There are things they don’t tell you before you go to college.
Things can happen — things will happen, statistically, to you or someone you know. On every college campus, there are events that can occur outside your control. There are things we don’t tell our daughters or our sons, because to do so would admit exactly that — we find ourselves confronted with a problem so complex and unpredictable that we are, by all measures, powerless before it.
I was not powerless when I came to the University of Wisconsin. But I bought into the idea, slowly, as I discovered what campus looked like after dark. I bought into the idea that, if I didn’t want to be catcalled, I should have dressed more modestly. I bought into the idea that what happened to us while we were drunk at a party was, inexplicably, somehow our fault.
Rape culture is built like a fence around our social consciousness — visible in the corner of our eyes, briefly, only if we’re looking for it. But it fences us in, keeps us here in a world where the solution is either a more modest dress, longer shorts or nothing at all.
Police arrest suspect in Langdon Street sexual assault early Sunday morningA suspect has been arrested after a reported sexual assault early Sunday morning on Langdon Street. According to the Madison Read…
And, despite high-profile incidents on campus, despite the rising rate of sexual assaults on college campuses across America, despite the #MeToo movement, despite the convictions of celebrities and politicians, UW has fallen into a familiar rhythm.
The Blue Light Initiative — also known as Blue Buttons — is a series of petitions and demands by student government to improve student safety after recent assaults on Langdon Street. Blue-lit stations, staggered every thirty seconds, could direct police to a crime as soon as a button was pressed.
It sounded good in theory. On paper, it was a framework for implementing effective security measures across campus. A way to catch up with dozens of other large, urban universities across the country. To respond quickly to burglaries and robberies as soon as they happened.
But when Associated Students of Madison’s Equity and Inclusion Committee took up the petition in the context of preventing sexual assaults, my head exploded.
Overnight, the Blue Light Petition was adopted by a significant number of candidates running for election, becoming a cause célèbre for those who blanked on what else to put in their bio. Several candidates, predominantly male, doubled down on the idea that UW was somehow failing sexual assault victims by not installing blue lights — and that it would be their priority, so students — especially female ones — could be safer.
There are a thousand things wrong with that assertion. To start with the easy one, the idea that sexual assault would somehow magically disappear with the installation of blue lights seems cruel. But digging beneath the haphazard layer of please vote for me because, unlike everyone else, I agree that sexual assault is bad, there are an infinite number of implications — that victims of sexual assault are attacked because they are outside at night, that these assaults are by strangers — that there is, ultimately, no preventative measure — only recourse.
Our fault for being outside at night alone. The idea of shouldering that blame now is ridiculous to me. But at a time of increased public awareness of violent crime in downtown Madison, I realized that much of the world hadn’t moved along with me.
What the statements of ASM and its members miss, disappointingly, are the facts. According to a snapshot released last year by UW, sexual assaults reported to the university rarely, if ever, occurred on public property. Sexual assaults were more likely to involve assailants already known to the victim than not. For incidents reported on campus, almost 54 percent occurred within residence halls. Other happened in non-campus locations, such as fraternity houses and student apartments.
After proposed Title IX changes, UW System affirms commitment to upholding practices preventing misconductIn light of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s proposed changes to how schools should address sexual assault misconduct, the University of Read…
Short and sweet, blue lights might have little to no impact on how or why sexual assaults occur on campus. The abdication of responsibility by students, ASM and allies to hold ourselves accountable for a culture of violence is not only insulting — it is extremely dangerous. We are reducing an intractable problem to its simplest form, forgetting all of those who have a stake in its complexity.
That our newly elected student government would rather direct funding and attention to blue lights instead of better resources for sexual assault survivors, consent and bystander training or more frequent and detailed climate surveys stupefies me. For a group that has championed the expansion of mental health resources at University Health Services, ASM has deftly ignored one of the reasons many students seek out care in the first place — sexual assault and trauma. And why address the symptom, when you never acknowledge the cause?
Blue lights, despite their undeniable benefits, are not a solution. There will be no solution until we accept that the root causes of sexual assault and violence on campus lie within our own hands and mouths. There will be no solution until we elect more student representatives of color, of backgrounds, of different ethnicities and genders, who can provide a contrasting perspective to what seems like a unanimous step in a dangerously meaningless direction.
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Acknowledging the realities of rape on college campuses is vital to reform. But throwing out an empty ideal with little intention to actually address its complexities and follow through on its requirements is a brutal slap in the face of all survivors and students at UW. It suggests that we are one-issue voters, or worse — that the candidates themselves have little else to offer than a cause célèbre after winning a ticket to student government. That to do more than champion a petition would be, somehow, too much to ask.
Until ASM demonstrates any action to the contrary, I’m inclined to believe the latter. Indeed, pass the petition, install blue lights — and then remain committed. Or we will end up in the very same place we began: asking survivors what they could have done to be safer.
Julia Brunson ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in history.