Each time news of a sexual assault rocks a college campus or makes waves in the news cycle, we say it’s time for a really serious dialogue.
Of course, we think it’s tragic, awful, shouldn’t have happened. We wait and listen as a case develops, as legal action is taken and people are dragged through the mud. We post on social media saying we are united against this. We share videos from moving ad campaigns and quotes from powerful stories from survivors.
We perform our routine.
And then it happens again. Somewhere else, to someone else, and we start all over again.
Inevitably, at some point, someone will say “What if she was your daughter or wife or sister or girlfriend?” to really bring things closer to home, to remind us that sexual assault is an enormous problem, that this can happen to anyone.
When we say “what if she were your daughter” to convince someone that rape requires our attention, though, we’re setting up a model by which we suggest that we should care about sexual assault because it might hurt someone we love.
Young women (and men, for that matter) should be able to go to parties or sit in their dorm rooms or walk home from work or class or soccer practice or get out of their cars or into elevators without being afraid. They should not have something done to their bodies without their consent. They should certainly not expect that assault is a common part of the college experience. Safety from sexual imposition should be a fundamental right.
When we try to garner empathy by asking someone to imagine that this was a woman they loved, we imply that, rather than being fundamentally wrong, rape is something you want to keep far away from those you care about. We suggest that the assault of a woman you don’t know requires your empathy and should motivate you less than the assault of a woman you know intimately. We suggest that it’s important to care about and to take care of women who matter to us, and we shut down the idea that it is our collective responsibility — all of ours — to care for and about women in general.
We watch the news. We read story after story after story after story. We know that false accusations are uncommon. We know that many women feel unprotected and unheard by their colleges and universities. We know that, at academic institutions all around our country, assault is pervasive. We don’t need more proof.
We also know that, when a women reports rape, she also subjects herself to backlash from a society that will tell her she is lying, that she deserved it, that she someone provoked it or actually wanted it. We know she will likely be dismissed, that the experience of taking her case to court or to campus police or to academic administrators is grueling and unkind.
When an individual is raped, it’s a reminder that we haven’t solved this yet. It tells us that, for all our advances, we’re dealing with a deeply disturbing crisis and we are far from having it under control. It should scare us. We should feel responsible.
She shouldn’t need to be your daughter for you to care, and you shouldn’t have to imagine she’s your niece for rape to capture your attention. That this happens at all — that girls and women anywhere are facing this on a daily basis — should matter more than enough.
When we, all of us, can decide the safety of a woman we don’t know is as much of a priority as the safety of a woman we do, we’ll break out of our routine of dialogue and think-pieces because we’ll decide the problem is just too big and too important. When we can care about all women, not just our daughters, we’ll be able to get to work.