Rules of the Party: Body Autonomy and Rape Culture

By Rosie Alger

Elm Staff Writer

By now, stories of sexual assault and rape in universities across the nation are no surprise to Americans. Investigations of the way schools and student organizations handle rape cases have become a commonplace item in the media, and students across the country are expressing anger and frustration towards the pervasive culture of sexual assault and dominance that seems unstoppable in the college setting.

Many people understand the basic concepts of rape, but consent is nuanced and extremely important to understand. When you are at a party, do you feel 100 percent confident that you are safe from any unwanted sexual advances? At the same time, do you feel completely sure that the people you are interested in are consenting and happy with your attention? Many people cannot answer yes to these simple questions, and now is the time to get angry and speak out about this dangerous party atmosphere.

Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz made headlines in 2014 when she brought attention to rape culture in colleges. In a form of open protest, Sulkowicz carried her mattress from class on a daily basis until her rapist was penalized by the college for his acts.

There are a lot of complicated situations in which consent is crucial but not always obvious. Imagine you’re at a party, and there are people everywhere. Everyone is very close together, and lots of people are pretty drunk, maybe even yourself. There’s someone that you are interested in, and you are having a decent conversation with them. How much can you touch them? Is putting your hands on their hips or waist flirting or crossing a line? Maybe you see this happening to someone else across the room. Should you say something? You realize that you can’t find the friends that you came with. Are they having fun somewhere else, or are they in danger? Should you go looking for them?

Here’s the thing about people. Ultimately, we have what many refer to as “bodily autonomy.” This means that each individual has complete ownership of their own body. This may seem obvious, but when a person decides that they can grab or touch someone without asking or otherwise harass another individual, that person is essentially violating the individual’s right to control their own body. It may seem fun or flirty, but it most often leaves people feeling unsafe and violated. Being intoxicated does not rationalize this invasive behavior. In fact, if the other person is also intoxicated, they cannot even give consent at all. You might not even realize that you are doing it, but these microaggressions are the beginning of dangerous line of thinking that normalizes sexual violence.

People are beginning to understand the importance of rape prevention education. Many schools are hosting speakers that come to campuses, trying to instill in students a nuanced understanding of consent. Maria Falzone, a sex positive activist and speaker, has become famous at Washington College for the talk that she gives during freshman orientation. According to an article by NPR, California just recently became the first state to legalize a “yes means yes” standard on consent. “Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent,” the law states, “nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time.”

Rape culture is still a pervasive and very much alive threat in the U.S., especially on college campuses. In May of 2014, NPR reported that 55 U.S. colleges were under investigation under Title IX for the way that they have been handling sexual assault claims. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, RAINN, collects data on sexual violence in the United States, and they report that one in every six women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime as well as one in every 33 men. However, 68 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police, and 98 percent of rapists will never spend a day in prison.

These statistics seem a far away when you’re having fun on a Friday night, but the way that you respect or do not respect, others’ bodily autonomy even in small ways, affects the atmosphere of rape culture that makes it so hard for victims to report their abuses be listened to, and respected if they do speak out. Small violations of personal body ownership lead to bigger ones. If enough people call out controlling and dominating behavior, more people will have to question their own actions and motivations, and hopefully, more people will begin to feel safe on any college campus. So call out your friends and people you care about, to keep everyone accountable, and remember, only a sober yes really means yes.

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