By John Bogdal
On Feb. 5, Sewanee was visited by Farhana Loonat, a graduate student from Vanderbilt University who is currently in the process of completing her Ph.D. in political theory. Loonat is also a candidate for a sabbatical replacement position here at Sewanee. The purpose of Loonat’s visit was to give a presentation entitled “The Shame Barrier” in which Loonat posed the question, “Why is it that even within liberal societies where women have access to institutions of justice do these institutions not guarantee them access to justice?” As a prime example of such an injustice that goes highly overlooked, Loonat brought up the issue of campus rape, an ubiquitous problem across the entire American university spectrum.
One such recent example of this problem is a case at Notre Dame University where campus police failed to investigate a report made by female student Lizzy Seeberg, who was raped by a football player. Their lack of effort in settling the matter combined with another football player’s threatening texts, lead Lizzy Seeberg to eventually take her own life in despair and shame. While this sounds absolutely appalling, the sad truth is that these kinds of situations go on all over American campuses, even right here at Sewanee.
Concerning these and other similar situations of campus rape across America, Loonat asked imploringly why these victims of rape received such inadequate assistance from campus officials and from others within university administrations. While most of us think our universities do their utmost to protect their students, Loonat pointed out that college women are three times more likely to be raped than women outside of college. In fact, twenty to twenty-five percent of college women report having been sexually violated during their college careers. However, as Loonat explained further, because of underreporting, that is, women because of fear and shame keeping their rape experiences hidden, the statistics could be much higher. One study of 650 college women revealed that forty-two percent of them reported having been sexually assaulted at least once throughout their college years. So why is this disturbing problem so widespread yet so downplayed in the public sphere?
Loonat believes the root of the problem to be cultural. One of the culprits she pointed to was the cult of masculinity. American men tend to think that by sleeping with lots of women or by making sexist jokes that they will somehow accrue deference and prestige from their male peers. Such behavior makes American men tend to see rape as a tolerable, or even justifiable means of pursuing this paragon of sexual dominance. Another problem Loonat identifies is American society’s perspective on female clothing. American women find themselves in a real crisis when it comes to what American society deems acceptable for women to wear. If a woman’s skirt is “too short” she risks being called a slut or a whore, and may even be blamed for “asking for it” if she is raped. On the other hand, wear an outfit that covers your entire body and risk being called a prude. What we are left with is a society that expects women to dress both modestly and revealingly, and the distinction between these two has become so arbitrary that if ever a woman is raped, no matter how modest a dresser she may be, the first question asked is “well maybe you shouldn’t have gone out dressed like that.” The concern should not be on the woman’s attire but on the fact that she has just been brutally victimized!
But if this problem is so widespread, why is it that we usually don’t hear about it? Well, Loonat believes universities tend to cover up such instances of campus rape because of the fear that they will bring negative publicity and prevent people from coming to their school. The deception is quite deep, and Loonat even brought up the example of a rape victim from Amherst University who had been to see her university’s sexual assault counselor. Rather than advise the woman to go to the police and have the man arrested, the counselor instead advised the victim not to pursue legal action because the rapist was a senior about to graduate and even questioned the victim concerning rape saying “are you sure it wasn’t just a bad hook up?” Questions like these, Loonat says, blur the distinction between sex and rape, causing the victim of rape to doubt whether or not she is even a victim. Instead, she is shamed so as to avoid any confrontation and the issue is covered up. Victims of rape seem to have absolutely no place to turn to for help and support.
So what can we do to put an end to these discriminatory practices going within our own universities? Well, as Loonat points out, the best approach is a bottom-up approach. Start by spreading awareness amongst your friends and family, and eventually people will be hard-pressed to listen. As Loonat herself writes, “When we recognize gender discriminatory behavior we should point it out in the various contexts within which we encounter it. We should also build alliances with others that will allow us to challenge these behaviors more forcefully. In this way we can aspire to changing the discriminatory norms in our society.”