By Chris Sick
When asked to write this piece, my first response was “I’m not the right person for the job.” The editor, C. Craig Patterson, had asked me to write about how sexual assaults have become a huge part of college life for female students. For any number of reasons, I’m obviously not the right person for this job. There’s no shortage of women who can speak as eloquently and informed, if not more so, than I can about these issues, while also speaking from personal experience.
Certainly there is no shortage of talented women writers here at Columbia University where the editor and I know one another. Studies have consistently shown that one-in-five female students will experience a sexual assault during their college careers. To be a man on a college campus today means that you almost certainly know at least one woman who has lived through a sexual assault.
I suggested that a woman, virtually any woman, might be better suited to building a brief case for why sexual assault isn’t just widespread, but on college campuses is part of the college experience. The answer was pretty simple: “this audience won’t hear that message coming from a woman.”
I wanted to argue the point, but truth be told, I don’t see a lot of evidence to counter it. The truth is, that’s the entire problem. We’ve got a whole society that doesn’t want to treat women as fully human, and not hearing them out is probably among the less-lethal examples of that bigger problem.
It isn’t like women haven’t and aren’t speaking up about these issues. Whether it’s journalists and opinion writers on the receiving end of death and rape threats, video game critics being threatened with mass shootings at public appearances, or an artist threatened with death for mocking men who send her unsolicited nude photos…women quite literally are risking death to tell people about their experiences.
But instead of them, you get me.
It isn’t like I’m uniquely qualified for the job. The facts are all over the Internet, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies to the recent announcement from the United Nation’s World Heath Organization that violence against women is a worldwide epidemic. If you can manage a Google search, you can educate yourself on these issues as well or better than I can in the space of a 1,000-word article.
But that signal often is lost in the noise of a national debate focused on whether these issues matter at all. Because there exists an entire industry of analysts, journalists, opinion-makers, and talking heads who want to tell you why there’s nothing to see here. Why the numbers are wrong, the statistics are misleading, the victims are unconvincing, or that the entire problem is not sexual assaults and women’s rights, but rather that we let them out of the kitchen and onto the campus in the first place.
If those arguments sound appealing or persuasive to you, there’s likely little I can write that will change your mind. Put simply, you’re already lost. But there’s a far greater risk to a disingenuous national debate that reduces real issues any reasonable society might have a moral investment in solving into mere political points to be scored or lost in advance of midterm elections.
Reducing an issue that ought to be a moral imperative down to the level of stupidity required for endless cable news debate has real, significant costs. Most simply, it allows those not directly touched by the issue to look away. To find some reason to opt out of the debate, or retreat into a comfortable apathy: “Hey, it’s not my issue.”
But the numbers can tell you the lie of that. It’s 7 a.m. as I type away at this, trying to stay comfortable hunched over the keyboard in the corner of a student lounge on the campus I share with nearly 30,000 other students. Looking over the other students getting an early morning start on midterm studying, I do a quick estimate. The numbers suggest to me that at least two of the 10 women in the room have been sexually assaulted. It’s a depressing experiment, but regardless, it’s one I encourage you to repeat, because it doesn’t matter if we’re talking student lounges, METRO cars, Saturday night singles bars, or wherever else. Inside of college or out, the numbers of violence, sexual assault, and rape against women is staggeringly high.
And my job is to convince you not to look away from those facts. As depressing as the statistics are, the fact that there’s a need for someone to draw your attention to them at all should be even more so. The fact that there are efforts in mainstream media to discredit these facts, to distort and spin or explain them away is downright disturbing. Behind and below these reasonable sounding voices lurk men willing to declare their contempt for women, either behind the anonymity of the Internet or when safely in a pack of like-thinking men.
As I’ve said, I don’t expect to move you if you firmly believe that women aren’t deserving of equal rights, or that issues of sexual assaults on campus are attributable to women drinking too much or dressing too revealingly. You’re already lost and I’ve very little hope I, or anyone else, can bring you back. But if you’re just on the sidelines, if you’re sitting out the fight, I’m here to tell you it’s your fight, too.
Not simply because of the staggering numbers, not because of the tired old appeal that each victim could be your mother, sister, lover, wife, daughter. But because each predator could be your friends, your brothers, your father, it could easily be you, reading this right now.
And of course, I’m speaking to men, because the statistics show that, by and large, it is the men who are the perpetrators of violence and rape. Women can – and do – avoid drinking too much, consider what they wear, plan routes to avoid catcalling, wear special nail polish, defensive underwear, or learn martial arts and how to use a gun. But it isn’t enough, and so long as men anywhere are sitting by on the sidelines thinking it’s not their issue, it never will be. It never will be enough until men, en masse, change how they think and feel about women. And the only place to start is to promise not to look away.