Sexual Assault Awareness: Not Just a Month

How do we end rape culture? We have to make sure these messages of change reach everyone within our campus communities, not just feminist activists and allies.
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This week marks the beginning of sexual assault awareness month for campuses and communities across the nation. For many, it is a month marked by guest speakers, consent workshops and Take Back the Night. For those of us on college campuses, where one in four women are raped, sexual assault awareness cannot end on April 30.

Preventing sexual assault takes more than giving women whistles or self-defense training. It takes more than safe-ride programs, well-lit streets and emergency blue phones lining college quadrangles. Among college women, nine in 10 survivors of sexual assault knew their attacker previously and only about 5 percent of rapes are reported to law enforcement. What is needed is a serious shift in the current culture that pervades our campuses, where girls who wear short skirts and tight shirts at parties are "asking for it" and where guys "score" when they have sex with extremely intoxicated girls at parties.

We aren't going to be able to change rape culture in a single month. Do not get me wrong; I think that sexual assault awareness month is a great way of raising the profile of sexual assault issues on campus and educating the public. But I think that everyone has an imperative to continue working to eradicate sexual assault throughout the year.

So here is the million-dollar question: How do we end rape culture? I think that the only obvious answer is that there is no one easy, obvious answer, and it will not be a fast transition. We have to change the prevailing narrative of masculinity, which currently revolves around roles of dominance and sexual conquest. We have to promote a culture of consent and encourage critical thought of the roles that parties and alcohol play in forming sexual relationships. And we have to make sure these messages of change reach everyone within our campus communities, not just feminist activists and allies.

How do we get our messages of change out in the public? It's not as simple as telling people that rape is bad. According to Daniel Rappaport, Sexual Assault Prevention Coordinator at my school, American University, "You cannot change a culture by saying 'this is wrong,' saying that this is how it has got to be, but rather through education, broadening perspectives and meeting people where they're at." That means not necessarily using language that I could find in my gender studies courses, like "patriarchy" and "systems of oppression," but rather helping people (usually men) understand that sexual assault is a serious issue that affects them and the people that they care for and love.

This can be done through groups such as Men of Strength, the campus affiliate of Men Can Stop Rape, which engages men and boys in critical examinations of masculinity in middle school through college. There is also the potential for high-profile male feminist speakers on campus, such as Don McPherson, NCAA football hall of famer and pro-feminist activist, who recently came to my campus to speak to students about the problems with derogatory language in an event called "You Throw Like a Girl." What made this event so successful is the fact that all members of campus sports teams, fraternities and sororities were mandated to come to the event. With such large turnout, there was a huge opportunity for his message to reach those who would not normally come to an event about critical masculinity, and McPherson was able to reach these athletes, fraternity brothers and sorority sisters not as an academic, but as a NCAA hall of famer.

When it comes down to the struggle against sexual assault on campus, every little bit helps. Every person who realizes that we live in a society dominated by hegemonic masculinity and joins the fight against it is a victory. Every sexual assault survivor who becomes empowered to speak out and support other survivors is a victory. However, we cannot lose sight of the ultimate victory: eradicating sexual assault and replacing our current rape culture with a culture of consent. But this goal will not be achieved unless we continue to have conversations, programs and events not just in April, but during every month of the year.

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