Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Cosmopolitan and sexual assault reporting on campus

The September issue of Cosmopolitan features an article that hits home for many students here at UW-Madison. Molly Triffin ‘s “The Scary Truth About Rape on Campus” details the flawed systems for reporting and processing sexual assault cases in universities across the country. It shares personal stories of victims who were failed by these systems on their campuses, one of whom attended UW-Madison. Although it is certainly wonderful that Cosmo is giving this issue national attention, there are several problems with the article and its presentation.

The article uses specific examples and personal stories from victims to communicate the severity of the problem with reporting sexual assaults on college campuses. However, Triffin fails to honor the survivors in her article by using victim-blaming language. According to her, all of these women were “allegedly” assaulted. Each statement about their assaults is qualified first by words that imply the possibility that these women are lying. They “claimed” to have been assaulted. They “say” that this horrible thing happened to them. These seemingly miniscule changes remove all blame from the perpetrator and place responsibility for the assault on the victim herself.

Victim blaming is prevalent throughout the article. It is heavily implied that those victims who choose not to report their assaults are somehow wrong. Laura, the UW-Madison student who waited a year before coming forward with her story, seems to have her reasons for hesitation trivialized. Rather than address how incredibly difficult it is to report a sexual assault to school authorities or the police, Triffin instead outright states that victims simply “don't want to believe it happened to them.” Again, Triffin's article places all responsibility on victims. She seems to invalidate the reasons a survivor of sexual assault may have for not reporting, and ultimately hold victims responsible for cases where the assailant is not convicted. She also ignores the possibility that some victims don’t feel reporting to the police or campus officials is the right step for them.

The article goes on to completely disregard a victim's right to privacy. Triffin poses the question, “So why don't [colleges] turn these cases over to the police?” Without the consent of a victim, no college should ever consider sending a case onto local police. It is entirely up to the victim should they decide to file a police report in addition to a report to campus authorities. Triffin offers the rather unsatisfactory answer that “students want to keep the matter private,” and does not acknowledge that a police report is not always what is best for the victim.

On top of the victim blaming that litters the story, there is a sense of hypocrisy present. Cosmopolitan, while helping to normalize female sexuality, is not a terribly socially conscious magazine. It is completely hetero-normative, only discussing women and their sexual encounters with men. The magazine portrays the sexes in stereotypical ways: Men are masculine and women are feminine. End of discussion. And while the magazine does promote the still taboo subject of female sexuality, it spends the majority of its pages telling women how to please their men, oftentimes boiling down the success of a relationship to conforming to gender norms and doing whatever her man wants her to do in the bedroom.

As these trends demonstrate, Cosmopolitan doesn’t understand the forces behind rape culture and how sexual assault happens. Until they magazine demonstrates it has educated itself about the implications of gender norms, how the language we use perpetuates rape culture, what victim blaming is and how it happens and, perhaps most important, how to support a survivor, it will be difficult to take moves like this seriously.

If an impact is really to be made, then the inclusion of the occasional article on sexual assault is not enough. Before Cosmo puts itself at the forefront of the movement to stop sexual violence, perhaps some of its content should be reevaluated to promote a healthier idea of sexuality.

-Tessie Benser