A Reflection on Culture

I don’t want this blog to be about horrific things.  Of course I have and will continue to address horrific things, but that does not mean that they are what the blog is about.  If you look at the header, I wrote “Feminism, Human Rights, Social Change.”  Those are the positive things that result from taking on the structures and institutions and people who create and profit from inequality and suffering.  That’s what I want this blog to be about: taking on the obstacles that prevent people from living secure, dignified lives, and celebrating that people have the power to make change for themselves.

But today is one of those days when I read one too many articles about rape on college campuses and I feel overwhelmed with powerlessness.  Today, it was the story of Lizzy Seeberg, a young woman who was sexually assaulted at Notre Dame by a football player in 2010.  She killed herself ten days later.  Her assailant has never been brought to justice.  We don’t even know his name.  The article, by Melinda Henneberger, is long but well worth the read.  I knew it would upset me before I opened the link, but I read it, because I felt I had to, because so few people found her story worth paying attention to.

I will summarize: Lizzy was hanging out with friends in a football player’s room when suddenly she found herself alone with him, feeling trapped.  He sexually assaulted her but she managed to escape.  She reported the assault, and the assailant’s friends started harassing her with threatening text messages.  She was told that “messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.”  Ten days after the assault, Lizzy committed suicide.  It was only five days after that that her assailant was questioned.  Fifteen days after the assault.  After her suicide, her university launched a smear campaign against her, with representatives saying that she was the aggressor, she was behaving like a slut, her antidepressant medication made her crazy and unreliable.  Her university did this.  The football player has not suffered any consequences.

In theory, this article shouldn’t upset me so much, because it’s so much like so many articles I’ve already read.  I should, by now, be desensitized.  It’s a fact of life that sexual assault and rape are endemic on college campuses.  It’s a fact that universities are far more interested in protecting their reputations than protecting their students, or giving them justice.  It’s a fact that more often than not, the assailants and rapists will go unpunished, will not face any social stigma or any consequences whatsoever.  I’m very familiar with these facts.

But somehow every time I read a story like Lizzy’s, I can’t put it out of my mind, because it could be me.  It could be my sister.  It already has been some of my friends, many friends of friends.  If we are raped on our college campuses, right in the middle of communities we treasure, our communities will not stand behind us.  We are told to shut up.  We are told that the violent act committed against us is less important than protecting the names of our universities and the futures of whoever committed the crime.  The universities that are supposed to protect and value us would conspire with our rapists to put us out of sight.  It makes me feel like I have no value.  It makes me feel that I am less than a person.

I feel overwhelmed.  Lizzy’s tragic suicide is the result of a culture that tells us that women’s bodies are not their own, that even though we say rape is wrong we don’t really mean it.  It feels as though it doesn’t matter how many laws we pass to bring rapists to justice, if our culture isn’t behind them, nothing will change.  This culture is so deep I don’t know where to start.  How do we change attitudes we have all learned from childhood, that men are entitled to women’s bodies?  How do we change a society that doesn’t really think a crime against a woman is really a crime?

I want to talk about how we are able to create cultural change.  But the fight seems too daunting, and the casualties are mounting.  What can we do?

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