Can I Kiss You? On Sexual Assault and the Media

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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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12 Comments

  1. Thanks Julie for a well-reasoned piece that begins to
    explain why so the original article offends many of us on campus. As a man who proudly calls himself a feminist, I’m offended that this was lauded as the male perspective thereby lumping me into the same category as “Joe”;
    furthermore, I know “Bro’s” who know better than to act in the manner
    Joe ascribes to them. In fact, I’ve seen Bro’s at frat parties protecting women
    who have had too much to drink and to conflate all frat brothers with those who
    take advantage and rape women in such circumstances stains the reputation of
    all “Bro’s”. But the blame isn’t only with Joe’s inane column; the editorial
    staff must shoulder responsibility as well. While the women’s perspective is
    written in a tone more in line with reporting the event, Joe’s is exaggerated
    to the point of being something I’d expect in the Onion. If Joe was being
    provocative in his approach, why not have the same from the female writer? Why not have an extreme feminist view that would clearly match the over-the-top writing of Joe? Why not have a disclaimer that clearly points out that Joe’s perspective is not that of the OS or that he does not represent the mainstream of men’s attitudes? And saying that it was written by and for Bro’s does not alleviate the problematic attitudes Julie points out. It is published in a forum that peoples other than “Bro’s” will read and be affected by. Bad attempts at humor when talking about a serious situation cannot be tossed off lightly without expecting reaction. If creating a dialogue around an issue that is affecting the PSU community was the point, it was done in exceedingly bad taste and without regard to those who have endured sexual violence in our community. Letting Julie respond is a start, but an apology and retraction of the story is a must and a beginning at a true dialogue. Certainly OS parent company and advertisers do not want this type of PR and concerned faculty and students have begun to organize to contact those entities so that they know how their business are being linked to misogynistic stories that degrade women and lower the standards of OS.

  2. Well said. And for mentioning that the opinions were from the cisgender point of view- well, thank you from the trans* community. These subtle things don’t go unnoticed.
    Seriously, great article. We need more writers fighting against rape culture in general, and at Penn State.

  3. We should have nuns at every frat party making sure there is at least an arm’s length distance between every person to avoid accidental, unwanted touching of the opposite sex.

  4. Thank you. It needed to be said. Most guys have lost the idea of respecting women. Guys should not be “ashamed” or think its “corny” to ask a girl for even a simple kiss. It’s called being a gentleman.

  5. I feel like I’ve flashed back to a PSU freshman seminar, circa 1990. We can rail against sexual assault all day long, but until we get serious about addressing the role of society, pop culture and the fact that men are taught to view women as sexual objects to be conquered, this will never change.

    That requires a community of people to actually decide what kind of behavior is both moral and ethical. I’m not holding my breath that anyone has the courage for such commitment.

    • I think you’re completely, 100% right. When our society teaches men (and women) that women are objects that exist for the sole purpose of pleasuring men, it’s no wonder that peoples’ perception of what is normal and acceptable are skewed. The fact that society promotes these ideas is highly unhealthy, and they’re so ingrained in us that because images validating them bombard us from all sides on a daily basis. It’s sickening.

  6. Thanks for this article. I’ve been at Penn State 3.5 years now, and I’ve watched it transform from a place that kind of pretended that sexual assault didn’t happen from the perspective of many students, and particularly the media, to addressing it head on. It always worried me for my friends who would walk home drunk alone at night, using the excuse “well, Happy Valley is the safest place in the US. Nothing bad can happen to me”… when sexual assault was still occurring. We all went to undergraduate universities who seemed to stress and continue the conversations surrounding sexual assault and consent, and so the lack of basically any conversation about it gave a false sense of security– it was perceived that the lack of conversation meant it was’t an issue.

    Then you have things like what is currently happening at UNC Chapel Hill (http://jezebel.com/university-of-north-carolina/) where a former Dean of students “was told by the University Counsel’s office that the number of sexual assault cases she compiled for 2010 was “too high” before the total was decreased by three cases without her knowledge”. This is a terrifying perspective in terms of women (and men)’s safety on campus and in the community. They were purposefully underreporting (and violating the Clery Act) because they didn’t want to be known as a school with high levels of sexual assault. Clearly their worry is their reputation, not their student body.

    On a side note, there’s been some interesting research done regarding the “hook up culture” as a cultural phenomenon, indicating that especially for women, it’s not nearly as prevalent or frequent as most people assume.

    As noted further down the comment line, you allow a higher level of nuance in female behavior than you do in male behavior. Giving credence (and highlighting) that men can and do positively contribute to discussions and prevention of sexual assault would only strengthen your argument.

  7. William Ferrell on

    feminism- the right to pick and choose every law and social norm that is best for females. Id argue that more times than not, women are dressed in slutty drag and they go up and dance with a guy, lead him on for awhile, toy with them and then say no to anything they request. Most guys would move on, but some would sexually assault the girl. Is it the guys fault. YES! but on the same line if I went up to an alligator and stuck my hand in its mouth it would prolly bite me! Its the gators fault for biting me but it was my stupid action that got it bit. You cant just blame men for womens problems… women have to take some personal responsibility.

    • I am highly offended that you compare adult men to alligators. It sounds like you’re reducing men to mindless beings who can only think with their penises. Men can certainly control their own actions because they have free will and are rational, thinking human beings. In that context, NOTHING is an excuse for sexual assault of any kind. Also, sexual assault isn’t just a “women’s problem.” Sexual assault is a human problem.