Secular Students Week Guest Post: Benjamin Karpf


Here’s my last Secular Students Week post! Student activist Benjamin Karpf talks about the importance of building community for secular people–something that we sometimes overlook in favor of the “bigger” issues we face as nontheists. 

My name is Benjamin Karpf. In my freshman year at the University of Central Florida, I started looking into various organizations to try and get involved. Of the ones I looked into freshman year, I am only still an active member of one: I am the president of the Secular Student Alliance at UCF.

I had become familiar with the group through my older brother, who was one of the club’s first members and earliest officers.  So when I found the time, I started attending the meetings, then the potlucks, and by the end of the semester I was a regular presence at the table that gets set up three days a week in front of the school’s Student Union.

I became more and more active in the club as time went on, meeting more of the local secular community. I became closer with people in the club and have felt very active in the group’s work in making sure people of all beliefs get treated fairly.

The more time I spent with the club, the more I realized how important organizations like the Secular Student Alliance are. A lot of members of the group had never really had a secular community before coming here. A lot of them had trouble with their faith and needed the support. Some of them had been ostracized from their family and friends, while others had been keeping it a secret out of fear they would be similarly ostracized.

The Secular Student Alliance at UCF is constantly doing things, such as weekly meetings, social events, tabling, volunteering, raising awareness for secular issues, hosting support groups, going to community events, and hosting events of our own. That list may make it seem like a bit of boasting on my end, but the reason I wanted to list those things is because none of them would’ve been possible without the support of our national affiliate, the Secular Student Alliance. Since we formed, the national organization has provided us with funding, community resources, and helped us organize large scale events, such as this year’s Openly Secular Day where the sent us speakers from around the country. With their support the community has managed to thrive on campus, and I know that because of them, these communities are growing on campuses across the country.

That is why any support you can give to the Secular Student Alliance is so important: to help the students around the country who need their work to finally feel accepted.

If you’d like to donate to the SSA’s campaign, today’s the last day! Every little bit helps!

Secular Students Week Interview!

Hey folks! As you may know, I was recently elected to the Board of Directors of the Secular Student Alliance. I’ve been involved with the SSA for almost three years; it was the first secular conference I ever went to and basically the reason I got involved in the movement. I probably wouldn’t be here blogging on this network if not for the SSA.

June 10 – 17 is Secular Students Week, when content creators from around the movement are sharing stories of the fantastic work secular students are doing. The Secular Student Alliance has a goal to get 500 donations this week: if we reach this goal, we will unlock a $20,000 challenge grant! You can help us reach that goal here.

Secular student activist Lauren HinerAs part of Secular Students Week, I’m interviewing Lauren Hiner, a secular student activist at Clarion University. Along with her campus SSA, Lauren organized a really amazing National Coming Out Day event that brought her group together with the campus LGBTQ group to show support for those who are unable to come out. Participants made handprints on a large banner and thus created a visual representation of solidarity with students who are queer, secular, or both.

Tell us a little about yourself–what you’re studying in school, what you’re hoping to do after graduation, what you’re up to this summer, whatever else you want to share.

I’m Lauren Hiner, I will be returning in the fall to Clarion University as a sophomore Psychology student with a minor in Social Work. I hope to move out of state, maybe even out of country upon graduating from grad school. This summer I am keeping up with the Secular Student Alliance by attending a conference in July in Ohio, which I am excited for. A few other club members will be attending as well, we are all looking forward to it very much!

How did you get involved with the Secular Student Alliance? What motivated you to join?

I got involved with the Secular Student Alliance my freshman year when I saw an advertisement for the club written in chalk on a sidewalk. I’ve always been secular but in my hometown almost everyone is very religious and it’s looked down upon if you do not believe in what the majority believes in. My mother always assumed it was teenage angst or rebellion but I knew it was not, I was not a very rebellious kid growing up. I decided that I wanted to go meet people who had the same beliefs as me and hear how they have dealt with opening up about being secular. Everyone was so welcoming, it was amazing to be able to be so open about what you do or do not believe in and not be judged for such.

Tell us all about your National Coming Out Day event! What made your group decide to partner with your school’s gay/straight alliance? How did you decide what to do for this event?

National Coming Out Day as an amazing event for our club. We read on the national SSA page about how National Coming out Day was approaching and it sounded like something we would want to be a part of. I am also a member of the Clarion Gay/Straight Alliance (Allies), so I attend their meetings as well. Both clubs wanted to do something for this day so we took advantage of that and collaborated. We thought that “coming out” does not necessarily just mean as LGBT, but as a minority with beliefs in general. Atheists/Agnostics etc.. also have to sometimes come out to their family or friends who do not agree with it. We wanted to make everyone feel proud to be themselves instead of scared to be who they really are.

The clubs brainstormed together and thus our event was born! We had a giant banner where people could paint their hands and place a handprint on it to show support.

National Coming Out Day banner


National Coming Out Day banner



I heard that you had a huge amount of participation–over 80 students contributed. What do you think your group did to make the event so successful?

We had an amazing turn out with over 80 students coming to support us! I believe that just having a good cause and a friendly environment contributed to that. We had upbeat music, paint and an actual “closet” people could “come out” of if they wanted. It was all together a fun environment. Not to mention a wonderful cause.

What’s something you would do differently if you could do it all again?

We plan on doing the event again in the following years, it was such an inspiring thing! The only thing I would change is more time to plan, which we will have this upcoming year.

