Changing the Conversation: The Need for an Anarchist Lens on Campus Sexual Assault

Part 1 in an Agency series: Confronting Sexual Assault on Campus

In May, despite administrative efforts to prevent her from doing so, Emma Sulkowicz, a former Columbia University student dragged the mattress where she was allegedly raped by fellow student, Jean-Paul Nungesser, onto the commencement stage.

Known for working to raise awareness about sexual assault on campus, Sulkowicz had been carrying the mattress around in protest of the university’s dismissive treatment of her claims since Fall 2014. Lee Bollinger, University President, turned his back on her, refusing to shake her hand.

Prior to this, counter-protestors posted signs around campus discrediting her story. Sulkowicz was also subject to widespread media coverage that was equally flippant and callous. Ultimately, not only did the University disciplinary board rule against her, but shortly thereafter, they also dropped charges against Nungesser brought on by still another student. This made it the fourth time Nungesser was cleared of sexual assault charges.

Although Sulkowicz’ case has become a recent center of public debate over how to address the prevalence of sexual assault and “rape permissive culture” on campus, her case is certainly not the only to make headlines in recent years.

One of Florida State’s star athletes, Jameis Winston, a Heisman Trophy winner and national champion, was cleared of sexual assault charges despite questionable handling of his case. Meanwhile, the University of Oregon allowed three male basketball players who gang raped a student to finish out their season in 2014. And Georgia Tech was briefly the focus of attention after a frat brother was found to be distributing a guide called “Luring your rapebait” via email.

These are only a few of innumerable higher-profile cases, which are themselves only the tip of the iceberg. It is widely known that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted during college and a recent study has found that TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, questioning, and gender nonconforming) undergraduates are at even greater risk with 1 in 4 experiencing assault. Every 21 hours another student will be raped. And approximately 1 in 12 male students will attempt some form of sexual assault.

The public attention that these higher profile cases are bringing to the issue of sexual assault is a good first step towards generating the necessary dialogue to begin addressing it. There is increasing national conversation around what accounts for the prevalence of college-based sexual violence and how to change this. There is also increasing momentum around finding ways to provide better support for survivors. Even so, the media and others seeking university reforms continue to miss the mark on how to get at the real source of the problem.

For the most part, public discussion highlights the perceived problem with excessive binge drinking among college students, foregrounding the role of individual responsibility over larger structural factors such as patriarchal dominance and gender oppression that contribute to cultivating rape cultures on campus.

They acknowledge that athletes and fraternity brothers are often the perpetrators of these attacks and that this points to the privileging of financial interests over student well-being, yet they fail to call into question how this reflects they ways in which the university system is embedded in the broader capitalist system that encourages this line of thinking.

They may note the low-percentage of reporting among victims of sexual attack—under 5%—yet, typically they fail to more deeply explore the way the university’s administrative handling of assaults mirrors the failings of our current survivor supports and judicial system at-large. Survivors are routinely subject to silencing; victim-blaming; gender, racial and other forms of biases that are both built into the law and rampant among those in positions of power to execute it; as well as other bureaucratic barriers to seeking any kind of redress.

Furthermore, as evident in Sulkowicz’s case, the few charges that are brought to the University administration typically result in little to no consequences for the assailant. According to some studies, only 1% of assailants are actually disciplined by the school. And, even in the handful of instances where there is some form of redress, this does little to challenge a system predicated on State-based control of our bodies, lives, and determination of what constitutes justice or who is deserving of protection.

In light of this, what we really need is more critical conversation around transforming the campus culture, the Academy, and the broader societal trends they serve as microcosms for.

As anarchism is premised on the idea of eliminating all forms of domination, coercion, and top-down power dynamics—whether in the context of personal relations, social organizations, or macro-level systems—this makes it a powerful tool for identifying inequities and, just as importantly, suggesting alternative models that counter oppressive mechanisms.

Providing an anarchist lens enables us to unpack the ways in which power and domination operate in our society, evident in all of our institutions. This includes the dismissiveness of Universities in their handling of sexual assault or prioritization of maintaining reputations and funding streams over the safety of their students.

Or similarly, an anarchist lens also illuminates how the prevalence of campus sexual assault is merely symptomatic of larger uneven and violent systems of power. Consequently, it shows how the flourishing of rape culture in college life must be understood within the context of rape permissive and gender oppressive culture at-large.

And, furthermore, an anarchist lens offers the necessary interventions into how we handle assault in ways that aren’t intended to maintain the status quo so as to benefit some while disempowering others. For anarchists, the fact that the State and the systems of power it encompasses—like universities—are unable or unwilling to address this issue comes as no surprise.

The answer, then, is not to wait for these institutions to turn against their elite funders or make minor tweaks to their sexual assault policies, but to build alternative structures for addressing gender (and other) violence and oppression. For instance, many anarchist communities have explored alternatives such as transformative justice or collective accountability models that don’t rely on conventional forms of legal recourse that too often re-traumatize survivors or fail to ensure any degree of restitution.

Only by doing this—by bringing anarchist perspectives and interventions into our understanding of campus sexual assault and by having conversations that look beyond reforms and instead situate them within broader frameworks of power analysis—will we begin to get at the real heart of the matter. Then we can finally start to make inroads towards dismantling the oppressive structures and cultural attitudes that result in sexual violence being experienced by almost a quarter of female and TGQN undergraduates.

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Other writings and resources on sexual assault, rape culture, and how to address these issues from an anarchist perspective:

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 Hillary Lazar lives in Pittsburgh, PA. She has been involved with anarchist, radical education, and social justice projects since the 90’s. She is a cofounder of the University of Pittsburgh’s Student Anarchist Graduate Association, a collective member of the Big Idea Bookstore, and an advisor for Agency.

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