“Welcome to the Family” Discussion Showed Shallow Understanding of Sexual Assault

The following article was submitted by the Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Assault.

It’s probably happened to every one of us—somebody makes a joke that hits us personally, and we don’t laugh. We understand the punch line, that the reason the joke is a joke is that it pushes our buttons. We know that humor is often meant to be provocative. Even if we love jokes, we don’t necessarily need to find all jokes hilarious. When we hear one that we think is humorless at best and offensive at worst, we have two options. We can refuse to laugh and be told that we’re a member of the PC-police and can’t take a joke, or we can laugh in spite of our actual thoughts and feelings. Humor is one of the essential elements of our communication with other human beings, so why does it so often silence us?

Brendan Rowan’s recently published TSL article, “Welcome to the Family,” a purported satire about sexual conquest at Pomona College, caused an uproar on the TSL website with comments decrying both the insensitive treatment of gender, sexuality, and race, and the overly PC criticism of the article. The Student Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Assault aren’t interested in indicting Brendan for the article, but found the discussion that ensued among the student body to be an opportunity to talk honestly about the way we think about sex. We want to continue that all-too-rare discussion to encompass sexual assault and how our attitudes toward sex often contribute to a culture in which sexual assault is perpetrated, ignored, and invisible.

Rape and sexual assault serve as sobering topics in any discussion. Nobody condones sexual assault and most people have never perpetrated sexual assault, so they feel the discussion does not apply to them. However, at a school where the most recent annual crime report listed that there were no instances of sexual assault on campus, part of our mission is to address the assumptions we make about sexual assault.

What is rape? What is consent? These seem like obvious questions, but over and over we see that they have no simple answers. Nobody wants to think that their friends have committed sexual assault—they’re kind, conscientious, always supportive, and think highly of women. Maybe they’re your classmates, who are bright, engaged, and maybe even actively understand theoretical concepts on gender and sexuality. They would not threaten someone with violence or use a date rape drug like so many others have.

Many survivors of sexual assault do not want to believe that their attacker has done anything wrong, either. The attacker is their partner or somebody they always knew to be a “good person.” The survivor could have done something different to prevent the attack or is not entirely sure what happened. In a court of law, the survivor is unlikely to prove that sexual assault occurred. The risks of reporting their attacker are too high when the crime wasn’t perfectly cut-and-dried, and their own reputation and comfort on campus are at stake. They don’t want to get their attacker in trouble, because at the end of the day, said person is someone they know or even someone they love.

Time and time again, sexual assault allegations against popular figures are met with disbelief and antagonism against the accuser. We feel that our friends, our heroes, or our family could not possibly be guilty of a crime that we think we understand completely and universally reject. However, one of the most important steps in eliminating sexual assault is demystifying perpetrators of sexual assault—not vilifying them, but recognizing that they come in all shapes and sizes, and are people you may know and love. In a culture that advocates “scoring” and characterizes men as sexual beings on the prowl and women as either reluctantly “giving it up” or whorishly “giving it out,” perpetrators may not even realize that what they’ve done is wrong. Jokes about rape are played for big laughs in the media because we feel that, as a culture, we understand rape enough to make light of it. The result is a refusal to discuss sexual assault as a part of a larger culture of violence and of social politics; instead, it is thought of as an isolated crime for which society as a whole cannot be held accountable.

For example, the recent rape allegations against Julian Assange have elicited a war of words in news media and on the Internet. People who would otherwise not think twice about sexual assault in their day-to-day lives have made it their pet cause because of his high-profile status. Assange’s character, the politics behind the allegations, and our inability to know what really happened aside, the general discussion of rape has put many who support Assange and Wikileaks in an uncomfortable situation. Prominent liberal figures in news media, such as Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore, rushed to his defense by minimizing and misreporting the allegations rather than focusing on the political agenda of the prosecutors. Prominent feminist activist, Naomi Wolf, also argued passionately against Assange’s accusers. She was forced to articulate the logical conclusion of her argument against allegations that, hypothetically speaking, rape is not rape unless it is clear-cut, violent, or obvious. Even those well-versed in the issue of sexual assault sometimes find it difficult to appreciate its complexity. The allegations against Assange, true or not, are not completely clear. Few instances of sexual assault are. However, our loaded perception of assault, and of assaulters, makes it difficult for us to discuss the issue without being on the defensive.

For many, sexual assault is a fact of life, not a concept that can be invoked or ignored whenever it is convenient. We cannot realistically spend our lives constantly watching ourselves, worrying that our every word might carry some meaning that we did not intend and lashing out against anybody who finds issue with something we’ve said. What we can do is listen. We can hear criticism without rolling our eyes and saying, “You just don’t get it.” We can do what we do in all other aspects of our lives: consider new perspectives. We can allow for assertions that shake our fundamental understanding of ourselves and the way we interact with other people without crumbling. And we can stop exercising the privilege to ignore, to say, “You have spent too much time researching, thinking about, and living this topic, so your opinion means nothing to me.”

Sexual assault occurs on Pomona’s campus. It does not occur in a vacuum. It does not occur infrequently. It doesn’t just happen to “other people” on campus who are not a part of your community. And it is perpetrated by students that you and I know. You may hear about sexual assault, but you may never know when it has happened. Ask yourself: what have you done to address the issue of sexual assault? What would you do if somebody accused you or a friend of assault? What would you say if you found out a friend had been assaulted? When you make jokes about rape or make light of rape culture, who in your audience might be forced, once again, into silence?

The Advocates are Anna Bax, Annie Calef, Anjali Dhar, Milia Fisher, Rosa Greenberg, Rose Haley, Jared Kopelman, Leena Kozupa, Caryn McCarthy, Erica Reiss, Zach Schudson, Meryl Seward, Elaine Smith, Ashton Wesner, and Tracy Zhao. You can contact us individually, by e-mail at advocates@pomona.edu, or call our anonymous hotline at (909) 607-1778.

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