How has your involvement in the SSA impacted you?

My involvement with SSA has impacted me in such positive ways. I was nervous my freshman year and had social anxiety about making new friends. SSA gave me a place to be myself and make friends who are just like me! I owe a lot to the club and the other members. If I wouldn’t have attended that meeting I would not have met such wonderful people that I consider to be some of my best friends now. Now as president, I want to get our name out there more so others feel like they have a place as well. I hope to help students be more comfortable with who they are, and get involved with the campus more.

If you want to support awesome students like Lauren, please donate to the Secular Student Alliance here. Even if you can only give a tiny amount, you’ll still count towards our goal of 500 donors!

A List of Ways I Have Used Trigger Warnings

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

These are some ways I have mentally responded to encountering a trigger warning/content note on the internet:

  1. [ignores, continues reading]
  2. “Oh, yikes, this is going to be pretty serious. Ok, I’m ready. Let’s do it.”
  3. “I think I need to take a few minutes to mentally prepare myself before reading this.”
  4. “Welp, that’s just too much right now. I’m going to wait a few hours or days until I’m in a better brainspace and then engage with this.”
  5. “Ok, this is totally fine for me, but it’s nice to know what I’m getting into.”
  6. “I can do this. But I’m going to message a friend and talk to them while I read it, or maybe pet the purring kitty.”
  7. “I’m going to read this, but I already know I’m going to be a wreck afterwards, so I’m going to set up some hot tea/some time with a friend/Chinese food/a fun TV show to help me afterwards.”
  8. “You know what? I don’t need to read this. I’ve lived this. I know this. There’s no reason to make myself think about it again.”

I’ve been hearing a lot about how trigger warnings are nothing but a way for trauma survivors to “avoid challenging material.” I present this list in order to show some more typical ways that people use trigger warnings, such as mentally preparing themselves for the material, choosing the best time to engage with it, and setting up self-care practices that will help.

As you see from #8, yes, sometimes people choose not to engage with triggering material at all. In that latter (and not extremely common) case, it’s useful to remember that people who are triggered by something are usually triggered by it because they have lived it. I’ve sat through many classroom discussions about sexual assault, suicide, eating disorders, sexism, and other things that I have lived through, and while I occasionally did learn from these discussions, more often I learned little or nothing, because I have lived through it. And yes, everyone’s experiences are different, which is why it can be useful for survivors of trauma to share their experiences with fellow survivors and learn from each other. But that’s usually not what the classroom space is.

I’m also a bit fed up, to be honest, with this deceptive word “challenging.” What is a challenge? Here are some things that I find challenging:

  • applied math problems
  • recipes that involve very precise timing
  • coping with depression
  • keeping my apartment clean when I’m very fatigued all the time
  • wrapping my head around dense and difficult literature or philosophy
  • persuading myself to make the effort to go out and see friends even when I’m wiped out from work, because I know that it’ll be good for me
  • sitting through a very boring class or meeting
  • saying goodbye to people I love after a visit
  • shooting in low-light conditions without a tripod
  • telling someone that I love them
  • addressing situations where I feel like someone is communicating passive-aggressively and we need to get things out into the open and talk about them
  • dentist appointments
  • arguing with someone who thinks that rape victims ever deserve what happened to them
  • economics
  • climbing up four sets of stairs while carrying several bags of groceries
  • figuring out how to properly manage my enormous student debt
  • relationships where I feel like I’m more invested in the person than they are in me

You might notice that many of the things on this list seem to have absolutely nothing to do with each other because “challenging” is a very ambiguous word!

There are intellectual challenges, like solving a difficult math problem or understanding a difficult text. There are interpersonal challenges, like figuring out the right way to address a conflict with a partner. There are physical challenges, like climbing a lot of stairs while carrying a heavy load. There are emotional challenges, like coping with depression or with dentist appointments. Some challenges involve combinations of these things. For instance, shooting in low-light conditions without a tripod involves an intellectual challenge (knowing what all those manual settings on the DSLR mean and how to set them) and a physical challenge (holding the camera as still as possible). Telling someone that they have hurt my feelings involves an interpersonal challenge (figuring out the right way to say what I need to say in a way that’ll be effective) and an emotional challenge (dealing with my hurt feelings as I do this).

When people condescendingly claim that college students who ask for trigger warnings are trying to “avoid challenging material,” they are–perhaps intentionally–conflating two meanings of the word “challenging.” Triggering material is emotionally challenging. The challenge is that you feel like you’re about to start screaming and crying in front of your classmates and professor. The challenge is that suddenly you’re back in that bar or that dorm room or wherever it happened, and you’re trying to get away but you can’t get away and you’re trying to scream but nothing comes out. The challenge is that suddenly you’re floating somewhere high above the classroom looking down at yourself sitting there unable to move. The challenge is that you forget who or where you are. The challenge is that your brain starts to empty out like a glass with a crack in it, and no matter what you do you just can’t fill it up again and they’re all looking at you because the professor asked you a question and you have no idea what any of those words meant or how to even make words.

Do we really go to college to encounter this type of “challenge”? No, college coursework is intellectually challenging. The challenge is understanding the nuances of complicated arguments or literary devices. The challenge is connecting ideas together in a way that flows and makes sense, finding patterns in the texts, defending your opinions using evidence from the book. The challenge is being willing to entertain an argument that you personally disagree with, to examine it from all sides. Sometimes, the challenge is memorizing facts, though that’s not so common in college. Sometimes the challenge is writing code that works, or designing a study that effectively examines a particular research question.

