College rape culture: the age of the #MeToo movement

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On a sunny Monday morning in 2013 a young woman carried a mattress across Columbia University’s campus.

She struggled to keep the large object steady; in photographs she has a determined look in her eye as she hauls the mattress to her next class. The young woman’s name is Emma Sulkowicz. She had just requested Columbia University expel Paul Nungesser, the man she accused of raping her.

She told the New York Times, the mattress symbolized the mental weight rape victims have to endure on a daily basis, especially when their pleads to law enforcement go unheard.

Sexual assault is not foreign to college campuses. RAINN, the largest non- profit anti- sexual assault organization in the United States, reported that college women are three times more likely to experience sexual violence.

“11.2% of all students’ experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation,” RAINN reported. “21% of TGRN (Transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students are reported to have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18% of non- TGQN females and 4% of non- TGQN males.”

Fast forward five years from the Sulkowicz protests and America is in a different era of protest. A time when women are not just protesting in the streets but now openly online, where their voices travel further than ever before. The #MeToo movement has developed into an online space where victims of sexual assault can speak about their stories and bring awareness to the frequent cases that have in the past been silenced. The movement was founded by Tarana Burke in 1997 after she had a conversation with a 13-year-old girl who was a victim of sexual abuse.

“I didn’t have a response or a way to help her in that moment,” Burke told New York Times.

She found her response in a hashtag. She founded the #MeToo movement, which now gives voices to women who have been silenced in their attempts to take down their abusers. Harvey Weinstein is the first prominent name to be called out by the movement, followed by Bill Cosby and Woody Allen. The movement has overtaken the entertainment industry, with support from various celebrities, including Traci Ellis Ross and Reese Witherspoon, and at prestigious events such as the Golden Globes, where actors showed their support by encouraging all guests to wear black attire.

The movement’s dominance in mainstream media has made many consider the real impact it could have on eliminating the indifferent attitude towards rape culture, more specifically rape culture on college campuses.

SMU’s Director of Violence Prevention and Support Services, Tawny Alonzo, believes the movement could encourage more people to come forward to speak about their experiences with sexual assault.

“I believe efforts to raise awareness such as the #MeToo movement can create more empowered bystanders. We are seeing more people who are aware, concerned and want to help,” Alonzo said.

In the past few years, universities have been publicly criticized for failure to address sexual assault on campus. Baylor University is known for their extensive history of football player sexual assault cases. CNN reported that a federal lawsuit in 2017 Baylor University is accused of “fostering sexual violence and [using] sex to market its football program to players.”

In 2012 Jasmine Hernandez revealed she has been raped twice at a party by Tevin Elliot, a football player at Baylor who was later convicted of two different accounts of sexual assault and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Hernandez filed a federal lawsuit against Baylor in 2016 for the Universities failure to investigate her assault. Baylor had similar reports of sexual assault initiated by football players in 2013 with Sam Ukwuachu, in 2016 with Shawn Oakman and in 2017 with the report of multiple football players gang raping a former student.

The influence of the #MeToo movement has encouraged many to speak out about their experiences, embracing the call-out culture in this age of the media. Generation Z and Millennials have created an online atmosphere that addresses any socially irresponsible content posted or endorsed by brands, celebrities or even an everyday user.

Grace Begala, who is vice president of events for the campus sexual assault group Not On My Campus, believes call-out culture could also jeopardize people who were falsely accused of sexual assault.

“It’s an interesting kinda tricky situation, because on the one hand we shouldn’t necessarily be protecting people who are outwardly harassing others,” Begala said. “At the same time with it just being the minor transgressions that are blown up way out of proportion, it gets scary.”

Many are concerned with how the call-out culture of the #MeToo movement could possibly create social problems for the falsely accused, President Trump took to twitter to publicly express his concern.

“Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation,” Trump tweeted. “There is no recovery for someone falsely accused — life and career are gone.”

Though some are concerned with the influence the #MeToo movement has on employers, who wish to distance themselves and their businesses from the accused, many believe the movement can help improve the awareness of sexual assault.

College campuses are attempting to go further than the #MeToo movement and inform students on the resources held on campus to help reduce the number of sexual assault cases. SMU is one of the colleges trying to make a change that will help improve college safety, specifically sexual assault.

SMU’s Director of the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards Evelyn Ashley, works diligently to ensure that students are aware that they can always find help or information on anything relating to sexual assault on campus.

“We want every student to be informed about how to report incidents and get help for themselves and others,” Ashley said. “Administrators, students, faculty, staff and law enforcement officials are working together on multiple fronts. We are focused on areas including education and training, policies and procedures, bystander intervention, campus security and student leadership.”

The #MeToo movement has brought the issue of sexual assault to the forefront of the mass media. It has given many the courage to come forward and share their stories. The weight of the mattress Sulkowicz carried is now being condensed to the weight of a computer, to the weight of a hashtag.

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