to the conversation that takes place.
Yes, part of me feels that all perpetrators of sexual violence should walk around with a label on their clothing so that they can feel the shame and oppression that many survivors experience. It’s not fair that so many survivors bear the brunt of the aftermath while perpetrators do not. Part of me agrees that we need to make a campus-wide conversation mandatory regardless of individual opinions; we have to make sure that everyone on campus understands that sexual violence is not okay. However, I know the negative consequences of that methodology. Ostracizing people who do not support violence prevention efforts here on campus will only serve to make them defensive and unwilling to participate in dialogue.
But it’s already happening. Instead of asking how they can help prevent further incidents, some people are closing ranks in defense of Wesleyan fraternities because the conversation has focused so much on the way in which fraternity environments facilitate sexual violence. Instead of encouraging fraternity brothers to take further initiative to change the culture, the most recent talk on campus has been whether or not to ban fraternities entirely. I am no fan of fraternities or fraternity culture, but I don’t think that doing away with fraternities will alone do away with sexual violence on this campus.
Some of us may be aware, either through posts on WesACB or perhaps through the numerous conversations that have started on campus, that the conversation about sexual assault here on campus is incredibly difficult for survivors because it is so triggering. Even the very words “sexual assault,” “rape,” and “sexual violence” are enough to trigger unwanted responses. People handle trauma in different ways, but almost no one deals well with unexpectedly confronting a direct reminder of a traumatic experience. It is incredibly difficult to hold a conversation about such a volatile issue; it is harder still to create a safe space in which to hold that conversation.
When it comes to action, no one holds as much power as the University administration itself. The University’s distinct voice should be a major focus of any prevention efforts on campus, yet there has largely been silence. Despite years of reports of incidents and a recent groundswell that has drawn attention to the rape culture on campus and the ways in which our community needs to improve our responses to incidents, President Michael Roth has written exactly one email, worded generally, to our community, in which only students and alumni were included. He has known about prevention efforts at Wesleyan for a long time; he has worked with Alysha Warren, the one staff member who has been hired specifically to focus on these issues. Roth knows that the most recent lawsuit is just one part of a much larger issue, and he holds the authority to make a drastic institutional change. He needs to make that choice in order for us to effectively address this issue as a community.
Right now, our main problem in addressing activist issues has been that we do not view most of these issues as problems that affect all of us. An incident of sexual violence on campus is not perceived as an act of aggression that traumatizes our whole community and reflects poorly on us; it’s just an isolated event that has come to pass, one that people can dismiss as a fringe element of our culture, the product of a few bad seeds. Until we shift our attention and decide to act upon this problem as a whole community, there will still be groups of activists, groups of survivors, and groups of concerned parents and alumni fighting separately to bring attention to this issue. It will not be a school-wide effort, and because the institution itself has not taken concrete steps and the community has not rallied around this issue, we will not be successful in prevention campaigns.
We all are Wesleyan, and we need to come together to have a passionate and responsible conversation about how to improve our community. For the success of that conversation, we must all have an equal voice, and we must take care that each person consents to the dialogue and the manner in which it occurs. It’s an incredibly difficult task, but it’s necessary to affect real changes.
Alperstein is a member of the class of 2014.