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Alexa Petersen | Jeminist: A Jumbo Feminist

Defining sexual assault

Published: Friday, November 2, 2012

Updated: Friday, November 2, 2012 08:11

Readers should be advised: trigger warning for victims and survivors of sexual assault.

This column follows a month of media coverage of collegiate sexual assault issues. It was sparked by an Amherst student’s account of sexual assault on her campus that was followed by mistreatment and mismanagement by the Amherst administration. It also comes in the wake of many stories that rose up to corroborate this story, some of them from right at home — right here at Tufts. Last week’s “Take Back the Night” event highlighted the tragic consistency of sexual assault on college campuses, again including our own. This issue weighs heavy on my mind. When one out of three women and one out of eight men are sexually assaulted at one time in their life, I hesitate to calculate the number of students on our very own campus who are included in this statistic.

I want to take this time to have a conversation, hopefully one that continues beyond this column, about how rape is defined in college and why I think it is a problem. This is not about national politics, and I’m not about to name all the elected officials who have referenced truly abhorrent definitions of rape in the last year, although that is certainly a conversation worth having. On the contrary, this conversation is about our campus and the campuses like and around ours. The campuses where sexual assault happens every day — at parties, in dorms, in common rooms, in bathrooms, on quads in the middle of the night.

When discussing sexual assault on college campuses, I urge the reader to wonder whether perpetrators actually consider the incident in question as rape or whether they thought it was just one drunken night when things got out of hand. One intimate interaction with your significant other that didn’t go the way you planned. One night where you were blackout, and because you don’t remember anything, it doesn’t count. The fact is, we shouldn’t just be talking about the prevalence of rape on college campuses, but also how few perpetrators are actually defining these interactions as rape. I cringe to think about how many perpetrators are walking around on this campus that don’t even know that what they have committed is sexual assault. Who think that the only way to define rape is the violent assault of a woman in a parking lot by a total stranger, where brute force is used.

You might be telling yourself that the point I’m making is silly, that of course you know that rape has wide−reaching definitions. But don’t stop reading, because this is directed at you. You may know these things about rape, but there are countless students around you who do not. Countless students who are haunted by their experience without accessing the resources identified with sexual assault, and countless students who go along with their time at Tufts painfully unaware that what they did was violating in any way. How can we prevent them from doing it again, if they are painfully unaware that what they did was abhorrent in the first place?

This isn’t a conversation about the resources we have at Tufts or how well they work — although that is another one certainly one worth having. It’s a conversation about how we cannot begin to even use these resources, or hope to make our policies effective, if we cannot have a serious discourse with the student body about what rape means. It’s a conversation that we must have inside the classroom and out. And we cannot be afraid to have it. If we cannot create this discourse, we will be haunted by it in more ways than one.

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Alexa Petersen is a senior majoring in political science and peace and justice studies. She can be reached at Alexa.Petersen@tufts.edu.

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