Posted by Brooke Reidy, Emily Coyle, and Kendal O’Leary
This past week, Catharine MacKinnon, a renowned legal scholar and women’s rights advocate, spoke to a full crowd in Lee Chapel. In her speech discussing the relationship between gender inequality and the sex industry, MacKinnon spoke out against the use of sexual violence against women as a tool for obtaining power. As we sat in the crowd listening to MacKinnon’s thoughtful, albeit biting, words, we were struck by the similar dynamic of gender inequality and sexual assault that is disturbingly prevalent on our campus.
According to W&L’s data from the 2008 National College Health Assessment, female students on this campus are twice as likely to have experienced sexual assault as compared to the average college woman. Given the national statistic that one in four women will be sexually assaulted in college, this means that at W&L, fully half of your female classmates will be sexually assaulted in their four years here. More than horrifying, this number is unacceptable. Too often, the half (or more) of us are silent, convinced that our situation is rare, invalid, or worse, hopeless.
Like the women MacKinnon discussed, those exploited by the media and the pornography industry, women on campus are submitting to a cycle of abuse and silence. Our silence enables sexual assault to remain hidden from the portrait of integrity and honor that is advertised as the defining quality of W&L. Until this ugly truth is seriously addressed, the values of our community will continue to be compromised.
MacKinnon closed with a fable about a Native American sage speaking with two men. Trying to prove her powerless, they brought a bird in their hands and asked her, “is this bird alive or dead?” If she said it was alive, they planned to crush it; if she told them it was dead, they would set it free. After a few minutes, the sage finally spoke up. She said, “I do not know if it is dead or alive. It is in your hands.”
Like the sage in this story, women at W&L constantly face this catch-22: we cannot protect ourselves by being silent, but if we speak out, we may be crushed. Fortunately for us, we can speak out, we can change. Sexual assault does not have to be a crippling force in this community. The choice is up to us. It is in our hands.
Brooke Reidy, Emily Coyle & Kendal O’Leary
End It (WGS 296A)