Opinion: Student Activism Gone Astray

Flyers on the backs of bathroom stall doors provide a glaring reminder that one in five female students is sexually assaulted in college. The statistic is thrown this way into unsuspecting faces every day, the magic number of sexual assault. We are shown a number, not a face, and warned not to become a statistic. The flyers suggest that it is a college woman’s job to stay safe, to move in packs and to keep SANet on speed dial, and there is no mention of consequences for convicted offenders.

While bathroom stall flyers are a minor proactive attempt at fighting a major issue, the recent media focus regarding rape on college campuses has been on schools’ mishandling of sexual assault claims. The new problem is not that one in five female college students is raped, but that schools routinely let students get away with rape. As students become more unsettled about their schools’ policies, crude vigilante activism has replaced the marches, strikes and protests of our parents’ generation.

Students at Columbia University have taken a new stance on bathroom stall activism. In March of this year, many bathroom stalls on campus were vandalized with a “rapist list,” which included the names of several male students who were accused of sexually assaulting fellow students. Later, a flyer listing names of alleged sexual assault violators was distributed on campus. It has not been confirmed that any of the men named on the list have been convicted of a sex crime.


Photo courtesy of Wally Gobetz/Flickr

The crude publication of a list of alleged rapists is a step toward positive student activism, but this type of vigilante justice is not an effective way of bringing change. Such lists can have major repercussions for anyone who is wrongly accused, and they serve to focus on individuals rather than on a culture that does not punish rapists. Students at Columbia took matters into their own hands when they felt their school administration was not doing enough to protect them, and this is what needs to happen if there is to be any hope of reducing incidents of sexual assault on college campuses. The students, however, should find a more effective way than a vigilante graffiti campaign to combat injustices on campus.

American college students have a rich tradition of protest and activism, but student protests are not what they used to be. A recent study at Brown University, a school known for its progressive values, concluded that 82.6% of professors who had been at the school for more than 20 years agree that student activism on campus has decreased in the last few decades. In 1970, Boston College students went on strike to protest a proposed tuition hike. Classes were actually canceled for three weeks because students went on strike to protest the tuition increase. Now, we seem to accept unfair school policies without batting an eye.


Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

While the previous generation of college students marched for peace, women’s rights and racial equality, the current generation is much less vocal. Though it is obvious that many students care about sexual assault, few are taking the initiative to do something about it. Instead of organizing large-scale marches and protests that attract national attention, students have resorted to vandalizing bathroom stalls in the hopes of socially ostracizing a few individual offenders.

Sure, BC students participate annually in Take Back the Night, which is a very effective campaign to raise awareness about sexual assault on campus. But TBTN raises awareness among students without much regard for the responsibility of institutions to keep students safe and to punish offenders. In order to change the way institutions deal with sexual assault claims, students must collectively protest the status quo and actively let schools know that injustices will not be tolerated. Protests should not be annual, but constant.

The sexual assault problem that is now endemic on college campuses will not be solved through individually targeting a perpetrator or two; it will be solved only through a consistent push by students for systemic change. Schools have avoided dealing with the sexual assault problem for too long, and they have gotten away with it because there has not yet been an effective student push for positive change.

If change is to be made, students must be their own advocates in a positive way. Visible and vocal student protests can thrive on college campuses, and students should insist upon combatting injustices this way. Instead of using bathroom flyers to warn female students about the dangers of individual rapists on campus or distributing lists of accused rapists, students should be empowered to demonstrate to the administration that the status quo will not be tolerated.

Tina Fey wannabe. Occasional Bostonian. MBTA Superfan.