You know who would be pretty bad at those types of challenges? Someone who, in their mind, is currently stuck reliving the worst thing that ever happened to them.

Yes, those who insist that trigger warnings are no substitute for professional mental healthcare and that it’s not a professor’s job to heal their student’s personal trauma are absolutely correct. Trigger warnings will not heal trauma. However, they will also not “prevent people from healing” or whatever’s getting thrown out as the latest justification for not using them. What they do is allow people to engage with triggering content in a way that works for them. Only sometimes will they cause people to choose not to engage at all, and remember, the absence of the trigger warning wouldn’t have made them engage with it anyway. It would’ve made them try, get triggered, and fail to engage. It’s such a creepy “Gotcha!” sort of thing to insist on tricking people into trying to engage with triggering content by not including a trigger warning when they asked for one.

In my experience, most survivors of serious trauma–the ones that get triggered by things–are either already accessing mental healthcare, are unable to access mental healthcare, or have tried it and found it unhelpful. Please stop with the condescending advice to students to seek mental healthcare “instead” of asking for trigger warnings. Engaging with triggering content in a thoughtful, intentional, and controlled way is often part of someone’s healing process and has been recommended by plenty of mental healthcare professionals.

Trauma survivors know best what they need. They don’t know perfectly, but they know better than someone with no experience or knowledge of that trauma. If you don’t want to use trigger warnings, then don’t, and say so. But don’t cloak that unwillingness in a patronizing concern for the survivor’s well-being. We see past that stuff. You’re not the ultimate authority on what we need and what’s best for us. Just say it’s too much of an inconvenience for you and you won’t do it.

Trigger Warnings, Microaggressions, and the War Against “Over-Sensitivity”

My newest piece at the Daily Dot examines the backlash against “over-sensitivity” online.

A group of Columbia University students have ignited the latest battle in the online war over trigger warnings by asking professors to include them before teaching classics that feature detailed rape scenes, such as certain Greek myths. Predictably, their own classmates have responded with insults and thinly veiled rape threats in the comments sections of the Columbia Spectator story.

Lest it seem that these students are asking for some extreme and unreasonable accommodation, consider this: Have you ever had a friend invite you to see a movie and asked them to warn you if the movie has graphic violence in it? If so, congratulations, you’ve asked for a trigger warning. It’s unlikely, as Michael E. Miller writes in Post, that trigger warnings are a “treatment [Greek myth] never had before.” Surely someone has at some point handed their friend a book of Greek mythology and said, “Watch out though, there’s kinda a lot of rape in there.”

The outrage over trigger warnings (in college syllabi and elsewhere) is just one example of the online backlash against supposed “over-sensitivity.”

Microaggressions, which have long been discussed in academic circles but recently made more well-known by college students’ awareness campaigns, are another frequent target. National Review referred to the effort to reduce microaggressions as “thought police.” Reason advised voters to be “less sensitive” to microaggressions. The Atlantic offered some helpful advice: “Instead, let’s focus on acts of aggression that are far from micro.” The message seems to be that what you don’t think about can’t hurt you.

When I read any one of these many panicked screeds, what I see on the surface is fear that things that have always functioned a certain way (i.e., college classrooms, corporate offices, online comments sections, and casual conversations) will no longer be able to function that way. Now we have to be “sensitive.” Now we can’t make lewd comments about a female colleague’s body. Now we can’t ask an Asian classmate which “type of Asian” he is.

But it goes deeper. People are worried that they’ll have to care about all these problems they never even knew existed, that they’ll be seen as bad people if they do not care, and that they won’t know all the right words to say and will say the wrong words instead. And that’s a real fear.

But it’s a fear few want to acknowledge, because it’s so deeply uncool to admit that you care what people think of you. So instead, it becomes about how college students are So Whiny And Coddled These Days and how will we ever be able to have a conversation if we have to be So Sensitive all the time?

Read the rest here.

Physical Space, Mental Accessibility

This is a short post in which I’m going to make a request: if you organize events, run meetings, teach classes, or do anything else that requires getting a bunch of people to sit in the same room together, please give some thought to making sure that people have ample physical space.

I recently finished graduate school, which is a relief for many reasons, one of which is the fact that I will (probably) never have to sit in a classroom again. I found most classrooms really stressful because I never had enough personal space. Often there’d be only six inches (or less) between me and the people next to me, and we’d be accidentally elbowing each other and reading each other’s notes for two hours straight. Getting up to step out and use the restroom or get a drink of water turned into a disastrous mess of trying to wriggle out of my seat without touching anyone or disturbing the class (so, basically impossible). If I needed to make some notes about something personal (reminders, to-do’s, rants), I could count on at least two people seeing it without even meaning to. If somebody next to me was coughing and sneezing, I could count on it getting all over me, even if they were trying to be mindful of that.

Similar issues frequently come up at work meetings, conferences, and anywhere else I have to sit in a room full of people. I end up spending meetings and events that are meant to be educational, productive, and/or fun scrunched up with my knees pressed together and my elbows jammed into my sides, ignoring my need to use a restroom or get a drink of water, hunched over my notebook so that people don’t read my notes over my shoulder, and panicking like hell.

