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The Politics of Pleasure

By Chris Lydgate '90 on April 15, 2011 01:33 PM

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Author and academic Dr. Shira Tarrant explored issues of consent and the dynamics of sexual assault before an attentive audience in Vollum Lounge on Tuesday, tackling issues as diverse as confidentiality, the honor principle, and how men can help prevent sexual assault.

While acknowledging Reed's distinctive culture, she emphasized that sexual assault is a problem on college campuses nationwide.

"Reed is a unique place," she said. "You are smart, you're independent, you're encouraged to speak and think for yourselves. But believe me, the sexual assault issues at Reed are not unique."

A nationally recognized expert in gender politics, sexuality, and masculinity, Tarrant is the author of Men and Feminism, and When Sex Became Gender and is associate professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at California State University, Long Beach...

Sexual assault has been a hot topic at Reed over the last couple of months. Many students believe that Reed's Judicial Board is ill-equipped to handle cases of sexual assault, and a student recently resigned from the Board because of her frustration with the way such cases were treated, drawing attention from the media. (Although the coverage has sometimes failed to mention that survivors can always report an assault to the police.)

The debate takes place in the context of a campuswide reevaluation of policies on sexual assault. In the past year, Reed has developed response protocols for house advisors, conducted training for J-Board members and for staff, beefed up education for students during O-Week, and convened a committee whose goal, as announced by President Colin Diver, is to help Reed "do all that we can to reduce the likelihood that any Reed student will be the victim of sexual assault and ensure that any student who is a victim of sexual assault receives the best possible support."

Nonetheless, many students remain wary of the way the J-board handles this issue, and Tarrant echoed those concerns. "In my opinion, this is not an appropriate issue for a student J-board," she said. "Peers often don't get proper training, and sometimes they don't have adequate distance from the people involved. There are lots of cases where a J-Board is appropriate. But this is a criminal issue."

Tarrant spent the majority of her talk exploring strategies to prevent sexual assault in the first place--an urgent task, considering that a study by the Department of Justice estimates that one college woman in five will be the target of assault or attempted assault. Citing another study which concluded that 95% of assailants are men, Tarrant invited the audience to "flip the script" and challenge the conventional depiction of sexual assault as a woman's issue.

"These are not women's issues," she said. "These are men's issues."

Prevention efforts, she believes, should focus on our social construction of masculinity, helping men understand that sex without consent is a crime, that alcohol dissolves their partners' ability to give consent, and that manly men ought to honor their partners' desires

Tarrant believes change is in the offing. Groups such as MASV (Men Against Sexual Violence) are springing up on campuses around the nation. And the Obama administration recently revised its Title IX guidelines for colleges and universities regarding sexual discrimination.

She offered commonsense suggestions for how students can change the campus landscape. "Do it sober," she said, drawing chuckles from the audience. "Negotiate consent."

She encouraged the men in the audience to learn to listen for No--even if the No is non-verbal. After all, she pointed out, men often resort to subterfuge when they are trying to avoid a sexual encounter ("Baby, you're really hot, but I think I parked my car in a non-parking zone...") rather than shouting No at the top of their lungs. And she suggested that students refuse to be bystanders, and take action if they see a potentially dangerous situation developing. A typical intervention might be as simple and low-key as "Hey dude--she's wasted. Call her tomorrow."

Tarrant's visit to campus was sponsored by the Multicultural Resource Center.