Dr. Theodore Everett, a philosophy professor at SUNY Geneseo, is honoring the campus's Sexual Assault Awareness week in an unconventional way: by holding a lecture about how sexual assault is not a real issue on college campuses or the nation in general. The talk is entitled "Against 'Sexual' 'Assault' 'Awareness'" — infuriatingly, it has not one but three sets of air quotes in its name. Because, you know, infringing on a woman's bodily integrity and sense of safety and self-worth in a sexual manner is neither sexual nor assault; it's mostly just women making a big deal out of nothing and/or lying for the fun of it. Against 'Sexual' 'Assault' 'Awareness': The Lecture is set to take place this Monday at 7:00 — which, not coincidentally, is also half an hour into the Womyn's Action Coalition's Take Back The Night walk. Awesome.
There's not much official information about the lecture, which was advertised primarily through neon green flyers tacked up in academic buildings. According to a change.org petition that's been circulating through the student body:
Students who have met with him have said his talk will center around his belief that sexual assault is not a big issue in the United States and Geneseo and that the statistics are overblown. He also stated to these students that a woman "is able to tell" if someone is a danger to her.
And according to an email from a student:
He has described his lecture as being a response to "false" statistics about sexual assault perpetuated by the college. He believes that rape culture is a myth, sexual assault is not a problem on college campuses, especially not our campus, and that women over report sexual assault.
This is an email that that Professor Everett sent to the secretary of the Womyn's Action Coalition after she inquired what the hell he was planning to go on about:
The quotes in the title indicate that I am not against SA awareness, but that I am against much of what's *called* SA awareness.
My position in (extremely) brief is that the incidence of sexual assault in college has been exaggerated by the SA awareness movement; that the surveys that support the prominent numbers (e.g. one in four Geneseo students is sexually assaulted) do not meet ordinary standards for research in social science; that the definitions of "sex" and "assault" given in the Geneseo survey* are both confusing and unreasonably broad (for example, a kiss is classified as sex, and being talked into something is classified as coercion); that the "rape culture" theory on which some of these deviations are based is unreasonable; and that the presentation of sexual assault as systemic to American culture rather than pathological behavior, together with the zero-tolerance mentality that it supports, both do more harm than good to college women, who in my view would benefit most from an honest, unpatronizing, genuinely respectful, and two-sided discussion of these issues than from indoctrination in one side's position only.
I believe that Geneseo students deserve to hear both sides of every controversy, so that they can make up their own minds in an informed and non-coercive way.
*Here's a link to the survey in question, in which a kiss is classified as "unwanted sexual contact," not as sex itself. It defines coercion as "continual arguments and pressure."
Never mind that 85% of rapes on college campuses are acquaintance rapes — it's a woman's fault if she doesn't realize that her classmate was "dangerous." Never mind that 42% of college women who are raped tell no one about their assaults — sexual assault probably just over reported. Never mind that we live in a society that valorizes male sexual aggression and minimizes the victim's perspective so much that nearly a third of college men say that they would have sex with an unwilling partner if they knew they could get away with it. Rape on campus just isn't that big of a deal.
As for the claim that rape is a "pathological" behavior, that's simply not true. Acknowledging that we live in a culture that normalizes, excuses, trivializes, and sometimes even sanctions rape is the opposite of patronizing. If rape were pathological, eroticized violence would not be so ubiquitous. Victim-blaming would be a far less common practice because sexual assault would be seen as an act committed by someone who was mentally unwell, not something that the victim somehow invited. To act as though those who commit sexual assault are outliers of our way of conceptualizing gender, rather than a direct result of it, is specious and misleading.
In response to the negative campus-wide reaction, President Christopher C. Dahl sent an email to the college community in which he very admirably maintained Geneseo's commitment to combatting and preventing sexual assault. However, he was vocal about standing by "academic freedom" and refuses to stop the lecture on those grounds:
... Geneseo defends academic freedom and the right to offer a wide variety of opinions on campus. As a public liberal arts college, Geneseo is committed to the open discussion and robust exchange of ideas that are a hallmark of American higher education. In this situation, the college’s administration cannot comment on a presentation that has not yet been given.
Geneseo knows where it stands on issues of sexual assault. We abhor rape and sexual violence of all kinds. We take seriously and will investigate all charges of sexual assault and sexual harassment. As president, I support our policies and educational initiatives.
While I understand the importance of allowing healthy debate and recognize that it's not always appropriate to silence someone because their opinion is "not P.C.", this is not just about free speech, for multiple reasons. Firstly, rape culture is based in an ideology, and allowing someone in a position of pedagogical power to disseminate that ideology is irresponsible. It's one thing to pontificate about an abstraction and quite another to support patterns of thinking that cause violence and disrespect. Telling young men and women that sexual assault (or, as Professor Everett would write, "sexual" "assault") is not significant serves to silence and marginalize victims. It's a direct refutation of the experience of any woman living in rape culture, who knows that fears of sexual assault and harassment police her behavior, speech, and movement. Even worse, it's an affront to the one woman in four, and the one man in seven, who knows for a fact that rape on college campuses is a big fucking deal.
Secondly, holding the lecture at the same time as the Take Back The Night event is a weirdly aggressive choice. With this decision, Professor Everett is implying that he's unwilling to even listen to the Womyn's Action Coaltion and that everyone who agrees with him should be similarly unwilling. He's also making it so that dissenters have to choose between attending his speech in order to voice their disapproval and going to their own event to support their friends and peers.
Finally, the reason that sexual assault awareness is a thing is because most people are not aware of how commonplace and significant of an issue it is. Having a counter-awareness lecture is pointless and reeks of MRA false victim logic. If you want to have a chat with people who don't believe in the seriousness of sexual assault and harassment, you can go, oh, I don't know, pretty much anywhere in the world. You don't need a safe space to do that, and you shouldn't be given a university-sanctioned one.