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Last week a former Amherst College student’s harrowing account of being raped on campus — and of the administration’s subsequent appalling failure to support her or deal with the incident responsibly — was published in the college newspaper and almost immediately began to draw attention across the country.

Angie Epifano’s story of rape, involuntary institutionalization, and administrative failure brought other campus rape survivors forward, sparked vigils and other organizing, and prompted Amherst president Biddy Martin, until recently the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to announce an investigation of Epifano’s allegations and a series of possible revisions to campus policy.

In her statement, released six days ago, Martin declared Epifano’s experiences “horrifying,” and declared that the administration’s approach to rape complaints “must change.” As a result of an open meeting with students, she said, students would immediately be added to the campus Title IX and student life planning committees, campus penalties for sexual assault would be reviewed, and new regulation of off-campus fraternities would be considered.

On Friday a group of students secured a meeting with the Amherst board of trustees to discuss the crisis on campus, and the next day the board announced the establishment of a committee, to include student representation, which will conduct a review of campus policy in the area. The committee will make a public report in advance of the board’s next meeting in January, though it will have no formal institutional authority.

A crucial question going forward will be which students are brought into these processes, and how they are chosen. The president of the Amherst student government, not the administration, chose the delegation for the trustee meeting, but some students have been critical of the composition of that group, and are pressing for a less “manufactured” process for choosing representatives to the upcoming advisory committee.

Some activists also express concern that a narrow focus on written policies evades the core issues at stake. “The policy in place isn’t the heart of the problem,” senior Alexa Hettwer told the school paper. “Its enforcement by the administration has been shameful. This is more than just tinkering with policy; it raises serious questions about the direction and inclusiveness of the College in the future.”

Meanwhile, organizing continues. A new student website devoted to exposing sexual assault at Amherst appeared in the immediate aftermath of the publication of Epifano’s story, and yesterday they posted a photo essay of survivors (and allies) “featur[ing] eleven men and women who were sexually assaulted at Amherst College and the words that members of our community said to them following their assaults.” (The photos appeared on that site in slideshow form. They can be seen here in a single page format.)

And the impact of Epifano’s statement continues to be felt, most recently just this morning with the publication of another student’s account of how the Amherst administration mishandled her own rape complaint, leading to her transfer. (This student was enrolled at Mount Holyoke, a nearby college closely affiliated with Amherst, and was raped on the Amherst campus.)

George Galloway, a controversial member of the British parliament, is suing the country’s National Union of Students for calling him a “rape denier.”

Galloway, a supporter of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, said in August that though Assange was accused of “sordid” behavior and “bad sexual etiquette,” the allegations did not “constitute rape … as anyone with any sense can possibly recognize it.”

One of Assange’s accusers has said that after she repeatedly refused to have unprotected sex with him, she awoke to find that he was penetrating her vaginally without a condom. The other says that he attempted to pry her legs open so that he could penetrate her while he held her arms down to keep her from reaching for a condom. The courts that considered Assange’s extradition appeals consistently held that these allegations amounted to rape under British law.

A few days ago the National Union of Students voted to ban Galloway from speaking at NUS-sponsored events, saying in a statement that the organization would not “offer a platform to speakers who are rape deniers or apologists, or support events where such individuals speak.”

A BBC article on the lawsuit does not specify what damages or other redress Galloway is seeking.

After astronaut Sally Ride died earlier this week, Andrew Sullivan put up a column criticizing her for remaining closeted as a lesbian until her death. Though her achievements would “vastly outshine” her “flaws,” he wrote, “the truth remains: she had a chance to expand people’s horizons and young lesbians’ hope and self-esteem, and she chose not to.”

When a lesbian wrote to him to say that it was precisely because Ride wasn’t openly gay that she was available (in the writer’s conservative family and community) as a strong, independent, feminist role model growing up, and that “her closet is part of the reason I escaped mine,” Sullivan sneered:

“Which makes Sally Ride what? A role model for staying silent so as not to disturb the status quo? Once you accept the logic of prejudice, even as a tool for other laudable goals, you’ve given the game away.”

And that makes his most recent post on the subject really really weird.

This morning Sullivan returned to the subject of Sally Ride (for I believe the sixth time) to apologize for the tone of some of his earlier comments but to affirm his basic perspective.

“Perhaps a better way of putting this is to point to another American icon, Bayard Rustin. Rustin was both black and gay and was integral to the organization behind the civil rights movement. But because he was gay, and had been arrested for public sex, he chose to be in the background of the movement and not be a spokesman, in case it would do more harm than good. But in his later life, he became a towering figure for many of us looking for role models as out gay men. He was a pragmatist but also deeply principled, like the late Frank Kameny. He faced, like Ride, several layers of discrimination, but he found the strength to break through all of them. …

“No one is required to be a hero. But no one either should be judged too weak or oppressed for heroism. Sally Ride had a choice, as did Bayard Rustin. They are both heroes to my mind in many ways – and far more distinguished human beings than I could ever be. But Rustin’s shoulders are higher and broader. You can see the future from them.”

This is completely wrongheaded.

