This summer at the FORUM team’s annual retreat, my fellow staff members and I set out to compose a list of the most crucial issues plaguing the University of Oklahoma campus. We considered social, political, economic, and environmental issues, making sure to keep in mind that the most marginalized populations in our community are those who bear the brunt of these problems.
In the end, we decided to focus on sexual and gender-based violence this October, in conjunction with Domestic Violence Awareness Month. This category includes a wide range of violent crimes, but it boils down to one thing: power.
This is not to say that marginalized individuals cannot commit sexually violent acts. They can and do. However, power dynamics are what make it possible to perpetuate gender-based violence. This can refer to structural power (for example, a well-respected cisgender man is more likely to be believed by others than his victim if she is a sex worker, or a trans woman of color) or merely temporary power imbalance (for example, if the perpetrator is sober and the victim is incapacitated).
The ability to afford legal representation can also affect a victim’s access to justice. The legal system further victimizes survivors who come forward, and their cases are often dismissed outright. In the rare instances when a rape charge is actually brought to court, the survivor is interrogated mercilessly, accused of lying or promiscuity, and often blamed for what the rapist did to them. However, I do not believe the carceral system is a solution to the problem of sexual violence. Patriarchy, colonialism, and rape culture are the problem.
On a more personal note, sexual violence is a topic close to my heart. I, like another contributor from this month’s issue, work for the Norman Women’s Resource Center as a Rape Response Advocate for survivors in the immediate aftermath of sexual assault. Many of them are victimized at local high schools and on OU’s campus. The perpetrators are classmates, boyfriends, acquaintances, and strangers from restaurants and bars.
Last year, University President David Boren made some abhorrent comments in an interview with then OU Daily Editor-in-Chief Dana Branham. He referred to rape as part of human nature and seemed to imply that victims are partially responsible for what happens to them. I was outraged, and I staged a protest. We marched from the Unity Garden (or “Passion Pit”) in the South Oval into Evans Hall and demanded a meeting with him. When we got the chance to speak with Boren, he spent about two hours interrupting and speaking over the women in the room and insisting that we misinterpreted his statements. At one point, he even banged his hands on the table, emphatically refusing to apologize. He pointed to the blue police phones that had been installed on campus as an example of the administration’s commitment to student safety, ignoring all the ways in which the university has demonstrated its ambivalence with respect to rape culture.
In the end, some policy changes were made. The “Step In, Speak Out” sexual violence prevention program was made mandatory for all first-year students, and Boren admitted that he had learned from us.
But when men, even good men, refuse to acknowledge that they are complicit in a system that breeds sexual violence, they enable rapists and abusers. This is particularly true at the University of Oklahoma, where colonial violence against indigenous communities runs rampant. This is why I cannot remain silent about the shortcomings of authority figures, even when the university pays lip service to feminism and social justice activism. I can only hope that the university’s next president is more dedicated to eradicating sexual violence.
Student Section Editor
Note: This edition of FORUM will use the terms “survivor” and “victim” in various contexts to refer to those who have experienced sexual violence. These terms are not entirely interchangeable, and we acknowledge that various people differ with respect to how they wish to be referred.
Kelsey Morris is a senior Sociology major at OU and serves as the Student Section Editor for FORUM. She works as a writing consultant and as a volunteer sexual assault victim advocate.