An Open Letter to Those Who Have Been Called Out for 'Joking' About Sexual Violence

I've struggled a lot with how to respond -- both personally and politically -- to the tragic death of Grace Mann, the woman who was found bound and choked to death at the University of Mary Washington earlier this Spring. Earlier in the semester, Feminists United (of which Mann was a member) handed over a tape to the UMW administration of a song chanted by the men's rugby team that glorified violence against women. Feminists United also published an op-ed in the school newspaper challenging what they saw as systematic threats of violence and aggression toward women on campus, including anonymous threats against feminists on the popular anonymous social media platform Yik Yak. Although no direct link has been made between these threats and Mann's death, Mann's commitment to feminist and LGBTQ activism has featured prominently in news stories about the case, as well as vitriolic responses by men's rights groups arguing that her death was the inevitable result of the unwillingness of feminists to learn that "misandry is not a joke" (Mike Oelke's original post on the Tumblr blog Feminism is a Fraud appears to have been removed, but others remain).

One of my first teaching jobs was at Mary Washington -- for two years in the early 2000s teaching Anthropology and an interdisciplinary Queer Studies course -- so this story hit me hard. As a woman who received similar threats when I was an undergraduate, I could have been Grace Mann. In the mid-1990s, at New College in Florida, I helped to organize a Sexual Violence Awareness week, during which we made a space for survivors to post about their experiences with sexual violence on a prominent wall in the College cafeteria. We also hung posters inviting the campus community to participate in a "Take Back the Night"-style walk through campus and a bonfire to honor those who had experienced sexual violence.

Shortly afterward, I received an anonymous note in my mailbox. It read "When the pigs are away, you better watch out... " and called the stories by survivors of violence -- public testimonies, mostly anonymous, of sexual assault, child abuse and rape, posted by both men and women -- "all lies and fabrications." Despite the 20-some years that have passed, I remember this note, even it's exact wording, like I read it yesterday ...

When I took it to the campus police at the time, the two male officers laughed. Yes, literally laughed. They told me I was overreacting to think that the note was a credible threat. Who calls cops "pigs," anyway? The note must have been referring to livestock. Their words still ring in my ears, "Just lay low for a while and it will all blow over. And try to tone it down a little." What was I to tone down?! The acknowledgement that members of our campus community had experienced sexual violence -- on campus, in their homes, as children?! I was scared, but also honestly confused about why offering survivors a space to write and talk about their experiences would generate such a vile and menacing response.

These kinds of threats are NOT a joke, and it is time that college and university administrations and campus police (all police, really) stop considering them as such. Luckily, I was never assaulted by this anonymous letter writer (or writers). But you can be sure that I never again walked alone on campus at night, and I varied the routes I took to class and other events for the rest of my final semester there.

It is also important to remember that this kind of threat -- even when the violence is not actualized -- stays with you, long after the immediate danger is gone. In fact, it is irresponsible to overlook the aftermath of sexual violence and harassment -- how our behavior and alertness is permanently altered -- which can be as damaging as the actual act(s) itself. This is a consequence that remains largely invisible to others. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned, even about the consequences of writing an op-ed like this. Will it open me to additional harassment? Will it cause me more fear and anxiety?

Twenty years later, I work at another small liberal arts college, as an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) at the College of Wooster in Ohio. I rarely admit it to colleagues and students, but I still get nervous when tensions flare on campus regarding issues of sexual assault and violence. Several years ago, for instance, a campus fraternity performed a song at a well-attended lip-syncing event that depicted the gang rape of a girl who had passed out after drinking (enacted by a member of the group wearing an ill-fitting dress). Many students, staff, and faculty in attendance were deeply offended. The fraternity members maintained that the performance was meant as a "joke," intended to poke fun at their members' widespread reputation for date raping women on campus. Several students brought the event to the attention of College administrators, who I'm glad to say did take it seriously. Some (though certainly not all) of those who were vocal against the "joking" about violence against women were WGSS majors.

As WGSS Chair, I immediately became the focus of an aggressive campaign by members of the fraternity and their friends. I received emails, calls and had groups of men stop by my office to ask what I could do to make sure that their group was not disbanded by the College administration. I explained that I hadn't been at the event, nor had I filed any of the complaints, nor was I a member of the judicial board that would hear their case. Still, they felt that as WGSS Chair, I should "call off the feminists who couldn't take a joke." Simulating violence against women is NOT a joke! Although I never received any overt threats as a faculty member (though several of my students told me they did), I became very conscious that year about never walking home alone, never staying in my office after other colleagues had left, and I advised my students to be similarly careful.

Although we all remained safe (at least this time), such a cautious response should not be necessary, for anyone. No one should have to be constantly vigilant about who is around them, or afraid to walk unaccompanied.

What bothers me the most about my experiences, exposed viscerally again in my emotional response to the tragic death of Grace Mann, is that over the past 20 years, I see little difference in how we -- as a society and in many campus communities -- are responding to sexual violence and threats of violence. Many continue to see violence as an essential part of masculinity and adopt the naïve (and often dangerous) stance that "boys will be boys." In the hopes of building better and more informed conversations in the future, I have a few concrete suggestions to offer those who have been called out for "joking" about sexual violence:

1. Stop blaming the people who report misogynistic behavior. They are not at fault for being offended by chants or performances that glorify rape or violence. Instead, stop the behavior! Yes, they may be the ones calling you out, exposing a side of yourself that you don't want to see (or maybe acknowledge). But it is YOU who control whether you put out those messages in the first place.

2. Don't be complicit. Don't sit quietly when others tell jokes or engage in behaviors that promote sexual violence. If you don't feel safe challenging them alone, talk to friends you trust. Confront them together. Refuse to participate. Send a strong message that you don't agree with glorifying violence against any group.

3. Listen and Support. Listen to those around you who have been victims of violence and support them. They may not want to talk, or even have the words, but when/if they do, lend an ear and make yourself knowledgeable about support resources in your area -- campus counseling services, victim's/survivor's advocacy organizations, safe houses in your community. Become an advocate for survivors and support their efforts to reduce the fear and anxiety they may continue to experience.

4. Engage in campus and community efforts against violence. Encourage college and university administrations, campus and community police and others to take threats of violence seriously. If that means providing students added protection, instituting programs to provide escorts for students, et cetera, support this important work. Better yet, volunteer to be involved. It is never OK for authorities to dismiss someone's concern that she, he or they might be at risk. Speak up, support those who may not feel like they can speak out themselves.

5. And lastly, Organize a campus or community event to speak out. At the College of Wooster, students, including several fraternities, were instrumental in organizing a rally following the performance detailed above. They drew together hundreds of students, staff, and faculty to listen to campus speakers and sign a pledge to end violence and harassment on campus. Be proactive, not reactive, especially when what may have originally been meant as a joke (or some friends got "carried away" with a misogynistic rant/performance/song/whatever) becomes decidedly unfunny. Your reaction following a challenge to your behavior (or the behavior of members in a group you are affiliated with) is really the truest test of your integrity, as well as your ability to admit a mistake or poor judgment and endeavor to make something better come out of it. It will only be when the majority of us start to take violence seriously, that we will see an end to the fear and shame that so many survivors continue to carry with them.