[TRIGGER WARNING for discussion of sexual violence.] As you may have noticed, April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, and like with a lot of other awareness months, the focus is a little too narrow. Awareness isn’t enough when it comes to sexual assault. In order for things to change, we have to give equal attention (or even more) to prevention.
April plays host to a number of awareness months, most of which have a rather myopic view. April is also Autism Awareness Month, which is heavily criticized by disability activists, including myself. It isn’t enough to be aware; unconditional acceptance is what is truly needed when it comes to autism and related disorders. Similarly, April is also STD awareness month. Again, most people are aware that STDs and STIs exist, but they need help learning how to prevent them.
With all of the news coverage surrounding the Steubenville rape case and the emergence of the term “rape culture” into more mainstream culture, one might think that there would be more of a focus on prevention. But news coverage is short-lived and tends to evaporate once the case is closed. Three weeks ago, nobody could stop talking about rape culture, but this week it’s back to being a subject reserved for social justice activists. Maybe that’s why there hasn’t been a shift. Our culture sees sexual violence as something that isn’t important enough to do anything but complain about. The general public is too removed from the realities of rape, because they’ve been fed rape myths telling them that all rapists are masked men who break into women’s homes rather than their partners, brothers, fathers, uncles, and friends.
Awareness tends to be enacted as slacktivism more than anything else. I’m not talking about people who aren’t able to donate time or work to the cause, but about people who think that clicking “Like” on a single Facebook photo and then going back to being silent for the rest of the year qualifies them as an advocate. Much has been said about the harmfulness of awareness-only months, and while the sentiment of having a special month dedicated to being aware of a cause is nice, it doesn’t do much. Rather, it almost tricks uninformed and unaware people into thinking what they’re doing is helping when it really isn’t doing anything at all.
And yet we’ve still seen some signs of positive change. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has recently come under fire for strong-arming students into shutting up about their assault and placing the rights of a rapist over the rights of a victim or survivor. UNC has even gone so far as to threaten a student who spoke publicly about her rape with expulsion. UNC students have all but revolted, and rightly so. It turns out that some people have a problem with a major university upholding and enforcing rape culture just because they can. There have been discussions on major news networks about what we can do to prevent sexual violence, with an emphasis on teaching our children not to rape.
Awareness has its benefits. With sexual assault, education is crucial and can go hand in hand with prevention. If we educate people about what constitutes sexual assault and work on broadening and explaining the definition of consent, we are engaging in prevention. Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of thing that’s covered in widespread, popular awareness campaigns. Instead the burden of responsibility is still on women to not get raped, rather than on men not to rape. This is not the kind of awareness we need.
What we need is actual education that serves as prevention. We need Sexual Assault Awareness Month to focus on educating people about how to prevent rape by teaching them the definitions of consent and assault and by sharing responsibility when it comes to rape culture. This means calling out rape culture when you see it and refusing to give your friends passes just because you know they’re such nice guys. Whether they’re nice or not, if they’re enforcing rape culture by cracking a rape joke or ranting that a biochem test “totally raped” them, they’re douches that need to be set right. Sharing responsibility means watching your own language and checking your privilege, and recognizing how you yourself might play into rape culture. This isn’t going to change on its own, and real change requires a lot more than awareness. Let’s think of April not merely as an awareness month, but as an action month.