You are not a hero for walking a drunk girl home. You do not deserve praise for your silence as “the boys” objectify women. You should not be put on a pedestal because you could have been a bad guy, but “you’re not like that.” That is not enough. You should not only care about what happens to women just because we are your sisters, your mothers, your classmates, and your friends. You should care because we are people and the comments some write off as “compliments,” the grazes that last a second too long, and the constant cycle of violence in the news have aggregated to a boiling point of frustration and exhaustion.
In light of the recent events in the United Kingdom and New York it is important to continue fostering a productive dialogue about the plights women face, including sexual assault and harassment. This gender-based pandemic is not a discussion exclusively for women to have. In order for there to be constructive dialogue and societal transformation, everyone needs to be actively involved in the conversation, regardless of whether the news deems it a current event, because for women, it always is.
The recent abduction and death of Sarah Everard propelled a conversation that stretched beyond the United Kingdom’s borders. Every news story and social media post said the same thing: Sarah did everything right. As James Hookway wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "She chose well-lit streets and spoke with her boyfriend by phone. She did many of the things women are advised to do to improve their safety, yet she didn’t make it home." While many make attempts to conflate violence against women with the victim’s mistakes, Sarah did everything right. So, who is left to blame?
Her story feels universal to women. I remember a feeling of embarrassment flooding my cheeks this past summer when a friend asked me what was on my house keys. I felt ashamed as I told her it was mace — ashamed that I did not deserve to be worried, that I was being dramatic. In reality, it was just a reflection of a missing narrative. Prior to openly speaking about my concerns walking to my car at night, I thought I was alone, attributing it to general anxiety and a protective mother, unaware that my fears were universal. Sarah’s story has brought images of keys tucked between tightly clenched fists, alarmed glances thrown over shoulders, and “got home safe” texts to the forefront of people’s minds. Women around the world — particularly women of color — are starting to recognize that their fears are valid and tangible.
While horrifying and overtly destructive attacks like these generate a lot of attention, it is also vital to not overlook the more subtle and implicit acts of sexual harassment that are more easily accepted by society. New York’s Governor Cuomo was recently accused of sexual harassment, and as someone from the state of New York, I was shocked at people’s reactions to the allegations. Maybe it came from a place of naivety, but I thought after the #MeToo Movement, there would be a genuine shift in the perspective when hearing women come forward. I wrongly believed that society would adopt an understanding that women gain little from coming forward in many cases, but this case exhibited the opposite. After Governor Cuomo’s refusal to resign, the story has lost the traction it once had. The news has cycled onto more current events, leaving these women’s powerful stories cemented in the past.
Students at Penn pride themselves on the prestigious nature of this university — we are the next generation to hold positions of power, and this comes with the obligation to use our voices. We cannot let stories like these become incidents that we only give our thoughts and prayers to, especially because Penn needs to radically change how it deals with these issues on its own campus. Statistics point to the fact that Penn itself is not a safe place for its students who identify as women. A 2019 survey conducted by the Association of American Universities demonstrated the failures of Penn’s attempts at addressing unwanted sexual contact on campus. Nearly 26% of undergraduate women reported that they experienced unwanted sexual contact during college, numbers that differ little from those collected by the same survey in 2015.
Penn could benefit from more discussion about sexual assault and harassment, and how a culture of this kind of behavior is perpetrated. Academic journals have recognized the danger that fraternity houses can pose for women — the numbers are even more frightening, stating that "fraternity men are three times more likely to commit rape than their non-Greek peers." With a clear correlation like this, it should not be too much to ask that there be higher turnout amongst IFC fraternities at Penn Anti-Violence Educators seminars that educate on sexual assault prevention. Historically, there has been low turnout at these events despite them being mandatory for new members. Until the entire student body — not just women on campus — understands the additional burdens on women and what steps can be taken to remediate these problems, substantial change cannot occur.
Shying away from these emotionally taxing conversations is not the answer. Yes, it is hard to talk about something so pervasive, but silence won’t create change. The women around you want to feel heard. We are tired of being seen as objects and are exhausted from hearing that we are equal when individual action seems to suggest otherwise. Instead of praising people for just not doing the wrong thing, let’s foster a dialogue on how to take concrete, productive steps towards changing the way we talk and treat women. Only giving us your attention when the news does is not enough.
ISABELLA GLASSMAN is a College sophomore studying philosophy, politics, and economics from Suffern, N.Y. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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