I’m sure some people don’t mind it, but by now I’ve had enough conversations with people about this to know that I’m far from the only one who finds it really anxiety-provoking to not be able to have a personal bubble at all. And that’s not even getting into the issue of mobility aids and people who use them. As uncomfortable as I must be in spaces like these, someone who uses a wheelchair or has difficulty sitting down/standing up must be even more uncomfortable.

I know that sometimes giving everyone sufficient space is impossible. I know that people have different norms about what’s “sufficient space,” and a lot of this is culturally specific. I know that it’s a trade-off between personal space and audience size. Yes, I know.

But often it feels like no thought is given to this at all, that people who organize or lead these events (even social work professors or professionals who ought to know) don’t even realize that having to sit very very close to other people can be really anxiety-provoking to some people, and that anxious people aren’t necessarily the most effective students, audience members, or meeting attendees.

There are some things you can do to make this better if you organize spaces like these:

  • Consider a maximum attendance limit, if you don’t have one.
  • Think about how you’ve arranged the seating. So often I hear “LET’S ALL SIT IN A BIG CIRCLE SO THAT WE CAN ALL SEE EACH OTHERS’ BEAUTIFUL SMILING FACES” and I feel that drop in my stomach. Yes, it’s nice to sit in a big circle so that we can all see each others’ beautiful smiling faces, but some spaces/audience sizes cannot accommodate this comfortably. Consider arranging the chairs in rows instead.
  • Do not, do not, do not pressure people that you see have chosen to sit in the back, off to the side, or somewhere else that’s not close to other attendees. I’m so sick of hearing “BUT DON’T YOU WANT TO SIT UP HERE WITH EVERYONE,” which is not something to which I can reasonably say “no.” Assume that people have a legitimate reason for choosing to sit wherever they choose to sit.
  • If there are lots of rows of chairs, make sure to include aisles so that people sitting towards the middle of the room still have a way to get up and step out if they need to.

I’m sure this can never be fixed entirely and I’m not asking for a perfect world in which there’s always at least two feet between me and other people, but this would be a nice start. Accessibility has both physical and mental components–can people physically access the space, and also, can they actually feel mentally okay enough in that space to do what they’re supposed to do there? Both of these are important.

On Mishearing “Get Consent” as “Don’t Have Sex”

[Content note: sexual assault]

This fall, the new affirmative consent law in California, which requires all universities that receive state funding to adopt definitions of consent that translate roughly to “only yes means yes” rather than simply “no means no,” reignited a number of age-old debates about the meaning of consent and sexual assault. One of them is the claim that anti-rape advocacy is attempting to redefine perfectly good sex as rape, and that in this new climate, men cannot ever be safe from being accused of rape no matter how careful they are.

Remember, by the way, that this is not new. This is not a California’s-new-law problem. This is a very old problem.

This article was published before the law passed, but it’s still very relevant because I’m hearing these sorts of objections, especially in response to the law, all the time. The authors interview a number of college men (and those who work with them) who say they are much more careful about hooking up now that there’s such a focus on campus sexual assault. For instance:

Pollack said a patient recently told him about making out with a girl at a party. Things were going fine, the student said, when suddenly a vision of his school’s disciplinary board flew into his head.

“‘I want to go to law school or medical school after this,’” Pollack said, recounting the student’s comments. “‘I said to her, it’s been nice seeing you.’”

More anecdotally, I’ve heard these sorts of remarks too. “I don’t even bother asking women out now,” or “I haven’t had sex for years because I’m scared they’ll call me a rapist.” I feel sad for these men who clearly want sexual intimacy but feel that they have no choice to give it up. And I also feel angry, because this is not what we’ve been saying, and yet they insist that we’re telling them they can’t have sex at all.

Countless writers, educators, and activists have weighed in on what consent is and what it is not and how to communicate around it. If you Google “what is consent,” the first page has numerous resources meant to help young people learn what consent is, such as this one and this one. Don’t like reading? There are graphics!

Yet (some) men insist that this is all so mysterious and perilous that they have no choice but to avoid the whole enterprise altogether.

I don’t want anyone to be lonely, insecure, and sexually unfulfilled. I don’t want anyone who wants to have sex to be unable to have it. I want everyone to have the confidence to pursue and find the types of relationships they’re interested in. I want everyone to feel worthy and valuable even if they haven’t found a partner yet.

But I also want people to pursue all of this ethically. That means that if you’re ever unsure if someone is consenting, you stop and ask. And if you don’t think you are able to do that, then you should abstain from sex until you are able to do it.


I wish I could explain consent to all of these men. I wish they could attend one of my workshops about consent, where I help people learn to understand body language, find language to help them ask for and give consent, and show how these skills apply to all areas of life, not just sex.

But I’m not sure how much of the misunderstanding is innocent rather than willful. The information is out there. So many people are working hard to make it available to college men. I’m not sure how much else I personally–or we collectively–can do for people who may not want to learn and change.

If we keep saying, “Make sure your partner is consenting!” and they keep hearing, “Women are mysterious fickle creatures who sometimes call random things rape just to screw you over,” I’m not sure how much responsibility we can accept for the misunderstanding.

Especially since many people have a vested interest in perpetuating this misunderstanding. It serves their purposes. They think it makes things easier for them, even as it causes so much more anxiety and fear and pain than embracing affirmative consent as a standard.


Sex, with all of its possibility to hurt, will probably always bring up fears, including the fear of overstepping a boundary and hurting someone. That is not a pleasant feeling; I know because, as someone who was not socialized to feel entitled to others’ bodies or attention, I feel it. Communicating clearly and expecting nothing less than clear communication from my partners helps relieve that fear, but a little bit of it is a good thing. It helps us remember that we have the power to hurt.

