When "enough" is too little: Why the visibility of "Mattress Girl" isn't the end of the campus rape fight

Rape on campus is more visible than ever. But the perception of change isn't the same thing as justice

Published May 28, 2015 6:43PM (EDT)

Emma Sulkowicz
Emma Sulkowicz

I won’t pretend to know what the nearly 12 million women currently enrolled in college in the United States think about campus assault. I don’t know how they situate the issue in relation to sexual violence that happens in their own homes and neighborhoods or in other countries they may be from or places they have maybe never heard of and can’t locate on a map.

But I do know that Meghan Daum’s latest piece in the Los Angeles Times takes aim at the wrong target. Daum argues that the students who have organized to make rape on campus visible are a distraction from the violence happening elsewhere, like the hundreds of girls who have been raped, forced to bear children and killed by Boko Haram militants.

From Daum:

As a trending topic (and one that's constantly sprouting subtopics), this thread of feminist discourse is compelling because it manages to be both exasperating and necessary. For every fatuous notion that ricochets around social media (mansplaining! microaggression!), the campus assault meme could also be sparking conversations worth having about gender and power, and the overall state of women in the world.

So why aren't we having those conversations? Why is Mattress Girl generating more headlines and postings than the victims of Boko Haram? Why (other than the usual vagaries of the class divide) are so many young women ignorant of the big picture captured by the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting stats — that if you lived in, say, Gallup, N.M., in 2013 you were 47 times more likely to get raped than if you were enrolled at Harvard?

Why, when there is so much serious work to be done, does this new generation of feminists only look inward instead of out at the big world?

The idea that women must choose between advocating for their own dignity and safety or advocating for the dignity and safety of other women is a viciously false one, but it's pretty popular fodder for opinion pieces. So is undermining the scope of the work being done -- and the women doing it -- by painting college-aged anti-rape activists as a uniformly wealthy group of white women clamoring for what George Will has called a "coveted" victim status that "confers privileges."

Activists like Emma Sulkowicz have brought college administrators and the federal government to bear for failures of accountability and toothless enforcement mechanisms. And while Daum is right to note that there have been considerable shifts in “the way we perceive women in institutions of higher learning,” I wonder why so many people think perception -- limited as that change may still be -- is enough.

If you're looking at Congress, the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, which among its other provisions would give Title IX more teeth, still hasn't passed. And while the White House has set up a task force, put out some bystander intervention ads and started looking at the problem more seriously, these changes are still a work in progress -- being negotiated and unevenly felt on campuses. Federal investigations are ongoing. Fair process and transparency remains elusive.

Certain state legislatures have advanced mandatory reporting measures as a clean fix that will keep schools accountable, but victims' advocates and victims themselves have pointed out -- given the institutional failures of law enforcement to handle these cases as well as the violence of police themselves -- that it is dangerous to believe that more cops or more incarceration is the answer. The process of shifting institutional structures and awareness of the issue is messy and remains in its fetal stage.

And time spent working to get it right isn’t time that could be better spent doing something else. The fact that a little more than 12 months of public discussion about rape is seen as too much is a reminder of how much work there is left to do.

I wrote this before (we seem to be stuck in something of a holding pattern on this issue) when a piece in the New York Times made the same point -- that attention paid to campus assault somehow steals from our ability to think about sexual violence happening elsewhere -- so I’ll quote myself:

… in addition to talking about the specific and egregious ways that colleges have failed to prevent violence, support survivors and meet their federal civil rights obligations, we also need to be talking about the police departments that have failed to properly investigate and prosecute rape cases. The violence of the police themselves. The unique challenges faced by low-income women of color when trying to seek accountability in the criminal justice system, and how media narratives about sexual assault all too often erase them. How for undocumented women, reporting sexual violence to the police can trigger detention and deportation. The ways that poverty can trap women in dangerous situations or expose them to greater threats of violence. These are all big conversations… but there is enough room to have them all.

To pretend that there is only so much public space that conversations about sexual assault and gender-based violence can hold is to accept the dangerous prescriptions of rape culture.

There is room to have these conversations, but more than that, it is vitally necessary to talk about different forms of violence against women at the same time. Not to flatten the disparate ways that women are made vulnerable to violence as if they were all the same, but to expose the ways that the baseline of our cultural indifference to women’s humanity makes this kind of violence not just possible, but probable.

In order to answer Daum’s question about why “we” aren’t having these conversations, it's useful to get specific about whom she means. If "we" is the feminists doing the work on the ground, I’d point to the intersectional organizing and advocacy being done by the people at Know Your IX. Their focus spans from administrative failures at schools across the country to the financial and mental health burden on victims and police violence and the carceral state. Or the women graduating from these colleges and entering education, public policy, community organizing and the media to make these intersections -- informed by their own experiences -- visible for others.

But if the “we” Daum means is the “we” of left-leaning media, there's good reason to echo the question. (And hold a mirror up to ourselves.) It's true that very little space is given to global violence against women on liberal news sites based in the United States. The disparity in coverage has nothing to do with the work Sulkowicz or other women organizing on campus are doing and everything to do with a saturated media landscape that, with the exception of legacy institutions and billionaire-backed startups, often devotes very little time or money to independent reporting. And the media in general remains incredibly white and incredibly male, limiting the perspectives and voices leading the conversation "we" are having. Coverage is informed by these biases and disparities, and the stories run on a given day can become an echo chamber fueled by clicks rather than news value or nuance.

That’s a problem badly in need of rectifying, but the fix isn't to finger wag at women who have said "enough" to the violence they've experienced at their doorstep.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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Boko Haram Campus Rape Emma Sulkowicz Global Violence Against Women Violence Against Women Women