How joining the conversation about sexual assault can help to end rape culture

Political science students are at the forefront of learning, and gaining insight into today’s complex political landscape. But how do they apply what they’ve learned to daily life? Interested in the ways in which political science students think critically about public policy and engage with government and social movements, we held the “What’s Your Story?”essay contest

Caitlin Ritch, a University of California Irvine student and one of this year’s winners, wrote about how her personal experience with sexual assault motivated her to speak out against “rape culture,” a culture in which sexual violence is considered normal. Check out Caitlin’s powerful story here, and continue reading to learn how people can use their personal experiences to make a difference and bring about positive change.

Q. In your essay response, you bravely discuss how your own personal experience with sexual assault led to years of activism to make important changes to society’s current rape culture. How can people use difficult – even incredibly painful – personal experiences to address problems at the society level?

I was raised to know that my voice was the most powerful weapon I would ever have. I was taught that only words could bring about real change, end violence, and bring justice. However, my second year of college my voice had been robbed by a male roommate. That night without my consent he took not only my body, my agency, and my security, but also my voice. I was made a voiceless statistic. In the eyes of society, I was no longer a person, but a mere object.

Having been robbed of everything, I tried extensively to regain my voice. I turned to the police, to the school, to friends, and to my family. Everywhere I went I faced backlash. I was seen as the monster, not him. I was somehow the one who allowed the rape to occur rather than the one who was assaulted. I began speaking out, as I felt it was imperative that I retain at least one thing that had been robbed of me.

I quickly realized that not only was society not interested in my story, but that I was feeding into rape culture by constantly apologizing for the fact that I was a survivor. I found myself so concerned with the affect my story would have on others. I would always talk hesitantly wondering, “Is this too heavy? Will they be okay? Should I offer them a list of resources to help them cope? Will they still be able to look at me?” I soon realized that by doing this I was enforcing the belief that I don’t matter. I thought that the needs of those around me were the most important, and that I must make myself a servant to those needs. I began speaking about my rape often, and loudly, for no reason other than I want to live in a world where saying you are a survivor of rape means finding support and justice rather than being a burden. I spoke out because I was tired of his actions interrupting my life, his excuses interrupting my statement, and his red-stained hands interrupting my education. I speak out because a student should not be able to admit on the record three times that he understands he committed rape only to be pardoned of his crime.

I believe that such narratives are imperative when forming solutions to societal issues. Individuals must feel both heard and supported by their communities when tackling such intense topics. Politicians can pass a million laws, but if civilians and communities do not understand the role they play in creating such problems, they will never understand that they are the solution. We have to stop laughing at rape jokes, stop using terms of violence to describe sexual acts, stop telling women they shouldn’t go to parties, wear tight clothes, or leave their drinks unattended. Instead, we must accept responsibility for our actions. We must understand that rape culture is formed not by a lack of laws (although this does allow it to thrive); rather, it is formed because we are far too content with being comfortable. It is not until people feel that their voice and opinions matter that we will see real change.

Q. In your opinion, how can speaking out as you have help to bring about positive changes?

 Rape and sexual assault have become a hot button topic over the past year. It has become clear, however, that while everyone wants to fix the problem, few people want to hold earnest conversations regarding it. When a woman tells the story of how she was assaulted, someone will ask to change to a happier topic. When society finally gives survivors a space to talk about their assault openly, we can figure out the specific issues we need to target and we can foster an environment where victims feel comfortable coming forward and reporting. Speaking out about sexual assault allows for positive change because it demands that people be held accountable for their actions. It makes it harder for universities, workplaces, and law enforcement to sweep such horrific acts under the rug.

Speaking out also brings about positive change for survivors as well. In my case, I felt my voice had been taken by my rapist, but I refused to let him keep it. I felt silenced by everyone around me, and to be frank it prolonged my healing process. The weight of rape is a heavy one to bare, and when no one is listening to your trauma, it begins to feel as if you are carrying it alone. Speaking out allows survivors the chance to take ownership over their lives again. It allows them to take control over their story and their experience in a way they couldn’t before. I believe that by speaking out, we protect every other individual our perpetrators may encounter. We tell our rapists that while they may not face consequences, they are not innocent. The louder and more numerous these voices, the harder it will become for these issues to be left in the dark.

Q. What are your tips for engaging people in constructive dialogues about important and controversial issues?

 The most important part of engaging in constructive dialogues is being able to actively listen.  As a society, we will never fully agree on all issues, which is fine. However, we must be willing to leave a respectful space for others to share their beliefs just as we may want to share ours. It is only through truly understanding ‘the other’ that we can make progress within society. It is also important to note that these dialogues take time, patience, and that the most fulfilling conversations are often the ones that are hardest to have. We must get into the habit of listening for the sake of understanding. It’s not about sympathy, hatred, or informing; instead, it’s about learning why someone views the world in the way they do. The first step to this is understanding yourself. When we become self-aware of our own bias, our own personal lenses through which we see the world, we are able to step outside of it. We are able to truly open our minds and see the world from another’s perspective.

Read the essay from our first contest winner, and other notable entries, here. The contest was inspired by Scott Abernathy’s American Government: Stories of a Nation, which enhances student learning by teaching the nuts and bolts of political science through memorable real-life stories. Tied to real politics, the stories enable students to develop their critical thinking skills as they apply principles learned in class to real-world examples of political action and political choices. Find out more about the text here.

 

     
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