Right now, though, the predominant fear is one many people, women and gender-nonconforming people especially, face–the fear of having our boundaries willfully ignored. I won’t speculate about which feels worse. It is possible that someone who doesn’t have to face a high likelihood of being sexually assaulted feels subjectively as bad when they imagine the possibility of “accidentally” assaulting someone as I feel when I imagine the possibility of being assaulted (on purpose).

But for me, personally, the fear of being assaulted is so much worse. Because there are ways–ways that aren’t discussed nearly enough–to reduce my risk of assaulting someone to approximately zero without any undue burden on me. There are no ways to reduce my risk of being assaulted that are effective and that to not impose an undue burden on me.

This is why I am glad that men are starting to feel that surmountable fear. I don’t want them to live in terror. I don’t want them to avoid sex out of fear. (That would be how the other half lives.) I do want them to accept their fair share of the responsibility, though. And yes, that means more fear than they may be used to.

Ezra Klein says as much in a provocative Vox piece:

If the Yes Means Yes law is taken even remotely seriously it will settle like a cold winter on college campuses, throwing everyday sexual practice into doubt and creating a haze of fear and confusion over what counts as consent. This is the case against it, and also the case for it. Because for one in five women to report an attempted or completed sexual assault means that everyday sexual practices on college campuses need to be upended, and men need to feel a cold spike of fear when they begin a sexual encounter.


When I first read that Bloomberg piece about waning “hookup culture,” my initial reaction was, honestly, to shrug. Let them be scared. Let them avoid sex and intimacy. I’ve certainly done that because I was afraid of sexual assault.

But then I thought, this isn’t really the way forward. At least, not entirely.

These men don’t seem to be afraid in that rational, “Shit, I could really hurt someone! Better be careful” way. They seem afraid in a reactive way, almost out of spite–“See, look how much you’ve fucked up my life! Happy now?” They seem afraid because they keep interpreting consent education in the most negative and life-fucking sort of way. They seem afraid because they still don’t understand that their female partners are human beings with their own subjective experiences, experiences that they would do well to listen to and try to understand.

I don’t want men to live in fear. I don’t want men to stop flirting with women and asking for their number. I don’t want men to start refusing sex with eager, consenting women because what if they’re actually lying and not consenting.

I want them to listen to us. I want them to respect our agency. I want them to let us write the story together with them, rather than writing each chapter themselves and then handing it to us to read, perhaps accepting some critique if they are especially gracious.

How Rolling Stone Failed Rape Survivors

[Content note: sexual assault]

My new Daily Dot piece discusses the Rolling Stone mess.

Last month’s groundbreaking Rolling Stone piece about sexual assault at the University of Virginia recently came under scrutiny from reporters at Slate and the Washington Post, leading Rolling Stone to retract the piece on Friday.

Unfortunately, many are taking this to mean that “Jackie,” the college student who described her brutal gang rape in the original piece, was lying about her ordeal. Based on everything I have read about this story, however, I find that exceedingly unlikely.

One major criticism of the original Rolling Stone piece has centered on the fact that the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, did not reach out to the students Jackie accused of rape or to the fraternity where she claimed the assault happened. In the retraction piece, the editors wrote, “Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”

I understand this decision, and I understand how difficult it must’ve been for Erdely to try to keep Jackie comfortable enough to speak publicly about such a traumatic experience. But this goes against journalistic ethics and leaves the journalist, the publication, the readers, and the subject of the piece—Jackie—vulnerable. Since Jackie was already going on the record with her accusation, refusing to try to interview the men she accused would not have helped prevent retribution against her. Unfortunately, that is a risk any time a rape survivor goes public—in fact, any time anyone publicly accuses anybody of anything.

Reporting the story ethically and rigorously doesn’t have to mean disbelieving Jackie or treating her insensitively. There’s a difference between a reporter who says, “I’m going to interview whoever I want regardless of what you want” and a reporter who says, “I understand your concerns, but in order for this story to be as powerful as we want it to be, I need to reach out to the people you’re accusing.” If Jackie refused to speak given these terms, perhaps this was not the right time to try to write this piece. As Audrey White writes at Autostraddle:

Erdely’s job as a reporter required she create a bulletproof story to protect Jackie, avoid libel against the alleged assailants, and achieve her ostensible goal of revealing a culture at UVA and in Greek life that promotes and protects sexual assault. … If respecting Jackie’s wishes meant the reporter couldn’t contact anyone else related to the assault, even to confirm basic details like a person’s membership in the frat or the date of an event, she should have found a different source or approached the narrative from a different angle. As it stands, she put the integrity of her story and of Jackie’s search for resolution at risk.

Indeed, it’s now unclear how willing Jackie was to be a part of this story at all. The Washington Post reports: “Overwhelmed by sitting through interviews with the writer, Jackie said she asked Erdely to be taken out of the article. She said Erdely refused, and Jackie was told that the article would go forward regardless.”

While Jackie doesn’t specify exactly how or why she was overwhelmed by this process, the fact that there appear to be “inconsistencies” in her recollection of her gang rape gives a possible clue.

Read the rest here.

