Opinion | Op-eds

Challenging how we think about sex

I am deeply grateful that the Columbia University College Democrats have in recent months, garnered such visibility and support for a petition that aims to support survivors of sexual violence. In a world where sexual violence is prevalent but rarely discussed, survivors frequently find themselves without the support they need. So it moves me that many students in our community are doing concrete work to support those who have experienced violence.

However, it is imperative that we demand more from this conversation and more from ourselves. The petition focuses on several ways in which the administration can and should provide support to survivors: a strict, expedient disciplinary process; access to rape crisis counseling; and queer competency. And while these aspects of the administrative response are absolutely necessary, they cannot remain our sole focus if we want to make lasting change in this issue. In order to do so, we must also have a conversation about why sexual violence is so prevalent to begin with.

Although individual aggressors must be held accountable, we also need to recognize the role that culture plays in enabling this epidemic of sexual violence. As soon as I got involved in anti-violence work with the Men’s Peer Education program, it became apparent to me that I had acquired an entire set of assumptions and values that did not align with my desire to end violence. In other words, I had a lot to unlearn.

As a man, I received messages about masculinity and sex that were not conducive to consent but rather to violence. Sex was a game—one I needed to win in order to be seen as a man. Anger was the appropriate masculine response to adversity, and compassion was a sign of weakness. It was only by re-evaluating these ideas that I could start to change.

 Our community needs to change as well. These same violent ideas I had grown up with are articulated and embodied constantly. We learn them from our friends, our mentors, our family members, the media, and so many other sources that we trust. Additionally, many college students learn to think and communicate about sex in terms of hooking up. But this idea is ambiguous. It encompasses such a range of different sexual acts that it does not foster the type of specific, ongoing communication necessary for consensual sex—more communication is necessary. Unfortunately, many believe that agreeing to hook up, without further clarification, automatically gives consent to engage in any number of sexual activities.

The social pressures inherent in these status quo beliefs about sex, combined with inadequate understandings of consent, make it so that when sexual violence happens in dorms and during and after parties, we often do not see it for what it is. And even if we do recognize it as violence, many of us do not have the capacity to intervene, support survivors, or create healthy environments for them. But this is not to say that violence is inevitable. Rather, we need to challenge the status quo behaviors, attitudes, and ways of thinking about sex that perpetuate violence. 

Many student organizations at Columbia are engaged in this work, including Radical CUNTS, Columbia FemSex, Rape Crisis Anti-Violence Support Center volunteers, and Men’s Peer Education. However, these conversations will not create the kind of change that is necessary if they only happen within the social justice community; they also need to take place in dorms, at parties, in classrooms, and in locker rooms. We all have a responsibility to have conversations and model behaviors that make violence impossible. 

Administrative responses to violence are, without question, crucial to supporting survivors, but these responses cannot do enough to alter the cultural norms that make violence possible. That part is up to us as a community. By amassing such support for this petition, the CU Dems have made it clear that we, as a community, want to support survivors.  It’s time we look beyond the administration and have conversations about how we all can play a role in ending the cultural norms that facilitate violence.  

The author is a Columbia College sophomore. He is a men’s peer educator.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com

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