Recently, my politically vocal friend expressed her surprise in response to my apparent apathy toward the high-profile coverage of sexual assault cases on campus and around the country. I didn’t have the heart to explain to her how physically and mentally draining all this news has been. For some of us, the bombardment of allegations is overwhelming. Should we feel relief in knowing we aren’t alone? Is it wrong to find comfort in the fact that others have suffered? How do we know who to trust, especially if our own experiences have left us distrustful of others? How can we address our respective traumas on our own terms when we can’t even escape others’ stories on our Twitter feeds, at our dinner conversations, and in our dorm rooms?
Finally having an open, campus-wide discussion is a crucial step forward for efforts to end sexual assault and harassment. It can, however, impede that same objective by pressuring survivors to come forward, treating survivors differently based on their specific circumstances, or telling survivors that there exists a “right” or a “wrong” way to deal with trauma. Remember that, statistically, as a college student, you are surrounded by people who most likely have had similar encounters with harassment and/or assault—but you don’t always know about it.
While it’s important to discuss the sexual climate on college campuses and other spaces, it is also important that we don’t subject sexual assault and harassment survivors to a bombardment of unwanted memories or harsh judgments. For example, a friend told me about an instance when someone, whom she considered a friend, bashed survivors of sexual assault. That friend was unaware that one was present in the room, hearing all of his insults and internalizing them. Many people I know have dealt with some type of sexual harassment or assault. It’s gotten to the point where I’m not even surprised anymore to hear yet another account. The society we live in has normalized sexual misconduct to the point where it’s just another headline, another mealtime conversation.
I remember the first time I told one of my male friends about the harassment I’ve faced after a particular encounter in which he was enraged by another guy’s behavior toward me. He expressed his shock, compounded by my nonchalance towards the litany of harassment I’ve endured over the years. I realized then that I’ve become detached from these situations out of pure necessity. The conversations about sexual misconduct surround me and, for my own sanity, I can’t have a deep, personal stake in them.
At Yale, it feels like there’s another DKE headline every day. Campus conversations revolve around the investigation into (and subsequent reopening of) DKE, the Khan trial’s outcome, and other ways the university has seemingly failed to protect women on campus. There are, however, other steps we can take as students to prevent this from happening in the first place. We can change the campus climate, not only by having open dialogue but also by respecting individual desires not to talk about the omnipresent problems that are too personal for some. We can give people space. Let them come forward on their own terms. But when people do come forward, we can treat them with respect and offer them support.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about sexual assault on campus. I’m saying we should all be more mindful of what we say while still understanding why some people might not always want to talk about it. So, be mindful when discussing the climate of sexual assault on campus; you may be talking to someone unfortunately all too familiar with it.