When students at Pitzer College chose several bathrooms on campus in which to anonymously name those they considered to be “perpetrators of rape culture” last week, they made a choice. In plastering the names of their fellow students with a dangerous accusation in a setting that is both unrestricted and unanticipated, these students chose to place stir and spectacle over efficacy and esteem, prioritizing shock value over sensitivity in a gesture that, while probably well-intentioned, was gravely misguided.
This is not to say, by any means, that the motivations that potentially fueled the graffiti are unimportant. On the contrary, we live in an age when our next president could very feasibly be the man who attempted to excuse his vulgar bragging about groping women with a flippant “when you’re a star, they let you do it.” Combating rape culture and its daily manifestations should absolutely be a priority.
Rape culture is a broad and insidious problem made all the more relevant on a college campus: 19% of nationwide undergraduate women report having experienced attempted or completed sexual assault. And there is certainly something to be said for the value of a campaign that reminds students that there is more to rape culture than the act itself. The importance of sustaining dialogue on campus should not be undervalued, and efforts to facilitate these necessary discussions are certainly commendable.
This just isn’t the way to do it.
While I applaud the courage of those who voiced personal sentiments and spoke out against individuals who perpetuate discomfort on campus, this very anonymity reduces the power and hold of the campaign. Because the writer(s) did not include either their names or an explanation for the inclusion of each “perpetrator,” the lists instills little sense of legitimacy. Rather, a sense of doubt arises regarding the writer's integrity and motives, which should not be questioned in cases of assault and abuse.
These accusations must be placed in context, because without details regarding the act in question, there is no way of addressing it concretely. To what components of rape culture does this list of “perpetrators” refer? Did the students who wrote this list intend to convey catcalling? Innuendo? Offensive music choice? Or rather, sexual assault in and of itself? Are the accusations uniform for each name listed? Semantics matter: The distinct acts that constitute rape culture are different, and they must be dealt with in accordingly distinct manners.
The ambiguity of allegations here raises important questions regarding the definitions of rape culture and the inherent subjectivity in its construction. One person’s ill-timed joke may be another’s trigger. A song lyric that is catchy to one may be provocatory to another. An uninformed linguistic error by one journalist may be a serious insult to her reader. And in matters such as these, in which those committing the offenses may not even be aware of their error, candid conversations aimed to teach will accomplish much more than anonymous accusations aimed to shame.
Moreover, this type of public stage can have deeply triggering effects for survivors of sexual assault and abuse. On a campus as physically small and socially integrated as the Claremont Colleges, these survivors often have no way of knowing when they may find themselves face to face with a past perpetrator. For many, walking into a bathroom stall only to be confronted with a haunting name from their past may conjure painful memories. As students who are clearly concerned with rape culture, is it wrong to expect that the creators of the lists would have been a bit more sensitive to the ramifications of their actions for its victims?
Perhaps for this reason, the lists were quickly removed upon their discovery. Yet this may have made an already disturbing situation worse. In a turn of events as counterproductive as it is disappointing, it’s possible that the physical act of erasing the names may have generated more hurt to survivors.
On that note, while this event may have been triggering to some, it certainly may have been empowering to others. And, in a textbook example of good intentions plagued by flawed execution, such a sense of empowerment was likely among the main motives behind writing on these walls.
We at the Claremont Colleges need to consider why this bathroom was considered the best place to make this statement and what this choice reveals about the lack of conversation and spaces present on campus in which to discuss issues of rape culture. It’s not unlikely that the writer(s) were survivors themselves, turning to a less-than-ideal solution out of frustration that there were no other mediums through which their concerns could be addressed.
The issues brought up by this matter are difficult to discuss. Their solutions are not much easier. I personally cannot—and nor should I—prescribe the answer. But one thing is clear: whether it is in the car with friends or at the dining hall, incidents like this and the problematic culture that provokes them demand recognition and response. Communication and conversation must be maintained in a way that prioritizes the voices of the survivors without sacrificing the safety and inclusivity of these campuses for all students.
Rachel Lang CM '17 is an International Relations major from the DC area. Love her points? Disagree? Shoot her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.