Bayard Rustin didn’t simply “choose to be in the background of the movement … because he was gay, and had been arrested for public sex.” He was pushed to the background of the movement after his conviction revealed his sexuality to the public.

As a closeted gay man, Rustin had been a prominent organizer within the nascent civil rights movement. As a known homosexual, he was fired from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, shunned by former allies, forced to contribute anonymously or surreptitiously or not at all. His involuntary ejection from one closet, in other words, had the effect of forcing him into another.

This is “the logic of prejudice,” and it’s a logic that Rustin well understood. Rustin didn’t choose, and wouldn’t have chosen, to go public as a gay man in the fifties. That choice was made for him, and it had exactly the negative effect on his life’s work that Ride must have feared disclosure would have had on hers. Bayard Rustin’s life stands as a refutation of Sullivan’s stance, not an affirmation of it.

And Sullivan compounds his error with his use of a fragmentary Rustin quote, apparently lifted from Wikipedia:

“Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new “niggers” are gays. . . . It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. . . . The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people. “

The first thing that needs to be said about this quote is that it’s taken from a speech which Rustin gave when he was seventy-four years old, while Sally Ride died at sixty-one. So to present his words as an attack on Ride’s silence is shoddy and ugly.

But beyond that, Sullivan’s version of the speech is so chopped down as to render its true meaning unrecognizable. Rustin wasn’t arguing, as the excerpt seems to suggest, that the fight against racism had been won. Rather, he was saying that it was because overt racism had been largely driven underground — because “nobody would dare to say any number of things about blacks that they are perfectly prepared to say about gay people” — attitudes toward gays had become the “barometer” of public opinion on social justice issues.

And Rustin went on to identify this position as leaving gays with an obligation to other social justice movements, in an analysis that rebukes Sullivan’s. “Because we stand in the center of progress toward democracy,” he declared, “we have a terrifying responsibility to the whole society.” The gay community, he said, “cannot work for justice for itself alone,” cannot tolerate prejudice in its ranks, and must “recognize that we cannot fight for the rights of gays unless … we are ready to fight for a radicalization of this society.”

A society that leaves young children and the elderly in poverty, Rustin said, is a society that will never grant justice to gays. And so “these economic concerns must go hand-in-hand and, to a degree, precede the possibility of dealing with the most grievous problem — which is sexual prejudice.”

This, like all of Rustin’s life work, is an eloquent statement of the interconnectedness of struggles for change. Where Sullivan claims that marshaling your energy for your chosen battles is “giving the game away,” Rustin understood that any movement to uplift the oppressed must operate strategically, consciously, mindfully. Where Sullivan excoriates Sally Ride for her apparent calculation that she could do more to change society for the better from within the closet than outside, Bayard Rustin would have nodded. He would have understood.

He would have embraced her as a friend, a comrade, a hero.

A big point of contention in the argument over Daniel Tosh’s rape jokes has been how to take his suggestion that it’d be funny if a group of guys in his audience raped the woman who’d just called him out for making rape jokes during his set. A lot of folks, myself included, said that statement opened up the woman to harassment and possible assault, while Tosh’s defenders mostly denied that made any sense. Comedy is comedy, they said, and bad acts are bad acts, and you can’t mix up the two.

But now there’s this.

As my friend Kevin pointed out this morning, Tosh did a bit on his Comedy Central show just three months ago in which he encouraged his male viewers to videotape themselves “sneaking up behind women” and “lightly touching” their belly fat. And a bunch of them did, sending the clips into him and posting them on YouTube.

Now, the whole point of this is that it’s non-consensual, invasive, and public. And though some of the women in the clips appear to be in on the gag, others are clearly pissed off. In several cases the women seem to be strangers to the guys doing the touching, and in one — hosted on the Comedy Central website, complete with a revenue-generating ad — a high school student is shown touching his teacher. (That clip, like many others, cuts out before we’re able to see the victim’s reaction.)

What this confirms is that the whole Tosh thing isn’t about jokes. Tosh isn’t just a guy who tells stories on stage. He’s a guy whose comedy includes actually physically assaulting women, and directing his fans to do the same. And this is the guy who, after a woman challenged his rape jokes, mused aloud about how funny it would be if she “got raped by like, five” of those same fans, right then and there.

“Right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?”

Damn.

“In the meantime, the Mobe held its own counter-inaugural event with a rally and speakers. Later that night they scheduled a counter-inaugural ball. One of the speakers was Marilyn Webb, representing the new women’s consciousness-raising groups. She had prepared a speech about the aspirations of women, demanding equality for women both in the movement and in the larger society. As Marilyn began her speech, dozens of men in the packed audience began to catcall and boo. When she continued, more men joined in and the din got louder. Some of them began to chant, ‘Take it off! Take it off!’ ‘Fuck her down a dark alley!’ Marilyn was stunned and hurt. Shulamith Firestone tried to continue with a second speech, but soon both women were forced to abandon the stage in the pandemonium…

“While the Mobe leadership — all men — were also upset by the attacks, they didn’t join Marilyn on the stage to back her up.”

—Cathy Wilkerson, SDS and Weather Underground activist, on the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam’s January 1969 protest of the Nixon inaugural.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall
StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

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