What Is “Survivor Privilege”? I Don’t Know And Neither Does George Will

[Content note: sexual assault]

At the Daily Dot, I have an analysis of George Will’s useless Washington Post column and many (but not all) of the ways in which it is wrong:

George Will’s misunderstandings about sexual assault are numerous and astoundingly ignorant. He continually uses “sexual assault” in scare quotes as though its very existence is dubious to him. He insists that if a man continues having sex with a woman after she said “no” several times, it cannot be rape, because she had willingly had sex with him in the past. He calls definitions of sexual assault that include non-consensual touching as well as non-consensual penetration “capacious,” as though using someone else’s body sexually without their consent is somehow not assault and never traumatic just because it doesn’t involve both a penis and a vagina. He denies that intoxication renders one incapable of giving informed consent, even though it’s fairly well-known that people who are drunk don’t always know or understand what they’re doing.

He even refers to women as “females,” cementing my belief that he belongs in an episode of Star Trek and not in the real world, let alone on the staff of an award-winning newspaper.

But perhaps his most egregiously out-of-touch statement is that “when [universities] make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.” Will does not elaborate on what, exactly, is so “coveted” about being a victim of sexual assault, how exactly universities “confer privileges” upon students who come forward about their assaults, or how these privileges, supposing they exist, are what is driving the supposed “proliferation” of “victims.” Evidence is less of a priority than rhetoric, apparently.

Read the rest here.

A Review of the White House’s Report on Campus Sexual Violence

[Content note: sexual assault]

I wasn’t really paying much attention to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault because I think that that kind of stuff makes a lot less of a difference than good old-fashioned grassroots activism, but I did pay attention when RAINN, an organization that I otherwise really respect the work of, sent the Task Force its recommendations, which ridiculously stated that we should stop blaming this whole “rape culture” thing and recognize that sexual assault is caused by individuals. Amanda Marcotte takes this down quite well here.

So when the Task Force released its first report recently, I decided to read it and see how useful it was and whether or not it followed RAINN’s lead in trivializing the role of culture and socialization in producing widespread sexual violence.

Here’s what the report gets right:

1. It acknowledges that schools have a strong incentive to avoid publicizing sexual assault statistics:

For colleges and universities, breaking the cycle of violence poses a unique challenge. When a school tries to tackle the problem – by acknowledging it, drawing attention to it, and encouraging survivors to report – it can start to look like a dangerous place. On the flip side, when a school ignores the problem or discourages reporting (either actively or by treating survivors without care), it can look safer. Add to this the competition for top students or a coveted spot on a college rankings list – and a school might think it can outshine its neighbor by keeping its problem in the shadows.

We have to change that dynamic.

The same thing happens with mental health, hazing in the Greek system, and basically any other problem faced by college campuses. It’s good that the Task Force seems to realize that universities aren’t exactly going to fix this problem out of the goodness of their hearts.

2. It acknowledges the importance of social norms about sexual assault.

Social norms research reveals that men often misperceive what other men think about this issue: they overestimate their peers’ acceptance of sexual assault and underestimate other men’s willingness to intervene when a woman is in trouble. And when men think their peers don’t object to abusive behavior, they are much less likely to step in and help.

This is part of the report’s recommendation for bystander intervention programs, which are a good first step but have a number of problems that I’ll discuss in the second section of this post. Notably, the report never uses the term “rape culture,” not even in this section, but that’s the sociological term for what it’s getting at here. People think that rape is okay and/or that certain things that are rape are not really rape and are therefore okay.

What this section doesn’t mention is that teaching people that sexual assault is unacceptable isn’t just important for getting people to step in when they see sexual assault (or harassment, or coercion) happening; it also helps prevent sexual assault directly. As has been pointed out numerous times, rapists rape because they think (well, they know) that they’re not going to face any consequences for it.

3. It emphasizes research and evidence-based prevention approaches.

According to the report, the CDC plans to convene a panel of “experts” (by which I hope it means researchers) on sexual assault prevention to discuss best practices that will then be put into place. And the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women plans to evaluate prevention programs used on campuses to get data on their effectiveness. The report also lists three universities that have committed to research projects about campus sexual assault, though it’s unclear whether or not they are receiving grants for the research.

4. It recommends that campuses provide confidential victim advocates to whom students can disclose sexual assault without having to initiate a formal investigation.

I know many people’s version of “feminism” is raking survivors over the coals for choosing not to report their assault to the authorities, but this is crucial. Contrary to popular belief, a survivor who has nowhere to go to discuss an assault that will not initiate a disciplinary or criminal investigation will not go ahead and tell someone who will initiate a disciplinary or criminal investigation; they may not tell anyone at all. And students who initially do not want to file an official report may decide to do so after receiving compassionate and trauma-informed support from a confidential professional. The Task Force’s report correctly emphasizes the importance of empowering survivors by letting them decide what happens after they disclose an assault rather than making that decision for them.

5. It discusses how trauma can impact survivors and how school officials should be trained to respond to it.

Some common victim responses (like not physically resisting or yelling for help) may seem counter-intuitive to those unfamiliar with sexual victimization. New research has also found that the trauma associated with rape or sexual assault can interfere with parts of the brain that control memory – and, as a result, a victim may have impaired verbal skills, short term memory loss, memory fragmentation, and delayed recall. This can make understanding what happened challenging.

Personal biases also come into play. Insensitive or judgmental comments – or questions that focus on a victim’s behavior (e.g., what she was wearing, her prior sexual history) rather than on the alleged perpetrator’s – can compound a victim’s distress.

