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Saturday, June 10, 2023
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Activist Jaclyn Friedman speaks at a PAVE event earlier this month as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Friedman works to dispel myths surrounding sexual assault.

Opening the sexual assault conversation

During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, this three-part Daily Cardinal series delves into the numbers, spotlights available resources and expands the conversation to reflect the real impact of sexual assault at UW-Madison.

In 1992, Jaclyn Friedman attended an undergraduate campus party. She tried to keep up as her friends took shots and pounded beers. Soon, she was much drunker than she planned, and went back to her room to go to bed. A male acquaintance followed her, entered her room and raped her.

According to a report from UW-Madison’s Dean of Students office, cases like these—involving alcohol and an acquaintance—describe the majority of the 123 sexual assaults reported by students between 2010 and 2011.

But statistics and stories like these capture only the basic elements of a crime that impacts the entire campus community.

The Dean’s Office report does not list the victim’s gender, but Assistant Dean of Students Tonya Schmidt reported at least a small percentage of disclosures come from male victims, as well as those identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Suddenly, the story becomes more complex, and experts like Schmidt say barriers to an already underreported crime multiply and important conversations become constrained by gendered language.

‘Both realities are true’

Twenty years after her assault, Friedman is a speaker, author and activist who lectures on college campuses nationwide about ending sexual violence and the underlying cultural assumptions that facilitate it. Many laud her as an expert whose views challenge accepted thinking on sexual assault.

For Friedman, it is easier to center the difficult, nuanced discussion of sexual violence on familiar scenarios—male aggressor, female victim—but she acknowledges this approach does not always provide room for different “realities.”

“We have to talk about the social phenomenon being gendered while also making sure we make space for the reality that anyone can be a victim of sexual violence and anyone can be a perpetrator,” Friedman told The Daily Cardinal following a recent UW-Madison appearance.

According to Friedman’s presentation, almost 99 percent of perpetrators are male but only 85 percent of victims are female.

The statistics are approximate, Friedman cautioned, because the barriers presented by sexual assault against men makes the issue uniquely taboo.

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“Male victims of sexual violence are sexualized as female,” she explained. “The idea is that not only has their body been violated in this profound way, but their masculinity has been violated.”

Each year, about one case of male-against-male sexual assault is addressed through the Dean of Students office, according to Schmidt.

Feelings of emasculation and vulnerability pose barriers to reporting assaults, Schmidt said, because it forces men to confront a difficult question: “How do I tell somebody that I’ve been victimized? I’m male. I should have been able to stop this.”

Friedman summarizes it as the “additional admission that ‘I’m supposed to be strong and invulnerable in this culture, and yet somebody did this to me.’”

Additionally, male victims who identify as straight may fear being labeled or stigmatized as homosexual. For victims who do identify as gay, lesbian or transgender, these complications increase.

‘A lot of emotions, a lot of anger’

A few years ago, two roommates threw a party in their dorm room. At the end of the night, both were heavily intoxicated. One of the men was exploring his sexuality and tried to engage with his roommate, but went “too far.”

“The roommate came forward because he was so traumatized by what happened to him,” said Schmidt, who received the report at the Dean of Students Office.

Schmidt described the situation as “a really difficult phase” because while the perpetrator was struggling with questions about his own sexuality, he got in trouble for “going too far with it.”

“There was a lot of emotions, a lot of anger,” Schmidt recalled. “There was a lot at stake, there was a lot lost.”

For victims of assault who identify as LGBT or question their sexuality, fear of being “outed” or confronting difficult personal questions creates a “double-bind,” according to Friedman.

“[LGBT individuals] are taught from a young age that everything we want in our sex-lives is icky and wrong and taboo,” she explained. “When someone does something to us that feels wrong, sometimes it’s hard to name that because we feel like everything is wrong. Queer desire is supposed to be wrong.”

Robin Matthies, assistant director at UW-Madison’s LGBT Campus Center, said victims should consider the Center a safe space to share stories and start finding resources they need, although staffers are not trained to counsel victims.

Matthies described LGBT sexual assaults as “going somewhat invisible on campus,” adding that media and the campus community should “spread awareness… by getting the word out there that this is something that needs to be addressed.”

‘A big project’

Last fall, Jon Hersch sat down in Social Work 672 with 20 fellow fraternity members to talk about issues surrounding campus sexual assault. The class, “Greek Men for Violence Prevention”, was more “intimate” than a lecture or discussion section; it provided a chance to “just talk about the issues.”

“That’s when I started to really realize how violence prevention… should not be viewed as a gendered effort,” Hersch said. “It’s not a woman’s fight—it’s a cultural travesty.”

Now PAVE’s finance and office coordinator, Hersch encourages male involvement through the campus group and from within the Greek community.

“It’s really important for more men to become engaged and really try to challenge their fellow man to come to the realization that they’re not entitled to own women,” he said. “Or to own each other, for that matter.”

Expanding community engagement and education surrounding all sexual assaults is “a big project,” said Friedman, and creating space within that conversation to break down barriers and include all realities of sexual assault starts by changing basic perceptions.

“We have to undo the assumption that there’s a particular way the power dynamic should go and there’s a particular gender to that, and that will undo all of these taboos.”

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