Having recently had some discussions about sexual assault on social media, I took the time to absorb the recent story about Emma on NBC news. Emma is being very creative in her current protest against what she considers too much leniency in sexual assault cases on the part of the school administration at Columbia University. Her protest stems from being raped the first day of her sophomore semester. The university dismissed the case and allowed the perpetrator to stay at the university. In protest, and for her senior thesis, Emma has chosen a performance art project entitled “Carry that weight.” She has carried a mattress everywhere she has gone this past semester, including to graduation. A very creative and effective display. The problem of sexual assault on our campuses is serious and inexcusable. I would consider Emma not only a very bright young lady but also a hero in her own right for trying to draw some awareness to the problem. She is certainly a hero for having the courage to put her own experience forward in such a public way.
Nevertheless, there was something about the story that bothered me and it took me a long time to figure out what it was. It wasn’t until I started trying out some analogies that I was able to come to terms with my concern. If instead of rape what if the story concerned a stolen bicycle? A student takes a bicycle to class the first day and it gets stolen. Was it the students fault? No. What if the bicycle wasn’t padlocked would they then be complicit in getting their bike stolen? Again the answer is “no.” Within a polite society there should be an expectation to security of personal property. The sole responsibility for the theft lies with the person who stole it. What then if I were to go and interview the person with the stolen bicycle; they meet me on campus where we walk and talk about theft on campus. I notice however that as she parked her pretty new bicycle she still did not lock it up! Is she asking to have the bike stolen? Absolutely not, she still has an expectation to security. However, she is being rather naïve in a way that would bother me.
Emma in her interview about her protest is dressed in a way that I would consider quite immodest. So might it have been her fault that she was raped? Absolutely not. Even if she was immodestly dressed at the time? Again no. By dressing immodestly is she asking to be raped again? That is a faulty and dangerous logic. A woman, regardless of dress or bearing should be free to walk about in our society without worry and in total safety. Even if that is rather naïve and does not represent the current reality.
Emma is a hero. She, like all women and men everywhere, has the right to say “no” in any circumstance and in any situation. But beyond sexual assault and evil individuals, there is the related issues of modesty. Public immodesty is also a sexual assault on those around you. Men and women everywhere not only have the right to say no but we also have the public expectation of being protected from personal exposures that should be reserved for private places. I’m not talking burka or 1940’s for crying out loud but when in public, put some clothes on.
All people deserve and should be entitled to a life free form sexual assault. Concomitantly, all people should have the right to enjoy public places without worry of visual assaults. We should not have to willfully pull our eyes away from sexually enticing tidbits which are openly, tauntingly and inappropriately put on public display. (Hollywood are you listening?)
So Emma, you have my deepest sympathy, respect and best wishes for the future. But, hero or not, there is a quirky sort of irony in complaining about sexual assault while visually assaulting others with your cleavage or the bottoms of your pant pockets. That’s all I’m saying.
Samuel Waen Jensen