Specialized training, thus, is crucial. School officials and investigators need to understand how sexual assault occurs, how it’s perpetrated, and how victims might naturally respond both during and after an assault.

Therefore, according to the report, the Justice Department plans to develop a training program to help school officials involved with sexual assault investigations understand trauma and sexual assault. And I hope that the bit about “questions that focus on a victim’s behavior” (or, what we call “victim blaming”) focuses not just on the fact that it’s hurtful, but that it’s unnecessary and counterproductive. Whether the victim was wearing a revealing dress or has had consensual sex with the rapist before has nothing to do with whether or not a sexual assault has occurred.

6. It puts all this info on a single website that students, university administrators, and anyone else who wants to know can access:

Granted, I don’t know how many students are even going to realize this is a thing, but I’m still glad it’s a thing.

And now, here’s what the report could’ve done better:

1. Not using female pronouns for sexual assault survivors.

Although the report explicitly mentions male survivors several times, it often defaults to female pronouns. Why? This is so unnecessary and such an easy thing to fix. Just use “they.” Anybody who seriously has a problem with that grammar can deal with it easier than male and genderqueer survivors can deal with being erased.

2. Not treating campus sexual assault like it happens in a vacuum.

While I understand that this particular task force was created to address sexual assault on college campuses, it seems remiss not to mention that campus sexual violence doesn’t happen just because it’s a college campus. There are factors that make it more prevalent there, sure–alcohol use, the entitled attitude of many athletes and fraternity members, the close-knit social circles that make it difficult to accuse someone of sexual assault–but these factors also play out elsewhere. There’s a whole blog basically dedicated to showing how they play out in tech culture, for instance.

But it’s difficult to acknowledge this without using that dreaded term “rape culture.”

3. Specifying incentives for universities to complete the campus climate surveys.

As I mentioned earlier, the report points out that universities have a strong incentive not to do this, and that they will be provided with an evidence-based survey that they can use. The report also states that the task force will be looking at ways to legally compel universities to do it, but I wonder why they didn’t just include incentives for doing it voluntarily (perhaps distributing some of the grant money that way, for instance).

4. Implementing a simple way for those who are interested to keep track of the Task Force’s efforts.

Much of the report concerns future plans for research and implementation, and it mentions several times that updates will be posted on the site. However, looking over the site, there doesn’t seem to be a way to keep up to date on this. There’s no blog. There’s no “news” section. I actually take this pretty seriously because I do intend to follow these efforts, but I don’t know how besides watching the same blogs I always watch.

5. Less emphasis on bystander prevention or more caveats about it.

Okay, I get that this works in at least some cases. But first of all, bystander intervention asks students to expose themselves to danger by taking responsibility for another student’s choice to threaten, coerce, or assault someone. Men can intervene more safely than women, but 1) the programs target students of all genders; 2) even for men it’s not always safe; and 3) there won’t always be a male bystander. There won’t always be any bystander, in fact. In many campus sexual assault cases, the victim left willingly with the assailant because they did want some sort of sexual contact with them, but then the assailant presumed that to mean that they have a license to do whatever. (Because rape culture.)

I didn’t really see anything in the report about other prevention methods, such as teaching students what sexual assault actually is (contrary to popular belief, it need not involve both a penis and a vagina). To be fair to the task force, that section of the report emphasized the need for more research on prevention, so I’m not condemning this too strongly. It does seem (at least from what I’ve read of the research) that bystander intervention has been tested more than other types of prevention initiatives, and therefore there’s more evidence for it at this point in time.

6. Even more transparency.

In accordance with the Task Force’s recommendation, the Department of Education released a list of 55 universities currently under investigation for Title IX violations. However, all it gives are the names of the schools, not what they’re actually under investigation for (besides, well, violating Title IX). Maybe there are legal reasons why they can’t release even a very general statement about that, as it is, the list is not very useful. There are tons of schools on it. (And, incidentally, there are definitely a few that should be but aren’t. Before you pick a college to attend, you should definitely google its name + “sexual assault.”)

I guess it’ll take time to see whether or not this will be more than a purely symbolic gesture. I think it has the potential to be, at least insofar as universities carry out the recommendations. While I don’t have an extremely in-depth knowledge of how university administrations work, I’ve been involved with campus activism enough to know that there will be staff (and students) at many campuses who desperately want to see these ideas implemented, but they may not necessarily receive support from the upper-level administrators who can make it happen. It pains me when I see sexual assault prevention and health promotion staff get lambasted for “not doing enough” when they’re almost always trying to do everything they can with the limited power they’ve been given.

And the reason those upper-level administrators aren’t always supportive isn’t because they’re Evil or don’t care about sexual assault; they’re generally people with lots of types of privilege who can afford not to think about these things constantly like some of us do. But there’s limited time and money, and there’s a lot to be lost if you’re one of the first universities to publicly and loudly take a stand against campus sexual violence. There shouldn’t be, but there is, and I’m glad the Task Force is trying to address that.


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Sexual Assault Is Not A Force Of Nature

A creatively annotated screencap of Yoffe's Slate piece.[Content note: sexual assault, victim blaming]

Remember my intent piece? This week we saw a great example of what I was talking about. Slate’s advice columnist, Emily Yoffe, wrote a piece that can basically be summarized as, “I don’t intend to blame the victim or anything…but here’s why women shouldn’t get drunk or else they’ll get raped.”

