Lady Gaga’s performance of Til it happens to you at the 2016 Academy Awards drew worldwide attention to sexual violence, specifically the recent increase in sexual assault on American university campuses. However, sexual assault is also highly prevalent in our own campuses. It is evident that before sexual violence can completely be dealt with, the conversation and response to it has to first of all change. Changing the way our society responds to sexual assault involves entirely changing the culture around it.
University is meant to be a time for growth and learning, but far too often sexual violence transforms it into a time of pain and fear, not only from violent extreme groups like cultists, but sometimes acquaintances, and boyfriends/girlfriends. The pain doesn’t just end once the assault is over, but is rather perpetuated both by the response from the survivors’ peers and by the police who continue to fail survivors. So why does this happen? How can we make it stop? Unfortunately, the problem is much larger than anything a single policy, law, or school can eliminate. It is a problem of culture, more specifically, rape culture.
At other universities, especially in the US, various interventions have been launched to address rape culture. Some launch semester-long rape education courses with the aim of developing rape consciousness among students. Some focus on mobilizing bystanders to address rape culture. At some universities, faculty members have become involved as researchers, teachers, advocates or policy reformers.
Our Universities and Polytechnics can draw from this existing hard work in addressing rape culture in our own campuses. It will have to be contextualized, though, especially keeping in mind how violent our campuses can be and how patriarchal our society is.
Universities are also in the fortunate position of being educational centers. This means they are well placed to educate students in different ways about identifying and tackling rape culture. An enclosed university environment also arguably makes for an easier setting in which to challenge the broader issue of rape culture – compared to, say, Nigeria at large, besides addressing the issue of rape culture in all campuses and working on educating the students would help engage the very population that could make the needed difference in the fight to end sexual violence. However, this would require long-term prioritizing and commitment from university management, which is sadly something that is lacking in our campuses.
In a rape culture, people are surrounded with images, language, laws, and other everyday phenomena that validate and perpetuate, rape. Rape culture includes jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words and imagery, that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people believe that rape is inevitable. Rather than viewing the culture of rape as a problem to change, people in a rape culture think about the persistence of rape as “just the way things are””.
When someone makes a joke, the group being laughed at matters. When someone makes an offensive comment about rape, the comment targets rape survivors — and when such statements are defended with the “right to free speech,” survivors are suppressed into silence and their traumatic experiences trivialized. Writing people off as “easily offended” or “sensitive” perpetuates rape culture through the normalization of sexual assault, and perpetuates a culture of shame and silence for survivors. So next time a discussion on this topic comes up, whether it is at home or in your classes, ask yourself how you can help shift this social construct at your university and what you can do to better our society.