Discussions of Sexual Assault Shouldn’t Always Be PC

I agree with all the principles of this campaign, and I’m glad there has been so much recent discussion about sexual assault at Haverford and the school’s ways of approaching it. I also support the parts of the letter to the Deans that are directed toward the Deans and toward the community. Still, whenever I read through the letter, I can’t help but wince at the part that calls on the faculty and students.

The letter calls for “academic discussions of sexual violence that recognize there may be survivors present.” I’m afraid this could create an atmosphere in which people feel they cannot express all their thoughts on sexual assault and rape. As long as the discussion remains respectful, I don’t believe any thought should be put into whether or not survivors are present.

This issue matters a lot to me. I am a survivor of both rape and sexual assault, and I know there are many others at Haverford. But I certainly don’t want people to take that into account when talking about sexual violence around or with me. I want to hear all opinions on the issue, including those I don’t agree with, those that frame me as a “victim,” even those that say what happened to me was my own fault. Likewise, I don’t want people who respond to this post to think, “uh-oh. She’s a survivor. I better watch what I say.” All opinions should enter into the discussion. Otherwise, how can we respond to those we believe are misled?

Haverford should foster an atmosphere in which students and faculty feel open to express their thoughts. Yes, everyone should express their opinions in a respectful and sensitive way, but people should not bite their tongues because they are afraid of offending someone in the room.


3 thoughts on “Discussions of Sexual Assault Shouldn’t Always Be PC

  1. We wrote that section right after I and several other members of SOAR had been triggered in two different classes, so the issues were coming from a very specific frame for us. The line you’re concerned about is specifically designed to emphasize the importance of having trigger warnings and being as respectful as you would in any conversation about sensitive subject matter. People can say whatever they want as long as I’m warned.

    Not everyone wants to be “out” as a survivor of sexual assault or rape. Here’s what I wrote shortly after I was triggered in class, in response to a different professor who didn’t get it:

    I walked out of class when I was triggered by a discussion of sexual violence. I didn’t start crying until after I left the room, but I was visibly upset while I was there. I wasn’t “out” to my class, and I didn’t want to be. As I perceived it, my options were necessarily constrained by my physical/emotional response:

    1. Start crying in class, outing myself as a survivor.
    2. Leave class, also outing myself as a survivor.

    While there is very much a choice as to whether or not to participate in a discussion or even to stay in a classroom, that choice is not one that allows you to stay anonymous as a survivor if you react visibly. My body didn’t give me that option.

    I’m “out” now, but I made that choice for myself. I think we as survivors have a right to trigger warnings, and I don’t think that they’ll happen unless people realize that there might be survivors in the room.

  2. Not to be nitpick-y, but in response to your saying you are a survivor of “both rape and sexual assault,” I would like to assert that rape is a type of sexual assault, not something separate from it. I too am a survivor of rape, but I prefer to use the phrase “sexual assault” when talking about myself, because it is emotionally difficult for me to verbally articulate the word “rape.”

    This correction might seem insignificant, but the reality is that society often acts as if the word “rape” means something “heavier” or “more serious” than does the phrase “sexual assault.” I think it is important we reject this misunderstanding and misuse of terminology so that people respect the voices of, and don’t make assumptions about, survivors, no matter what terminology they choose to use.

    In response to the main point of your post, I am not a fan of the silencing nature of Haverford’s PC mandate either, but I did not interpret “academic discussions of sexual violence that recognize there may be survivors present” to mean that people must censor themselves. Actually, I thought one of the campaign posters, “Rape is not just an academic discussion to me,” voiced this same point well. Rape is often discussed in the classroom in the same way as The Black Plague or the Rwandan Genocide*: as something really horrible that caused unimaginable suffering, but from which we are all removed by multiple degrees of separation. This automatically limits the discussion to a third-person perspective, which silences anyone who might have a first-person perspective. It also perpetuates the myth and misconception that rape doesn’t happen at Haverford. God knows society does enough silencing and re-victimizing already; I think the petition’s point was that survivors shouldn’t have to also deal with being silenced in the classroom, on top of it all.

    Also, I would argue that any statement implying your sexual assault was your own fault is not respectful. I believe that no one should have the responsibility of teaching the willfully ignorant how they are denying others’ humanity. I suppose that is also my indignant response to your question, “how can we respond to those we believe are misled?” People need to take responsibility for the weight carried and potential damage done by their words.

    *If there is anyone at Haverford who is a survivor, or has family members who are, of the Rwandan genocide, I apologize for implying otherwise. As I have not yet met any survivors of the Rwandan genocide here, I assumed there are much, much fewer of those than there are survivors of sexual assault; however, I certainly do not want you to feel silenced or invisible.

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