Posted by Galina Yudovich (’09)
As a senior woman who saw more open and honest dialogue happen in the last week than in the entirety of my time at Washington and Lee, I want to thoroughly respond to the post by Samuel Gilleran, ’11. This is not, in any way, intended as an attack, but rather is written in defense: in defense of KEWL and their courageous decision not to stand by as unhealthy and downright criminal aspects of W&L’s culture continued to manifest. In defense of the students — both men and women — who felt empowered by the Love Your Body campaign. And especially in defense of the women at this institution who feel they do not have a voice equal to their male peers.
Gilleran covered much ground in his response to Love Your Body Week campaign, and I want to be sure to address all of his concerns. His first concern was his interpretation that men were “vilified” by the campaign: “Nobody wants to support a cause if it involves self-vilification. Don’t expect men to join the fight against sexual assault until we are no longer made villains.” That is quite a shocking bribe. First of all, no one is claiming that all men are perpetrators of sexual assault. Most aren’t. Let me repeat this, because it is crucial to maintaining an accurate forum: MOST MEN DO NOT COMMIT ACTS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT. While approximately 1 in 4 women at W&L have been victims of sexual violence, absolutely no one is claiming that 1 in 4 men are perpetrators. KEWL’s posters chose to focus on the female victims. Who were assaulted by men. If Gilleran is “turned off” by this, then I want him to know that I’m turned off to Washington and Lee when I know that a heartbreaking number of women were assaulted during their time here by male students who pride themselves on being honorable.
Most perpetrators are repeat offenders. They know what consent is because of, if nothing else, mandatory information sessions during freshmen year, yet they continue to use sexual force to assert their power and control over women. KEWL and SPEAK, and hopefully the university, are dedicated to helping the victims and survivors of assault committed by these men. So if most men are not committing sexual violence, but at least 25% of women are still victims of it, why shouldn’t I, to use Gilleran’s words again, “expect men to join the fight”? Because they feel marginalized? What a familiar feeling to every woman who has had to walk past her assailant on campus, or sit in a classroom with him, or see him at parties. (And if Gilleran is upset that he feels vilified and generalized as a man, then let’s not extend the stereotypes to the Greek system. Not all “frat lords” commit sexual violence. Not being a “frat lord” does not automatically mean that one is incapable of rape. W&L does not have to end the Greek system in order to end sexual assault; the culture can change within the context of Greek life.) Gilleran, if these statistics make you feel like a villain, do something about it. These women are your sisters, friends, girlfriends. It could be your future wife. You should be outraged that this is occurring on a regular basis, not “turned off” that KEWL is throwing it in front of you. Just saying that you “know about the problem” makes you a bystander, not part of the solution. There is no “squishy middle.” There are people who do something to alleviate the problem, and there are those who do not.
This leads directly to Gilleran’s second concern: who are we trying to “convince” with our campaign? Convince of what, exactly? That rape and anorexia are bad? We give the students at this university more credit than that. We also know that the vast majority of the student body, faculty, and administration knew about the statistics before we took out a marker and some glitter, wrote it on a piece of poster board, and stuck it in the Commons. So why did we do it? The point of the campaign was to force people to finally address the issues and asses their own behaviors. The point was to show victims of sexual assault that they are not alone, that others were willing to share their pain anonymously on a postcard or inspirationally at Take Back the Night, and that there are resources on this campus to help them toward recovery. The point was to make men stop and think, “Did this woman give me consent?” and for every single student, at every single party for the rest of his or her time here and elsewhere, to watch out for friends and ask, “Is she too drunk to give consent? If so, I need to intervene.” If the posters and postcards last week made even one person change his or her behavior this weekend, then maybe one less rape occurred. That, Gilleran, was the point.
On to the next issue: how did the rapists get to W&L in the first place? I ask myself that question every day. When I was looking at colleges, I was drawn to the advertised tradition of honor on this campus. I was also very much drawn to the idea of a mandatory interview, which seemed like the ultimate, 100% fool-proof way to keep the rapists out of Lexington. While discussing Gilleran’s post with a friend, she joked that Gilleran should patent his rape-detector goggles. The truth of the matter is, she went on to say, is that even suggesting that perpetrators are recognizable is an insult to every woman who has been assaulted by a date, an acquaintance, a friend, a boyfriend, or her husband. The “I should have known” mentality leads to guilt, self-blame, and underreporting. And doesn’t Gilleran’s admissions theory suggest that if men are not perpetrators while applying to college, they never will be? What of those men who commit their first assault while at W&L?
Next point: systems. Gilleran makes a valid point that an all-male EC cannot possibly seem like the most supportive place for a woman to present a rape case. He then adds, “Don’t blame the system – there were only TWO female candidates,” but offers no explanation as to why there were only TWO female candidates. All things considered, this is an odd phenomenon: women admitted to W&L have higher SATs and GPAs than incoming men (so we’re at least as smart), many held leadership positions at their high schools, and plenty major in politics. And then they get to W&L, feel intimidated speaking in class, and don’t run for student government. So what happens between high school graduation and EC elections? And who do we blame? The women, for letting themselves get shut up? Could it be that women do not feel supported on this campus? Maybe because of people like the male student who pulled down his girlfriend’s shirt at the Blues Traveler concert in exchange for a harmonica from the band? How would that woman feel about running for office now? Before we can absolve the system from blame, we need to understand the system. That involves asking questions instead of simply accepting the status quo.
And finally: the Post Secret campaign. I don’t know quite how this coincidence happened, but the “My left one is bigger!” postcard is no longer on the wall. I know for a fact that it was not removed by a KEWL member. Let me take this opportunity to remind everyone, in response to Gilleran’s assertion that these postcards have nothing to do with sexual assault, that last week was Love Your Body Week, not Sexual Assault Awareness Week. When the postcards were advertised, people were explicitly told that they could write anything about their own bodies, experiences, emotions, fears, hopes, aspirations, etc. that they wanted to anonymously share with the campus community, for whatever reason. As one friend put it, KEWL’s intention behind this was to empower women on campus by speaking the unspeakable realities we’ve been socialized to hide. Those unspeakable truths may come in the benign form of anatomical irregularities (which aren’t so irregular after all, it seems) to sexual abuse. I personally wrote two: one was a lighthearted nod to something seemingly superficial while the second was serious, about what might be considered a more worthwhile topic. The point is, both secrets are inherently part of who I am, and the parts of myself that I chose to anonymously share with the university.
Gilleran wrote that the postcards about nipples, etc., “turns people off to the entire mission.” I disagree. As one of the people who helped put up the postcards throughout the week, I saw the difference between the postcards that went up on Monday and those that went up Friday. Monday’s boxes, which had been collecting postcards from all over campus for over a week, held about 40 postcards, most of which addressed personal likes and dislikes about appearance. By Friday we had over 300 postcards, on topics ranging from vibrators to sexuality and religion, from height to childhood rape. People were clearly inspired, not “turned off,” by their peers. One of the last postcards we put up was from a student asking for help with her masochism. Maybe one of her friends will recognize her in the postcard and offer the support that she needs. Or maybe just writing it down on a postcard and seeing it on a wall among 300 other secrets will give that student the power to seek help for herself. That, again, was the very point.
I’ve covered most of Gilleran’s concerns, so I’ll stop here. But I won’t stop discussing the issues of sexual assault and body image on this campus, because, again, the point of KEWL’s campaign is to put an end to the silence.