It is never justified to blame the victim

Katien and Katien

“What happened last night?” is a phrase that sets the morning-after scene of popular movies like “Dude, Where’s My Car?” and “The Hangover.” Following the characters as they retrace their forgotten steps proves hilarious time and again. Uncovering the mystery surrounding the night before has become rather formulaic and led to many successful comedies. But sometimes, this question isn’t so funny. Sometimes, it can be downright frightening. 

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In order to keep the University aware, the Wellness Connection, the Student Wellness Network and the Office of the Dean of Students joined forces to create a mock sexual assault student disciplinary hearing. Demonstrating the role of the University Disciplinary Committee (UDC) and their involvement with students who infringe upon the rights of others, the mock hearing gave viewers a taste of how their decisions are made. This educational experience was advertised as “What happened last night?” to attract an audience and then illustrate three very important points.

First, beyond the legal repercussions, there may be academic consequences as well. The UDC can suspend or even expel a student found responsible for sexual assault. Second, Ohio law says clear, verbal, unimpaired consent needs to be given for sexual activity. Basically, the word yes must be spoken by a sober individual. And third, victim-blaming will not hold up in any courtroom. 

What do I mean by victim-blaming? This term refers to the idea that an attack can be justified as the fault of the recipient. We’re all familiar with the rationalization that a victim of rape was somehow asking for it, but here is where societal perception differs from the law. Never does any expression of an individual’s sexuality warrant sexual violence.

Society has a tendency to excuse the sexual transgressions of a male assailant. He “can’t control himself,” which then places all responsibility on the female victim, who should have been more careful. Because most women are raped by men they know, “being careful” would require not having any male acquaintances. If a woman insists on interacting with men, she should never do so alone. 

Eventually, this line of thinking becomes completely ridiculous. These attitudes are also unfair and degrading to both men and women. For instance, the fictional students in the mock trial were named Brian and Angela. They were in a class together, became friends, and then decided to go out one night. But, because all men are predatory animals, Angela should have known better than to trust Brian. Obviously, she was asking for it. So the only way to avoid the inevitable, when adhering to victim-blaming, is to live in total gender segregation. 

Other forms of “asking for it” include dressing like a slut, being a slut or acting like a slut. The mock hearing verified that allusions to any of these will be immediately over-ruled. “What was she wearing?” got shot down because the detail is irrelevant when determining responsibility for a sexual assault. Clothing will never be taken into consideration during a disciplinary hearing or a criminal trial. And for the record, a woman’s sexual history does not play a role in finding fault either. 

The “dick tease” defense is unfounded as well. She could have danced provocatively, made suggestive comments and even invited the perpetrator into her home. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is if she said yes.

And the absence of the word no does not leave room for inference. The only time a woman is asking for it is when she uses her words to literally ask for it.

And let me now emphasize the importance of asking. Asking is the only sure way to obtain consent. During the mock hearing, Brian said he asked Angela if he could kiss her. She said yes and he appeared to believe that gave him permission to proceed beyond kissing.  But consent for first, second or even third base does not mean it’s cool to slide home. 

Brian didn’t ask and Angela didn’t say no, but she didn’t say yes either. However, she did tell him she was uncomfortable. His conclusion was that he should proceed even after she resisted because society teaches girls to act like they’re not interested in sex when they really are. Trust me. If she’s interested, she’ll let you know. Playing hard to get is so last century.

But the moral of the mock hearing isn’t simply that Brian is a jerk. As critical thinkers, we must recognize that accepting essentialist ideologies about gender are what got him into trouble. Women are not naturally submissive and men are not naturally aggressive, and both are perfectly capable of expressing their interest (or lack thereof) in one another to one another. The secret to a healthy and enjoyable sex life is simply saying what you mean and meaning what you say. It’s the only way to guarantee your needs will be met. 

The bottom line is, if you’re ready to have sex, you have to be ready to talk about it. Don’t assume you are accurately picking up on someone else’s signals. And if you’re too uncomfortable to bring it up, just think how uncomfortable you’ll be in a real disciplinary hearing, when the committee is asking “what happened last night?” and you’re not so sure yourself.

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