We’ve started the conversation on sexual assault and rape, but we’re good at forgetting to follow up on those important conversations.
I want to say the conversation started with a panel aimed to address masculinity earlier this semester. The panel featured a few men of color and it intended to make this issue urgent to the male population at Vassar. Sure, people came out by the numbers, but how many were willing, much less ready, to listen to painful truths that included the ways men had been complicit in allowing sexual violence to continue?
At this point, I want to recognize that it is incredibly difficult to talk about sexual assault and rape within marginalized communities, especially in institutions that have (re)victimized members of said communities. The percentage of unreported cases of sexual assault is 60 percent, and that number is only higher among survivors of color.
I wanted to praise the men for taking the initiative to continue to educate, partially because I wanted to celebrate people of color thriving in predominantly white spaces in society. That being said, I wanted to push the conversation more, particularly because I wanted someone to disrupt the narrative of the white heterosexual woman as the survivor. I wanted to ask the panelists to address specifically how they have failed their sisters of color and what steps they were taking to keep pushing themselves.
I yearned for more answers from people, but was afraid to ask for fear I would be airing out dirty laundry; I was afraid I would be the only one feeling like the conversation had gone nowhere.
I want to say the conversation started the night I was walking with my friend back home in the Bronx. He had just picked me up from the subway station and, as always, he insisted on carrying my book bag for me as he escorted me home. We usually take the long way, always exchanging stories, shrieks of laughter amongst the sound of subway carts on elevated train tracks. I traded anecdotes of college life, while he shared tidbits of his day-to-day life. Even though he towers over me, he is still a few years younger than I am. On this particular night, he shared with me that he was interested in taking a girl he had recently met around the town out on a date because he was “bored.”
The moment the word “bored” fell out my friend’s lips, I stopped right in my tracks. He didn’t really understand what I meant when I explained why I was unhappy with his words, fuming inside.
But in a way, how could he? Everything around us in our culture constantly sends the message that women are not on the same playing field as men. I had grown accustomed to men escorting me everywhere, especially after that time I was 14 and a group of drunk Yankees fans in their early 30s described the sorts of things they’d do to me, blaming me for looking older than I actually was. My anger did not mean shit when it was being drowned out by louder messages.
I ended up telling my friend that I did not want him to be a jerk to the women in his life. I wanted him to always ask for consent. I do not want him to be socializing the way many around me are, but I was afraid to tell him my reasons why.
I want to say the conversation started those times I saw my peers freeze up at the moment I mention sexual assault awareness. I imagine that they freeze up not because they are apathetic, though their silence reeks of it. A part of me wishes I didn’t need to be the person to bring up elephants in the room. I end up feeling like a hot scalding light is burning toward my cheeks whenever the room falls quiet. The silence is so piercing; you can hear people start to shut down one by one, wheels once churning coming to a grinding halt. Whenever people start disengaging, I almost wish I could take back whatever I said and make people feel comfortable again.
Somewhere, somehow, the conversation started, but what ended up happening is that we stayed quiet. I did not (and still do not) want to seem like I was attacking men of color. There was also a part of me that didn’t want to understand why talking about sexual assault and rape wasn’t as urgent of an issue for some. Was I just overreacting? It felt like I was being gaslit over and over. There have been many times where I could have said more or been more vocal; perhaps times I should have said more. Silence only begets more silence, and no one wants to talk to a room full of bad listeners.
Whatever it was, somewhere down the line, the conversation stopped.
Just as this issue goes beyond Vassar, rape culture isn’t exclusive to certain groups. We should not be afraid to complicate our understanding of rape culture. Although I have been speaking to my experience as a woman of color, anti-rape organizing work should interrogate all aspects of survivors’ identities—no one narrative can capture the nuances of survivors’ experiences.
I know these conversations will not end in the near future. As hard as one may try to sweep talk of sexual violence under the rug of society like dust bunnies, it only piles up. I do want these conversations to continue well beyond Sexual Assault Awareness Month and well beyond the small circles that are already talking about this. More importantly, I want us to be ready to listen when it’s needed the most.
—Susie Martinez ’15 is an urban studies major.