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Can I Kiss You? On Sexual Assault and the Media

Can I Kiss You? On Sexual Assault and the Media – Julie Mastrine

On Tuesday, Onward State ran a piece titled Can I Kiss You? — An Evening With Date Safe Project, regarding a recent talk on sexual assault and consent that occurred on Penn State’s campus. OS featured two contrasting, cisgendered viewpoints on the event: male and female.

While I appreciate Onward State’s efforts to give issues of sexual assault attention, as they have in the past, the content of Tuesday’s article seemed to actually perpetuate plenty of the harmful ideas the event was attempting to eradicate.

The issue of sexual assault is complex, and it’s a topic of much controversy and confusion. But at Penn State, it’s an issue that deserves much, much more attention than we give it. In the four month span between Aug. 27 and Dec. 2012, there were 16 cases of sexual assault reported to the police. Considering sexual assault and rape are among the most underreported (if not the most underreported) crimes in the world, we can conclude that the true number of sexual assaults occurring at Penn State is much, much higher than 16. That thought alone should make you sick. After all, these are your sisters, friends, girlfriends, wives, mothers.

I work in the media and see the overall lack of coverage important issues like sexual assault receive (save for feminist blogs). In Tuesday’s OS piece, author and Penn State student Joe Rogachevsky wrote:

“Like the Willard Preacher said this afternoon, “You go to a school with 20,000 willing members of the opposite sex. If you can’t get laid, you’re a loser.”  Yeah, I listen to the Willard Preacher, the guy is hilarious. And sometimes right.”

Saying that anyone who “can’t get laid” is “a loser” perpetuates an idea that someone’s self-worth revolves around their sexual activity. Feminism studies the culture surrounding society’s ideas of sex and gender. The Willard Preacher’s quote illustrates something sociologists and feminists call hook up culture–a culture, typically seen on college campuses (at least in recent years, due to widespread smartphone access and alcohol consumption), which encourages young people to “hook up” with each other, or to have sex without attachments or commitment.

Hook up culture itself isn’t inherently wrong (though that’s up for debate), but saying that there are “20,000 willing members of the opposite sex” conveniently skips over the fact that not everyone wants to participate in this culture, nor do they have to. And when we project strict ideas of sexual expectations onto others, it dehumanizes them and objectifies them without their consent. Endorsing the preacher’s comments as Joe did, particularly in an article about sexual assault, in this case is in poor taste, to say the least. Joe continued:

“Mike asked us why guys don’t ask for a kiss. Well, because it’s fucking lame. Seriously, asking for a kiss is the equivalent of going up to a girl at Indigo and asking, “Hey, wanna dance?” Unless you have the confidence of an athlete-CEO hybrid brought on by 20 shots of Captain, it doesn’t work.

….

A kiss without asking is technically sexual assault. I didn’t write the law, but it is. It’s up to you to decide if it’s worth risking it or not. And before you call me sexist, a rapist, or misogynist, remember that I’m the one who went to the presentation when you didn’t. I also love my mom way more than you love yours, and that’s a fact.”
Joe, and all other journalists writing on sexual assault, need to understand that this issue is not just about law. The issue we’re talking about here–asking for consent to sexual activity–is important for a number of reasons, and it’s not just so that self-proclaimed “bros” can avoid getting arrested. It’s because every individual should expect to have some level of autonomy and choice over what happens to their own body. They get to choose what they do with it, not you.

Assuming that someone is just going to want to kiss you or dance with you, and going ahead and acting on that assumption and touching someone anyway–this leaves a lot of room for inappropriate or unwanted touching that can often lead to more dangerous crimes–like rape.

And women reserve the right to say no when you ask them to dance or kiss. Thinking that you are entitled to others’ bodies, or that women “owe” you their time, attention, or bodies, is the exact same harmful line of thinking that perpetuates rape culture, a society that excuses or diminishes the seriousness of rape and sexual assault.

Considering the alarmingly high levels of sexual assault in the State College community, I had to question Onward State’s choice to run this particular piece. While it’s important to give all voices in State College a public platform, we need to be especially sensitive to how we frame these issues. This is because the media both reflects and reinforces our culture. Letting harmful comments like Joe’s slide is just one way the problem goes on unchallenged.

And we see this type of thing happen a lot in the media: The New York Times recently ran an article that victim-blamed an 11-year-old gang rape victim. While plenty of news outlets attempt to give women’s issues fair coverage, OS included, some harmful attitudes and perspectives fall through. This is not the fault of the individual nor the media outlet (though they should both be held accountable by the public); it’s the fault of the attitudes our culture continues to perpetuate. Sometimes, anti-feminist attitudes are subtle and nuanced, hard to detect until we can step back and see the bigger picture (usually when it has already culminated into something awful, like the Notre Dame rape victim’s suicide).

When we normalize things like touching a girl without her permission, or read news articles that attempt to casually address this idea, we begin to normalize a society of people–Penn State students included–who believe they are entitled to women’s attention, and to their bodies. That’s not a world I want to participate in, nor is it a world that you should want your female peers to have to concede to.

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