I saw my speech at this year’s Take Back the Night rally as an opportunity to support my fellow survivors by opening up a meaningful dialogue to address the hypocrisy of the University’s policies on gender-based misconduct. TBTN has a nuanced understanding of the subject, as its mission statement reads: “Sexual assault is … not an expression of sexual desire. It is a brutal assertion of control that can happen in any relationship, to anyone.” This definition is not limited to interpersonal relationships—it can be relationships between people and institutions as well. It is important for our allies and advocates to understand that gender-based violence is ultimately about power. Abuse takes on many forms, ranging from physical violation of a person’s body to verbal and emotional attacks on their gender identity. All, however, are rooted in entitlement. Rape culture condones abuses of power to dominate, exploit, manipulate, or terrorize another person.
It is utterly imperative that we address discrepancies between Columbia’s projected sentiment and its practices regarding gender-based misconduct. Our institution’s policies endanger students of all gender identities and fail to align with administrative rhetoric that claims zero tolerance toward sexual assault. We must hold Columbia accountable for these policies.
University President Lee Bollinger’s email on April 7 announced how “valuable” Sexual Assault Awareness Month events are, and Columbia College Dean James Valentini’s follow-up email reiterated TBTN as one of the “immediate and meaningful ways” of “strengthening the ways we respect and care for one another.” Their absence from the TBTN rally poetically illustrates the familiar disconnect between message and practice at Columbia.
It demonstrated a lack of accountability by a president who has characterized the task of responding to sexual misconduct across our nation’s campuses as an “unfortunate challenge.” If the TBTN rally had fallen any higher on Bollinger’s list of priorities that evening, he would have attended, thereby directly confronting rape culture at the institution he represents.
Bollinger has claimed, “Everything we are doing and will do must be with the purpose of reducing this misconduct to zero.” Yet the investments in institutions where sexual abuse is prevalent indicate a passive toleration at an administrative level. Given the fact that Columbia has over $8 million invested in the American prison system, a system that was host to an estimated 200,000 instances of sexual abuse in the last recorded year, Bollinger’s commitment to “zero” assault at Columbia seems disingenuous. These investments with the Corrections Corporation of America also imply tacit acceptance of the treatment of those who identify as queer and gender nonconforming—gay, lesbian, and transgender inmates of these facilities are abused at a rate 10 times higher than straight-identified prisoners.
Further evidence for Columbia’s institutional violence against transgender people finds its roots right at home. Just across Broadway, Barnard College enacts gender-based injustice on prospective trans* women through an admissions process that effectively denies their womanhood. Taking a note from Laverne Cox: “When a trans woman gets called a man, that is an act of violence.” And when a trans* woman is denied access to an all-women’s space, on what misguided assumption might Barnard base its misgendering of trans* applicants other than on the wrongful notion that trans* women are not “real women?” That is an act of violence, which has absolutely everything to do with gender. And that is most certainly part of rape culture.
When residents of the Manhattanville community did not consent to Columbia’s occupation and seizure, the University turned to the courts to uphold a glaringly racist argument characterizing a community of largely black and brown people as “blighted” as justification. This is not strategic or savvy. It is exploitative.
The message that all of these actions send is clear: If you want something that is not yours, and someone is not willing to give it to you, take it.
How might our University leaders expect their students to internalize the message “that we are just not going to tolerate sexual abuse and assault at Columbia” when the structural violence enacted on marginalized bodies by our academic institution reveals a false commitment to eliminating rape culture, among other oppressions? Bollinger’s hypocritical rhetoric on sexual assault is hurtful to survivors. If we must truly “focus on our own community and our affiliated institutions every single month of every year,” why has the conversation failed to encompass those institutions beyond 116th Street? Our investments create intrinsic affiliations, and thus, we are culpable for the violence that we fund.
I find it hard to take President Bollinger’s lip service on sexual assault seriously until he connects the dots in one of his many emails on the matter. Until then, I’ll be checking my inbox regularly.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in women, gender, and sexuality studies. In 2012 and 2013, she was a co-producer and the director of CU V-Day’s “The Vagina Monologues.” She is currently a member of the group Radical C.U.N.T.S.