Whyte: It’s time to dispel myths about sexual violence

Amy Whyte, Opinion Editor

When I was a little girl, grown-ups always told me to never talk to strangers.

I was taught to mistrust anyone with whom I was not familiar and to be wary of shadowy unknown figures lurking in dark corners.

But the real threat faced by young girls and women today is not some vague, faceless bogeyman.

As a society, we like to dichotomize the world into good guys and bad guys – and we like to think we have an idea of what the bad guys look like. Be it the cartoonish portrayal of a wrongdoer as a swarthy villain in a top hat with a sinister mustache, or the damaging tendency to distrust a young man of color wearing a hoodie, we’ve constructed caricature profiles of the type of people that we should be afraid of.

Although it would be nice to be able to pick out the good guys from the bad guys at first sight, that’s not really how life works. The bad guy isn’t always some dark stranger following you home in a suspicious white van. In cases of rape and domestic violence, it’s usually someone you already know.

A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in nearly nine out of 10 female rape cases, the victim knew her assailant. Even worse, almost half of female rape victims reported their attacker to have been someone with whom they were or had been romantically involved.

Meanwhile, the same study reported that about one in three women experience domestic violence – acts of physical violence inflicted upon them by their own partner – at some point in their lifetimes.

On college campuses in particular, sexual violence is rarely a random act committed by a complete stranger. It happens in dorm rooms, at frat parties, in off-campus apartments. And it happens between friends, casual acquaintances, even established couples. Last year, a then-Medill junior filed a Title IX lawsuit against Northwestern alleging that it happened between her and her professor.

There is no simple dichotomy, no easy way to categorize good guys and bad guys. And it only serves to make the concept of sexual violence that much more confusing. If a friend makes an unwanted advance, and you don’t actually consent but you’re too uncomfortable to speak up, is it really sexual assault? If your significant other pressures you into having sex after you’ve repeatedly told them no, is it really rape?

With the national spotlight on campus sexual assault, we’ve slowly started to reframe the way we think about sexual and domestic violence. The White House’s new “It’s On Us” campaign uses the premise that sexual assault is usually perpetrated by someone the victim knows as a rallying cry to call people to action. And new changes to the Clery Act, the last of which were published on Monday, seek to further define how universities handle sexual assault.

The new rules require colleges to record incidents of stalking based on the location where it first occurred and include gender identity and national origin as categories for hate crimes. Most importantly, the policy change requires universities to be transparent about how they handle all cases of dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.

This transparency is key: Right now, survivors like the Medill student who filed the Title IX lawsuit assert that the University does not do an adequate job of responding to sexual assault and harassment complaints. The knowledge that NU will properly handle all situations involving sexual violence will encourage more victims to come forward and report their own experiences. Sexual assault will be brought out of the shadows and into the spotlight more than ever before, dispelling myths and hazy notions about what does and does not constitute sexual violence.

Through public discourse and education, we can do away with this false dichotomy of good guys and bad guys. We can empower victims to realize when they are being victimized. We can encourage survivors to come forward. And we can make sure the real bad guys – the ones perpetuating sexual crimes – don’t continue to get away with it.

Amy Whyte is a Medill senior. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].