Frankly, Slate has been on a disturbing trend lately of publishing needlessly provocative articles with even more needlessly provocative headlines. I find this tactic patronizing and harmful (s.e. smith has a great piece about it). I expect more from progressive media outlets.

So, I’m committing to not sending Slate any more pageviews, but I also feel that this article is very important to discuss. So, here’s a PDF of it that you can read. And here are some great responses that have already been written by Jessica Valenti, Ann Friedman, Amanda Hess, Roxane Gay, and Feministing’s Alexandra. (Seriously, read those first, because they get into the nitty-gritty details of why Yoffe is wrong and I’ve decided not to reinvent the wheel here.)

Almost as infuriating as the inaccuracy and poor reasoning exhibited by the article is Yoffe’s insistence that we as a society are “reluctant” to tell women to prevent their own rapes. I have nothing but contempt for people who take popular, extremely widespread ideas and try to pass them off as something new. But I don’t believe that Yoffe is really so clueless as to believe that telling women not to drink so they don’t get raped is controversial in our culture at large.

Rather, she seems to be aiming her article at the progressive community as a sort of plea for us to be “reasonable” and stop getting our knickers in a bunch over some so-called victim blaming. The solution to sexual assault is just within our reach and yet we won’t reach out and grasp it because of some silly political qualms.

Except that rape survivors do not grow up in cozy progressive bubbles where nobody ever gives them harmful, useless “advice” that makes them feel like shit.

They get it from everyone. Families. Cops. Teachers. Educational posters. Friends. College orientation. TV shows. Magazines. Advice columnists. There is no shortage of people telling women not to drink or they’ll get raped. None at all. It is a long and storied tradition that Yoffe is joining.

Yoffe comes across as though she thinks her views are unpopular because people just can’t handle the truth. But sometimes, opinions are detested and ridiculed not because they’re just 2 BRAVE 4 U, but because they’re wrong and harmful. Yoffe does not examine any of the negative externalities of telling women not to drink or else they’ll get raped, so here are some:

  • Rape survivors who were attacked while drinking may feel (even more than they already do) that it was their fault–as if coping with the rape itself weren’t enough.
  • Cops will focus on telling women not to drink rather than on finding their rapists.
  • Believing that rape is the result of an individual failing (on the part of the victim, not the rapist, no less) rather than a systemic problem, people will fail to organize meaningful collective action to end sexual violence.
  • Assuming that they’ll be blamed for drinking, survivors will be less likely to go to the police or reach out to others for emotional support.
  • Gender inequality will be exacerbated. Men can drink but women can’t? What kind of 1950s bullshit is this?
  • This is the most important one. Rapists (or would-be rapists) will know that they are not going to face any consequences. This, not any lifestyle choice on the part of the victim, is one of the biggest reasons people rape.

We’re accustomed to thinking of people or organizations or perhaps even institutions as harmful, but ideas and opinions, many believe, are “just an idea” or “just an opinion” and should be respected no matter what.

But they can be harmful. They can have negative consequences. Yoffe’s do.

I’ve seen a few people online defending Yoffe’s piece by saying that binge drinking culture is dangerous and that we need to talk about it. Yes, we do. But Yoffe is not contributing anything useful to that discussion, either.

People seem to worry more about binge drinking when it’s women doing it. Men have been binge drinking since alcohol entered human culture. For women in Western societies, however, partying and drinking a lot–especially without the company of boyfriends or husbands–hasn’t been a socially acceptable option until relatively recently. Sometimes equality means that risky or unhealthy behaviors that had previously been restricted to one gender are now available to everyone. It’s unfortunate that this means that more people are doing the thing, but that’s part of what it means to have an equal society. Promoting inequality is not, in my opinion, a justifiable way to reduce unhealthy behavior.

So, the problem with binge drinking is not that women do it too. There are a lot of interesting and important issues around alcohol in our culture, such as:

  • many people feel that they need alcohol just to be comfortable socially
  • there are relatively few social options for non-drinkers, especially in college and generally before people start having children
  • if you’re interested in certain things, such as sports or live music, alcohol is often part of the package
  • many people lack access to or knowledge of the mental healthcare they need, so they self-medicate with alcohol
  • if you don’t drink, you are likely to be pressured to drink
  • it is socially acceptable for men to use alcohol to manipulate women sexually

But Yoffe is not discussing these issues. In fact, she completely ignores that last item, which is crucial.

Yoffe treats women who get drunk and then get raped like people who get drunk and then throw up. Throwing up is a natural consequence of drinking too much. It’s a physiological reality. If you don’t want to risk throwing up, be very careful about how much you drink, or don’t drink at all.

Being raped is not a natural consequence of drinking. It happens because people (especially men) are taught that you can and should use alcohol to get sex. They are taught that drunk people are “fair game,” “asking for it” by getting drunk. Whether she intends to or not, Yoffe is participating in this education.

Sexual assault is not a force of nature or a law of physics. It may not be fully preventable, but neither is it something we have to resign ourselves to living with, the way we accept the fact that our bodies need oxygen or that things fall when dropped.

Many people–Yoffe’s intellectual predecessors–used to accept many things that we’d now consider unacceptable, such as women not having the right to vote and husbands being legally allowed to beat and rape their wives. But others throughout history have fought and dedicated their whole lives to making things better. There is nothing courageous about stating that that can’t be done. Rather, it’s the definition of cowardice.

Advising women to prevent their own rapes is not brave. It is not original. It is not edgy. It’s the damn status quo.