A discussion about sexual violence isn’t an easy one to start, but once it does start, there is plenty to talk about.
That was the experience at Tuesday’s Under the Big Tent discussion sponsored by the Center for Civic Engagement. At the noon start time, four panelists and about a dozen people were gathered under the red tent on the Glenn Terrell Mall, but when organizers finally wrapped up the event nearly two hours later, about 40 people were participating.
“I was really happy,” said Lorena O’English, a librarian at the Holland and Terrell Libraries and one of the event organizers. “I think what we saw was people walking by on the Mall and hearing things that really spoke to them. That’s what got people to stop.”
The freewheeling discussion ranged from the practical to the theoretical, from suggestions on how to reduce the risk of sexual attack to how to reform what one panelist called the United States’ “rape culture.”
Darci Graves, an sexual assault prevention educator for Alternatives to Violence on the Palouse, said a rape culture is defined as one in which “sex is violent and violence is sexy.”
“It’s a societal pandemic,” she said, but it is so ingrained that most people don’t even acknowledge it. Media messages that link women, sex and alcohol are everywhere, she said, but violence is increasingly part of the mix, especially in pornography.
When asked what could be done about it, Graves replied, “Take an individual stand that you are not going to condone a rape culture.” Refuse to purchase products that glorify violent sex, she said, refuse to laugh at demeaning sexual jokes.
Another panelist, Cassandra Nichols, WSU’s Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, said people need to think more critically about the images they see and the language they use. “Pimp and Ho” parties or “Wife Beater” contests are not benign entertainment, she said. “Think about that language and what it means,” she said.
While the definition of sexual assault is fairly straightforward—any kind of unwanted sexual contact—that doesn’t mean it is well understood.
Jerry Pastore, WSU’s substance abuse specialist, said there is a great deal of misinformation and confusion about what constitutes consensual sex. And that confusion is exacerbated by alcohol, which is often a factor in a sexual attack.
“Sixty to 70 percent of sexual assaults involve alcohol,” he said, so it doesn’t make sense to talk about one without talking about the other.
Nichols agreed, saying the media sometimes raises an alarm when a particular “date rape” drug is reported to police. But, she said, “what we don’t hear about is the most potent date rape drug, and that’s alcohol.”
Angie Jeffries, a student member of WSU’s Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response Task Force, said people sometimes ask her if she is fearful in Pullman or on the WSU campus, but she thinks that question misses the point.
“I don’t feel fearful, but I am proactive,” she said.
Proactive measures she and other panelists suggested included, sticking with a buddy, limiting alcohol consumption and speaking up if it looks like someone might be in trouble.
“In our culture we have a real bystander mentality,” Pastore said, and sometimes it might be possible to prevent an assault just by saying, “Hey, that’s not cool.”
One of the liveliest exchanges in the discussion came when a student expressed disappointment that a planned debate on pornography that had been scheduled for this month was cancelled by the Student Entertainment Board after a woman was attacked on College Hill. One of the men arrested in that incident is a porn star.
“What did you want to get from that debate?” Nichols asked. Several students said they wanted to hear the arguments on both sides, that they thought they could learn from it.
“I think the university should have a debate on pornography, no doubt,” Nichols said. “But who are the experts?”
The problem, said Graves, is that the so-called experts in the proposed debate were entertainers more than educators. The point wasn’t to illuminate the issues, but to draw a crowd.