Confronting the hidden symptoms of sexual aggression

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September 1, 2015

12:27 AM

Old Dominion University’s Sigma Nu chapter has been reprimanded after posting hand-painted signs in front of one of its off-campus houses imploring parents to deliver to the house their freshman daughters. “Hope your baby girl is ready for a good time,” read one; “Go ahead and drop off mom too,” another.

The ODU banners were sexist and unfunny. This much is patently true. They dripped objectification and misogyny. But are they significant? Can we draw any broader conclusions about sex and sexual violence on college campuses? Or are the signs a case of indelicate, immature and unimaginative, but ultimately harmless, joking?

“Media has started addressing what was once considered an impolite topic.”

Such banners are neither unusual nor new. Similar messages have been displayed on college campuses across the country and have gone without national rebuke. If the subject of sexual aggression was broached at all, any controversy was dismissed as the antics of a few young men who didn’t know any better. Any commotion was kept local. 

That’s changed. Now the national news media has devoted substantial attention to rape and sexual aggression on campus.

The public is gradually acknowledging the ingrained power gaps that run along the overlapping lines of age and sex, and how those gaps are magnified and exploited at college to the detriment of many students. The issue wasn’t talked about for a very long time even though it was incontrovertibly present. While superficially meaningless, the ODU signs betray a casual, thoughtless form of sexism all too common. The banners are stunts, sure, but they create and maintain an environment more conducive to sexual violence.

And that’s significant. “Rape culture” is not some new phenomenon invented by oversensitive millennials. It has been around for a while and will continue to exist in the face of passivity. It is a term that is becoming more popluar though as now, more people are coming to terms with the presence and prevalence of sexual aggression, which is fantastic. Attention and recognition leads to engagement, which can lead to real change. Less helpful, however, is the commodification of the problem by the media.

“Rape culture has emerged in the public consciousness only as much as it can be tossed around and referenced for authority and viewership.”

The ODU signs were visibly and ostentatiously wrong. There was nothing subtle about them. They were screaming, look-at-me displays of sexism, which made them an obvious story for news media. The circumstances were relatively free of ambiguity, uncertainty and controversy. There is no impetus to explore the problem in depth — it’s easy to rally against the most idiotic of transgressions. Inveighing against the banners is neither difficult nor complicated.

For one news cycle, at least, the banners dominated. Sexual aggression on college campuses became an unavoidable talking point, and the ODU episode was dissected and debated in agonizing detail. Every conceivable angle was weighed and accounted. And yet the issue remained a talking point, never developing further.

News media fixated itself on the story, but only in a way that tapped the story’s legitimacy. Rape culture has emerged in the public consciousness only as much as it can be tossed around and referenced for authority and viewership. The ODU situation provided such accessible cultural capital because it was so apparently, manifestly messed up.

“It is one symptom out of many, and most other symptoms are hidden out of sight.”

Lost in this treatment is the realization that sexual aggression is almost never a bleating banner hung for the world to see. It can be, and usually is, personal and unseen. The problem is almost never so obvious as a sign — rather, incredulity, ambiguity, lack of physical evidence and victim-blaming all plague attempts to confront sexual violence on campus.

The thing is, fuzzier and less garish cases don’t lend themselves to media coverage as well. They occur too regularly and are too complex to be considered entertainment. News media demands immediate certainty on an issue from which commentary can be extracted. We need to avoid that kind of thinking.

True nuance and consideration requires patience and openness. It’s useful to engage with the ODU debacle as an example of sexual aggression on college campuses, but not as a summary of the problem. It is one symptom out of many, and most other symptoms are hidden out of sight.

Email Quinn Monette at [email protected]

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  • Quinn Monette