Violence and Valentine’s

Public Interest

“On Valentine’s Day, Remember Survivors of Sexual Assault.”

Over the past week, this message was plastered across campus in a postering campaign by the Coalition Against Sexual Violence. The posters also featured grim statistics, such as a 1991 figure that one in five women will be assaulted during their college careers. I don’t know whether that information is still accurate, but I don’t mean to belittle the issue—there is a burning need to stop sexual violence and to assist survivors more effectively, and the issue fully deserves the public’s attention.

However, without trivializing sexual assault, it still seems possible to ask why students should especially keep it in mind on Valentine’s Day. V-Day, an organization founded by Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler, suggests that the holiday “is a perfect day to affirm that people should love each other and be nice to women, instead of hurting them or killing them.” So is Christmas, and so is this morning. What makes Valentine’s Day different from all other days, and why is it uniquely suited to the remembrance of sexual assault?

The content of the holiday fails to justify the juxtaposition. Valentine’s Day isn’t about sex, it’s about love. And as we’re often told, rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power. The love celebrated on Feb. 14 is diametrically opposed to the violent transgression of moral and emotional bonds that assault represents. Assault can be committed by parents, acquaintances or strangers in contexts that have nothing to do with romance—as the campaign itself testified. Perhaps the flowers and candy can be a prelude to violence; but in that case, why address female students with posters about incestuous rape in Lima, Peru?

Of course, the posters were seen by men as well as women, and recent Administrative Board reports would indicate that some students could use a reminder that no means no. But I can’t shake the feeling that most of the campus is already that far along. And in any case, that’s not what the campaign offered—only aggregate statistics that would do nothing to convince the student who doesn’t think what he did last night was rape.

Everyone who thinks or talks about sexual violence on this campus agrees that it is unacceptable and must be stopped; the only question is how to prevent it. And although the campaign was effective in producing emotions of shock and sadness, it offered no way of channeling these emotions into productive action. On the Coalition signs I read, the only suggestion to combat sexual violence was the implied message of “Don’t be a sexual predator”—a personal message that, on Valentine’s Day, verges on the insulting.

The preaching of awareness to the already-aware divides the movement’s supporters and drives away some who would be willing to fight for change. Perhaps 35 percent of men really would commit rape if they could get away with it, but we of the other 65 percent have no idea how we’re supposed to react to the statistic. (Ask our friends which camp they fall in?) An article on the subject in the most recent Diversity & Distinction suggested that that men do need to be part of the discussions on sexual assault, but only in that they are potential victims as well as potential rapists. Without a debate over policies in which well-meaning men can take part, the statistics seem designed to produce feelings of collective guilt—and such unearned guilt only creates resistance to the movement’s legitimate claims.

For the rhetoric to be centered on Valentine’s Day makes the situation even worse. The message the holiday sends to most men is to bring a girl flowers and take her out to dinner; the message of the intensely personal advocacy is to stay the hell away from her for fear of the furious beast that seethes within. It’s hard to come up with an equally distasteful association of the sublime and the grotesque; the closest analogue would be if anti-pedophilia activism were centered on Father’s Day.

What’s unfortunate is that there are real disagreements at Harvard and elsewhere on the best ways to prevent or punish sexual violence. Almost a month ago, Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 noted that the Ad Board was not well equipped to address certain allegations of assault. Is he right, and are there other things Harvard could do to make students safer? How successful are survivors who press charges against their attacker? How can the U.S. make assault cases easier to prosecute without infringing the legitimate rights of the accused? The Coalition has ideas on these issues, but you won’t find them in their recent publicity. Instead, you’ll merely see a litany of problems whose solutions will require far more than personal reflection.

And the reluctance to emphasize real solutions isn’t limited to Harvard’s campus. One of the three winning proposals in V-Day’s 2002 College “Stop Rape” contest was to distribute buttons that read “Be Nice to Vaginas, You Came From One.” Many responsible organizations have devoted time and effort to finding effective ways to fight violence, but the height of V-Day’s political imagination seems to be the proclamation of San Francisco as a “Rape Free Zone.”

Awareness is crucial, but it is not an end, only a means to an end. With so much at stake, it is foolish for advocates not to use their almost universal support as an engine for real change. And it’s even more foolish to weaken this support by blurring the distinction between the endearing and the truly monstrous—and by tarnishing an innocent holiday in the process.

Stephen E. Sachs ’02 is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.