RENDA: Unreasonable risk
Women should not be conditioned to anticipate violence because of their activism or views
More from Emily Renda:
Sexual violence and the law: what you need to know
Saturday night was the perfect celebratory end to a fantastic regular season, as the Cavaliers emerged ACC champs. I left the Corner that night still full of all the joy and excitement practically spilling out of the bars, reveling in how good it felt in that moment to be a student at the University. Walking home with a slight sway in my step, I was unconcerned by the three men approaching until I realized they were approaching me, and they were yelling.
I found myself suddenly surrounded by three guys spitting words like “femi-nazi b****” and “c***” in my face, pushing me back and forth between them. They had clearly recognized me from a presentation I had given on sexual assault and they were clearly angry about it. I remember one of them shoving me and saying that I was just bitter because I just needed a “good f******.” At some point they ran out of derogatory words for “female” and headed to bars. I was able to walk away, but the encounter left an awfully bitter taste in my mouth.
So why write about this incident? My intention here is not to suggest that the behavior of a few drunk guys represents the whole of men at the University. But I do want to raise some questions about risk. I fully recognize that I incurred some level of risk that night — that’s the nature of walking alone intoxicated — but in nearly four years I’ve never felt unsafe walking here. The more insidious notion that I had incurred risk because of my and my fellow peer educators’ work concerning sexual assault, consent and bystander intervention — and as a female advocate in particular — upsets me. I’m not aggrieved for myself about Saturday night; I’m aggrieved for what this incident says about the safety of my fellow peer educators.
It had never occurred to me that the peer education work I’ve committed myself to has the potential to create a retaliatory impulse. And why should it? In recent years, the educational aspect of the work has increasingly focused on emphasizing the existence of male survivors and the importance of bystander intervention. We have worked toward promoting healthy sexual attitudes for men and women, and educating people about the fact that a small minority of men commits the majority of rapes. I wonder how that message can be so infuriating. I wonder why the only avenue these men think they had was to physically accost someone rather than talking.
I wonder if it is perhaps that I am taken to represent broader discourses of feminism and gender equity that are outside the actual content of my words. Although I have never actively or intentionally made it my goal to demonize men (they are, after all, my friends and my lovers), am I associated with that anti-male line of thought and then transformed into a site onto which someone feels they can place their anger? I am concerned that the violent anger had an overtly sexual component to it — that one of the guys thought my problem was that I just hadn’t been “f***** hard enough.” To say as a survivor it was a triggering experience is a dramatic understatement.
I wonder where this impulse came from and how widespread it is, because personally I’ve had the joy of knowing men and women who will disagree with and debate me, but never try to harm me. I have felt safe and at home here at the University, even despite my assault first year, and especially in light of the recent moves by the IFC to show support (i.e. the Handprint Project that occurred before Boy’s Bid Night). I have felt encouraged and welcomed by the changes I see the community making, so where did these three angry men come from?
I hope to gain some insight into why this confrontation occurred. In the meanwhile, I’ll be taking kickboxing classes just in case my line of work draws any more violent detractors. But I worry about the nature of this work, the nature of that response on Saturday night, and I worry for my fellow educators.
Emily Renda is a fourth-year in the College and the chair of the Sexual Assault Leadership Council.