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Students - especially men - hold power to change rape culture

Despite reports that one in five women are victims of sexual assault, that fact is not widely discussed in open, honest ways. Nor is it being addressed as an important national issue that will take individual action to make a difference.

Dagmawi Woubshet, associate professor of English, led a Nov. 13 discussion at the Center for Intercultural Dialogue about what men can do to change the culture of sexual assault.

Violence against women is a pressing issue, especially on college campuses, Woubshet said: “You would think a college campus is a place where we come to extend our horizon and where we find refuge. The fact that this has become a place where women’s bodies are under assault should galvanize everybody to take action.”

Sexual assault against women is an expression of aggression, power and domination over women, said Renee Alexander ’74, founding director of the Center for Intercultural Dialogue. Stopping such acts of sexual assault is not at the center of our domestic and political agenda because, Woubshet said, “the laws of patriarchy are real.”

To change this culture, “men need to have a revolution of attitudes in the way they think about manhood,” he said. Masculinity in our society should not be correlated with acts of aggression or dominance, and it is crucial to create spaces for men to openly talk about their masculinity and discuss sexual violence, he said. Additionally, we need to develop a way to talk about these issues and about sex more generally.

“We have a thin and underdeveloped language to talk about sex and intimacy,” Woubshet explained. If we want to talk about the abuse that women often experience behind closed doors, we need to create public forums for discussion, he said.

Woubshet emphasized that often perpetrators are people we know. They are our friends and colleagues, he said. On college campuses, where many victims are abused under the influence of alcohol and at parties, we need to discuss how we can intervene in these contexts as men, he said.

We can also intervene in cases of victim-blaming, he said. Blaming encourages women to stay silent. Woubshet said that men can be allies to victims by urging them to speak out and seek justice. “The key thing is to break the cycle of fear and shame. Fear and shame compound the silence,” he said.

To propagate change, students need to support victims and fight rape culture by ending blameful rhetoric surrounding sexual assault. Additionally, Woubshet said, students have enormous power to hold the administration responsible for protecting them.

Woubshet explained the case of Columbia University student and sexual assault victim Emma Sulkowitz, who began carrying a mattress on her back to illustrate the weight of the crime committed against her. At Columbia, students’ activism in support of Sulkowitz forced the administration to address issues of sexual assault.

Woubshet said ending sexual assault at Cornell “has to be something that students take leadership in doing.” We need to hold our institutions accountable, he said.

“The Revolution Against Sexual Assault on College Campuses: A Man’s Role” was presented as part of the Weekly Lunch Series hosted by the Center for Intercultural Dialogue at 626 Thurston Ave., and Men Against Sexual Violence.

Abigail Warren ’15 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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Joe Schwartz