The approach to tackling the sexual violence epidemic is typically separated into two branches on campuses: prevention and response. Both are crucial elements of addressing this issue. So why do we divert the majority of our time and resources into prevention? It is clearly to the detriment of sexual violence response efforts, noting the limited resources available to combat sexual violence.
The simple answer is that our preventative efforts are not, in many cases, preventative. We do what is easy without listening to survivors or research. We do what we want to do, not what the situation calls for. The overwhelming majority of post-secondary sexual violence prevention campaigns rely on the assumption that sexually violent people do not know that they are being sexually violent. The idea that the man who continued his violence as I begged him to stop would see a poster reading “no means no” and have some sort of B-movie epiphany is laughable and frankly disrespectful.
In my case, as in many others, the assailant knew what he was doing was wrong. He knew in that moment he was a rapist. If someone begging you to stop doing something isn’t enough to make you second-guess your actions, the problem is not ignorance but malice. What do we do, then, to prevent the malicious from ruining the lives of the best and brightest?
Respond. When someone chooses to rape, to grope, to violate someone’s boundaries — to be sexually violent — they should know that there would be swift and proportionate consequences. They should never think for a moment that no one would believe their victim. They should never feel like their community will stay silent even when they know the evil that has been committed. They should never know that their victim, in seeking help from the community, will be shamed and embarrassed and disrespected all while sparkly posters cover the walls of the institution that has failed them. If basic human empathy is not enough to keep that malice in check, social convention, law and policies from relevant institutions should step up for once and try to fulfill that role. If an institution claims to stand with survivors, it needs to do so in more than just words. It needs to understand the social role it plays in regulating behaviour. It needs to develop values and stick to them.
To speak colloquially, institutions need to grow a pair and prioritize the health and wellness of the community over whatever flimsy reason it is that keeps rapists on campus. It is within their scope to remove a sexually violent person from campus should a thorough investigation find they are more likely than not in breach of that institution’s sexual assault and harassment policies.
Yet, even in cases of egregious violence and disregard for human life, we often do not remove rapists. We do not take away the access to vulnerable people we have given to them on a silver platter. We silence survivors. We tell those who question our surface level prevention campaigns that this is how we stop sexual violence, that the experiences of survivors are worthless and that a handful of professionals who have never been where these victims stand know better. We tell victims whose assailants remain free to cause harm however they choose across the campus where security cameras are but refuse to simply exercise a right we hold to remove the threat. What message does that send? That we only care about survivors if they are harmed again? That all survivors can do is try to be harmed where a camera can catch it?
If a survivor comes to us and tells us what they have been through, the bare minimum we can do is listen. They should not feel that they have to be the perfect, virtuous victim who is only reporting to prevent future harm — they should be able to report what happened to them because it was unacceptable in and of itself. They should be able to be angry.
If a survivor is harmed again on campus, it does not mean they are finally worth listening to. It means we failed to keep them safe, failed to respond the first time. It means we failed.