Expanding our understanding

November 11, 2015 by Emily Roach

Content warning: sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse, sexual abuse within prisons.

In her 2014 Slate article, Hannah Rosin reported research results that should have expanded the way we talk about sexual violence overnight. According to a National Crime Victimization Survey, she reported, 38 percent of nonconsensual sexual experiences were perpetrated against men. A 2011 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) yielded an even more shocking statistic: 1.27 million women and 1.267 million men reported experiencing nonconsensual sex. The paper Rosin quotes, “Sexual Victimization of Men in America: New Data Challenge Old Assumptions” (Stemple & Meyer, 2014), re-analyzed crime data in several national surveys with an important change: They included being made to penetrate another in the definition of nonconsensual sexual intercourse. With this adjustment, they found rates of male victimization that were much higher than previously believed.

Still, both our national and campus conversations frame sexual assault mostly in terms of male perpetrators and female victims or survivors. The findings Rosin cites don’t change the urgent importance of supporting female survivors and recognizing the role misogyny plays in many women’s experiences. They also don’t necessarily equate the experiences of male and female survivors. They do, however, raise important questions about what information is lost when we frame sexual assault as solely a woman’s issue. Careful consideration of all experiences can only make our community safer and more supportive.

This dismissal of men’s experiences with sexual violence stems from our not-so-distant past. National definitions of sex crimes were made gender-inclusive so recently that it is hard to consider exclusion of men from the conversation as a historical problem. For example, until 2012, the FBI defined rape as a crime that could only be perpetrated against women. Today, though it is no longer gendered, the FBI’s policy still only defines rape in terms of being penetrated.

It is important to note that Stemple and Meyer’s sample was not limited to students on a college campus. Indeed, many of the nonconsensual experiences were reported by incarcerated men (who made up a good portion of Stemple and Meyer’s sample) and by male survivors of childhood or pre-college abuse. While the number of men assaulted in college is significant, the Stemple and Meyers findings cannot exactly be generalized to the experiences of Williams students during their time at the College. Our recent campus climate survey, Eph Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault, had a high response rate from students (about 75 percent), of which 45 percent identified as men. The survey included language about being made to penetrate another person. While data are not available on the gender split of reported experiences, data from other campus climate surveys suggest that the number of men reporting nonconsensual experiences likely did not equal those of women, although they were still (much) too high.

Stemple and Meyer’s research is, however, still vitally relevant to members of the community at the College, if only because it shows us how limiting it can be to talk about sexual violence only in terms of campus sexual assault. First, while statistics about incarcerated men may not speak to the personal experience of many students at this school, it is possible and probable that community members are struggling with the weight of supporting friends or family members who were abused within our prison system. The race and class bias of our country’s law enforcement system, coupled with such alarming and rampant abuses of power within the system, should compel us as a campus to demand safety and dignity for communities that are marginalized and over-incarcerated. Second, focusing exclusively or almost inclusively on campus sexual assault will cause us to overlook the needs of our peers (of all gender identities) who experienced sexual violence before coming to the College, abroad or on school breaks and/or within their own families. Finally, framing sexual assault in terms of a male perpetrator and female survivor erases the experiences of many LGBTQ+ survivors and survivors of same-sex abuse. While the College engages with issues of consent and sexual assault often, for many, these conversations come too late or do not reflect their lived experiences.

This does not mean that we should stop talking about campus sexual assault – the compassion and consideration we can offer to survivors at the College and beyond is not bounded to one specific type of crime against one type of person. Instead, we can better serve our community with a more nuanced conversation that unites survivors and allies in solidarity no matter their gender identity, sexuality, personal history, family situation or experience with the legal system. By expanding our understanding of sexual violence, we position ourselves to offer support to more people, educate more people and build a safer community.

Emily Roach ’16 is a psychology and computer science double major from Smithtown, N.Y. She lives in Perry.

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