Dear media, it’s your fault if you think young feminists only care about campus rape

There are many terrible things happening in the world, of which campus rape isn’t the worst. We should think critically about whose experiences and needs our politicians, press, and public at large prioritize, and about whose we ignore. 

Meghan Daum’s recent piece on campus sexual assault activism in the LA Times doesn’t do that.

Instead, Daum criticizes campus rape activists for their supposed myopia — for organizing for change on their campuses while failing to rescue, for instance, the women abused by Boko Haram. With disdain and condescension lobbed at student survivors — who she sarcastically calls “wounded women” while casting doubt on one victim’s story — Daum directs them to move on and, in her words, fight for women who can’t fight for themselves. “There’s important work to be done. And none of it requires carrying a mattress.”

That there are worse injustices afoot elsewhere shouldn’t de-legitimize the importance of this one; it certainly doesn’t erase the very real consequences that campus violence imposes on its victims’ lives. It shouldn’t mean pressuring student survivors to give up their fight, even as we take a hard look at why this fight in particular has so captured the country’s attention.

For students engaged in campus anti-violence work, this isn’t an abstract, detached debate: the survivors about whom Daum writes are fighting daily to obtain the services and protections they need to stay in school; many, we know, drop out. That’s true at every educational level — college, elementary, middle, and high school — and at any number of kinds of higher ed institutions — community colleges, technical schools, for-profit colleges. Foundational to this country’s mythology is the promise of education as the great equalizer, the ticket to realizing the American Dream. That’s an education many student survivors are losing.

“Why, when there is so much serious work to be done, does this new generation of feminists only look inward instead of out at the big world?” Daum laments. “I hope the wounded women at our colleges and universities… get to work in the places they’re needed most.” To ask victims to put aside their own pain and struggles, in order to care for someone else’s, feels gendered to me, reminiscent of that age-old burden placed on women’s shoulders, particularly those who are working class and of color: Take care of others before yourself. De-prioritize your own needs in the face of others’. Carry their weight.

If there’s someone to criticize here, why does Daum place her demands uniquely on rape victims themselves? To be sure, the national conversation around campus violence is limited and flawed and dangerous in so many ways (although not, I believe, for the particular reasons Daum suggests). Why doesn’t she ask the national press why it’s not covering the issue at an elementary school in Idaho, or at a community college in Mississippi? Why doesn’t she ask senators why they’re not expanding civil options for victims who aren’t in school? Or ask the Obama administration why it continues to criminalize survivors who are of color, undocumented, and/or trans? Or ask white, wealthy, able-bodied student survivor activists — who receive the bulk of media attention and institutional support — why some are failing to step back, make space, and work to center the voices of marginalized survivors in their schools? Why doesn’t she ask the public at large why, in a culture of pervasive sexual violence, we’re all so focused on rape that happens on college campuses? Those questions would reveal important truths about whom the powerful and privileged find sympathetic, whom they deem worthy of their collective concern. Some of these are questions student survivors have asked for years.

Indeed, what’s so frustrating about Daum’s critique, in part, is just how uninformed it is: student survivors are engaged in work beyond their own campuses. They’re organizing for prison and fossil fuel divestment, working in domestic violence shelters, and getting Title IX ed into middle and high schools. They’re using civil rights law on their campuses in order to imagine new ways of responding to violence outside of them (and all without relying on a violent and unjust prison system to do it). And they’re thinking critically about their own complicity in violence abroad, about how to amplify and support the work that others are doing in their communities around the world, rather than stampede in and fight, as Daum advocates, “for them.” Indeed, if writers like Daum rattled on less about student survivors’ worst nights and asked them more about the organizing they’re doing in their communities, on campus and off, we might hear more about it.

Header image credit: AU Online

New Haven, CT

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and the co-founder of Know Your IX, the national youth-led organization working to end gender violence in schools. She's testified before Congress on Title IX policy and legislative reform, and her writing has appeared in a number of outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. She's also a student at Yale Law School, and you can find her on Twitter at @danabolger.

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and a student at Yale Law School.

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