Sexual assault is not a laughing matter, a fact that—based on our schools’ recent history—Occidental students are perhaps especially equipped to understand. Yet last week, first-year students were forced to make light of this critical issue in their FYRE program.
All first-year students are require to attend First Year Residential Experience (FYRE) meetings once a week for six weeks, in order to gain a better understanding of campus-wide issues.
As part of last week’s assignment, Residential Advisors (RAs) were instructed by Residential Education Housing Services (REHS) and Project S.A.F.E. to ask their FYRE groups to create a meme. According to the RA FYRE handbook, the meme was supposed to reflect a “social norming campaign around the topic of sexual misconduct,” with the intention of hanging these memes up around campus to dispel myths surrounding sexual assault. Yet instead of eliminating falsehoods on sexual assault, the activity cast the issue in an insensitively humorous light.
Many students found REHS’s decision to make light of sexual assault inappropriate, and some refused to take part in the activity altogether. One FYRE group took the assignment into their own hands. Unwilling to create a meme making light of a serious situation, Madison Crane and her FYRE group co-wrote and signed a letter to REHS.
“We understood that the purpose of the activity was to involve social media and to use social media as an outlook to make others more aware of sexual assault,” Crane (first-year) said. “Yet we felt that memes are understood through social media as humorous and it was inappropriate to use them to try to bring attention to the prevalence of sexual assault in a college society.”
Crane’s group was not alone in this sentiment; many RAs leading the project also expressed their discomfort at what they were asked to do.
“It felt really awkward to ask them to complete the assignment because I didn’t even agree with it,” an RA said under condition of anonymity.
Memes are meant to be humorous images, frequently spread through social media. By asking first-years to create comical images on sexual assault, with the intention of displaying them next to posters advertising trivial events such as Occidental College Pub Night or Boba Fundraisers, REHS is normalizing and making light of sexual assault. With Occidental’s recent history in mind, we should be especially sensitive about this issue on campus and not reduce it to social media fodder.
According to Occidental’s website, one of REHS’s and Emmons Student Wellness Center’s priorities is to offer a “student-friendly environment that provides psychological counseling, medical care and advocacy for survivors of sexual assault. Project S.A.F.E., too, is a “prevention and intervention support program dedicated to ending sexual violence on Occidental’s campus.” Yet it was these two organizations that initiated this tactless assignment, and we cannot help but wonder what they thought the outcome would be.
As a college, we pride ourselves on our newly improved attitude toward sexual assault. The Think About It program that every student must complete, the prominence of Project S.A.F.E. on campus and the insistence that students be ‘upstanders’ rather than ‘bystanders’ are all great parts of our college life, and make Occidental the college it is today.
The issue of sexual assault clearly needs to be addressed and we should commend Occidental for trying. But trivializing sexual assault and turning it into a joke means that as a college we are taking a step backward. If we want to create another generation of students who are sensitive to the issue of sexual assault, we should re-think how we introduce the issue to our first-years.