Changing peer culture on sexual respect at the University of Richmond, or on any college campus, is not easy, but it absolutely needs to be done. The recent e-mail incident in combination with the revelation of another e-mail today that includes misogynist and expressly racist remarks, threatens to marginalize and silence anyone who is not a white male on this campus.
Yesterday I conducted a series of meetings with members of the student body and the administration to begin to assess the campus culture and to help the community create an atmosphere of sexual respect. That Richmond asked me to consult with them for this purpose indicates their seriousness in addressing this problem as one of peer culture, rather than as isolated incidents. The hope is that this educational initiative will open a meaningful discourse on critical issues of gender and racial equality.
As we move forward, it is very important to keep our focus on the root of the problem, which is the misogynist and racist attitudes expressed in the emails, and what they may indicate about the culture in the community. Deconstructing the language of the e-mails reveals a very serious rape culture in which women are expressly dehumanized and degraded for the sexual use of males. Not surprisingly, the racial overtones amplify the social hierarchy. These attitudes have no place on a college campus whose mission is education. Title IX guarantees equal access to education.
Students told me that this language often passes around different male groups without objection or dissent. This is how rape-prone attitudes are perpetuated. Far from being benign, hip, or humorous, sentiments such as these create the mindset that tell men that it's OK to have sex with a passed-out woman, even to share her with some friends or fraternity brothers. It is not. Rather, it is rape and is against the law.
Richmond students are participants in creating the peer culture, and passive acceptance of harmful, discriminatory attitudes is precisely what enables the perpetuation of harm.
It's not easy to stand up and speak out when you hear or read this offensive language -- but it's the only way to stop it. I plan to return to campus soon to develop a peer-to-peer initiative on sexual respect that will give undergraduates and Richmond law students the tools to confront unacceptable social behavior.
While Richmond is not alone in facing sexism and racism on campus, this painful episode offers an empowering opportunity for Richmond students to engage in a genuine progressive cultural shift. As they take ownership of the problems and the solutions, Richmond can emerge as an example and a leader for universities across the country.
Diane L. Rosenfeld is a lecturer on law at Harvard Law School, where she specializes in gender violence and campus sexual assault.
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