We need to stand up to sexual assault at Oxy

Illustration courtesy of Kallyn Song-Nichols

As a woman, I know what it’s like to feel like my body doesn’t completely belong to me.

I felt like my body wasn’t mine when, the summer before ninth grade, a man grabbed my breast as he walked past me on the sidewalk. I felt it in high school when I heard from several friends that my male coach made a comment about my butt to the boys’ team. I felt it a month ago when, moments before I walked into a job interview, two men yelled at me from their car. I felt it when a guy who I considered my friend slapped my butt on the way to class.

Two years ago at Oxy, students witnessed a man masturbating in a shared bathroom in the hall I lived in. On at least two occasions last semester, someone was found taking photos of women under the shower doors in Haines. And those are only the public incidents.

I don’t have to look very hard at my life or my time at Oxy to find examples of men imposing their power on women, harming them sexually and contributing to this feeling that women do not have control over what happens to their bodies. Often, we treat these examples as minor — as problems women are expected to put up with. In reality, they are symptoms of, and contribute to, the bigger problem that lets men get away with much worse: rape culture. It’s an understanding many, if not all, women have. Women shower, walk around campus and sleep in their dorms at night not knowing whether they are safe.

I’m not breaking any news here. But that in itself is crazy; something’s really wrong when we see this happening over and over. Personally, I feel a mix of rage and terror when I think about the many people that harm women and continue their lives with no consequence, maybe not even understanding the harm they’ve caused.

I’m here to say, no — I’m not okay with it. I’m not going to stay quiet about the times I’ve been violated anymore. I hope that by talking about how these things affect me, I can join others who do the same. We can stand up and face it together. And over time, we can send the message that it’s not okay. So here I am, afraid to put the truth of my sexual harassment into the world but doing it anyway.

Just talking about sexual harassment won’t solve it. I can’t make men stop committing these violations against women. They’d have to do that themselves, especially since people who do this type of thing are caught so infrequently, much less punished. But it’s the first step, and women can be a lot stronger — we can all be a lot stronger — if we acknowledge the collective injustices that we’re facing. At Oxy, students hang in a balance between high rates of sexual assault and harassment and systems which effectively silence us.

As hard as those in the Title IX and Project SAFE offices try (and they try really hard), they are working within an institution that has an incentive to protect itself. Oxy is required to follow national Title IX regulations, which Betsy DeVos recently revamped to make the process more difficult for complainants. At Oxy, all disciplinary roads for sexual harassment or assault lead to Title IX, and the worst punishment Title IX can inflict on someone who’s been found guilty of an accusation is expulsion. In this case, their record would only say that disciplinary action had been taken, but a description of their crime would not be included. Only after a months-long process, including cross-examination of the complainant by the defendant or a representative of the defendant, will a case have the potential to reach this conclusion. That’s if survivors choose to take on that commitment in the first place; most Title IX cases end in informal resolutions.

It’s hard to talk about traumatic experiences. That’s understandable — it can be painful and personal. Not everyone has to do it. I feel the need to write about my experiences because I want to add my voice to a chorus of women who have used theirs before me. I’m inspired by those who tell their stories as a part of the #MeToo movement, those who have written about sexual assault in The Occidental, and people like Paige Cornelius and Caelynn Miller-Keyes who have been brave enough to speak against a daunting, painful problem. I don’t have the same experience as all women and I don’t claim to speak for them, but what I can do is tell my own stories.

Women, we can be stronger when we speak up and stand together. I stand with you. Men, talk about what you see, too — don’t let it pass as normal. In speaking about sexual harassment, we can work toward a world where women control their own bodies.

Peri Wallent is a junior cognitive science major. She can be reached at pwallent@oxy.edu.