The Princeton Where Sexual Assault is Discussed

The Princeton University student body has remained alarmingly inactive on the subject of sexual assault. We’ve talked about the photographs taken at Tiger Inn, the phrase “Rape Haven” scrawled across their front wall, and the Title IX investigation and policy changes. Yet there have been no active student movements to address or reveal the extent of sexual assault on campus. The Title IX investigation clearly stated that the university had not responded promptly or equally to several sexual assault reports. In the middle of December, the Daily Princetonian reported on three sexual assault cases the university recently opened investigations on, one from two summers ago, one from a month ago, and one from the week before. Despite this, no one on campus lifted so much as a pillow, much less a mattress in solidarity with Emma Sulkowitcz’s “Carry the Weight” marches all around the country. No women have come forward publically at Princeton about sexual assault because of the stigma and shame attached to rape, yet no one on campus is fighting publically for a different sexual assault culture or stronger policies.

In HBO’s show The Newsroom, however, a student at a fictional version of Princeton suggests that technology could help break this silence. In that episode, “Oh Shenandoah,” a reporter seeks out a Princeton student named Mary who, in the face of the university clearing the men she had accused of rape, created a website where women on campus could anonymously accuse students of assault. Many news outlets and bloggers such as Emily Nussbaum for the New Yorker and Ariane Lange at Buzzfeed have critiqued the episode for the moral dialogue in which the reporter attempts to convince the student not to face her accused attacker on television. However, the actual concept of the site suggested by Mary was given less examination. In the episode’s world, the site serves as a last resort for women who have not received the justice they believe they deserve in a procedural setting. With the Princeton campus as the targeted audience, women could warn other women about the men they had accused of rape who still walk freely on campus. Whereas in Emma Sulkowitcz’s case, choosing to publicize the name of her accused assaulter thrust her name and face into the abusive public eye, through this forum a student could take action merely through the act of writing, protected by the veil of digital anonymity. Despite the concerns of the patronizing male reporter, Mary argues that the forum is not a form of vigilante justice, but an awareness-raising act designed to make the campus safer in a way that the university refused to do when they wouldn’t expel her accused attacker.

“No one on campus lifted so much as a pillow, much less a mattress in solidarity with Emma Sulkowitcz’s “Carry the Weight” marches all around the country.”

Anonymous platforms have thrived in the social media sphere for many years. From Ask.fm, an anonymous question-asking site popular in middle school, to the Tiger Admirers Facebook page at Princeton, these social media platforms feed off people’s desire to lower their personal filters. The wide popularity of these anonymous sites demonstrates the attraction of the higher level of honesty they afford, just as their use demonstrates the accompanying recklessness and cruelty that is often paired with anonymity. A site like Tiger Admirers demonstrates a directed use of anonymous sharing for compliments and romantic declarations. Tiger Admirers has recently, however, been co-opted for sharing experiences with depression and mental illness. These posts, sharing intimate details without a name, attracted an outpouring of sympathy, and prompted others to share their experiences and offer support. Someone also recently suggested on Tiger Admirers a related page with an even more sp

specific goal, “Can there be another page that is only girls where we can all post about the assholes and warn other girls away? … Maybe that’s bullying… But is it really bullying if it’s true?” This idea speaks to the way that Mary’s site uses community-based warnings. The range of emotional and controversial content that anonymous forums handle suggests that this technology could and most likely will interact with the current silence surrounding sexual assault. The nuances of the ways that anonymous sexual assault accusations could interact with the current social media platforms and community judgment suggest a range of possible consequences.

Yik Yak serves as a good platform for exploring both the content anonymity attracts, as well as the targeted community that receives the information. Yik Yak is an anonymous virtual message board available within a specific geographic area. At Princeton, Yik Yak has primarily housed a stream of witty remarks about Princeton life. At other universities and high schools, however, Yik Yak has become a minefield of offensive remarks, rampant cyber bullying, and direct threats. During the protests seeking justice for Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Princeton’s Yik Yak erupted with racially charged comments and discussions, suggesting that students have recognized the app as a platform for controversial dialogue and polemic statements. What makes Yik Yak a striking platform is the impact of community moderation. Through the primary acts available on Yik Yak, up-voting and down-voting, the visibility and thus the impact of a post is determined entirely by the Yik Yak community. As a result of the judgment post’s community audience, an accusation of rape could be the very first thing people see when they open the app, or be stuck at the bottom of the feed.

newsroom pic

A  bathroom wall at Columbia University, where four names of alleged rapists were scrawled in Sharpie, bears witness that some women are willing to make these names public for their community. While the effectiveness of this type of action is reliant on the chance that other women will read the names, posting names on a site places the issue at the will of the community. Realizing The Newsroom’s hypothesized sexual assault forum through today’s anonymous technology has the potential to shift control of sexual assault accusations out of the hands of a university or legal authority and into the community. Such a forum could similarly transition the conversation around sexual assault away from what the university is doing right or wrong in handling cases towards a more proactive discussion of how the community can protect itself against potential assailants. But just as a forum like this has the potential to break the silence in a beneficial way, it also introduces dangers to both the legitimacy of rape accusations and the privacy and integrity of students’ actions and reputations.

Giving women a space in which they can name their attacker for the school community without submitting their identity to probing investigation holds the potential to reveal the actual extent of sexual assault occurring at Princeton. The episode focuses on the forum as a final recourse for women whose cases were denied or mishandled by the university. However, the forum could also serve women who don’t want to undergo the official investigation process, which many women in other institutions have described as painful. Anonymity could be the first tool in shifting the conversation of sexual assault cases away from the faces of the claimants (also known as victims, accusers or liars depending on the result of their cases), and placing the focus instead on the students accused of rape. By sending out a warning into the hands of the community that can make the decision whether to heed or ignore it, women would have the ability to take action without furthering the suffering they have experienced from the sexual assault.

Of course, potential consequences are equally high when both the definition of sexual assault and the truth of an accusation are determined by an unregulated, anonymous community. The university sexual assault policy seeks a preponderance of evidence, where it is more likely than not that what the claimant seeks to prove is true. On Yik Yak and other forums, the only standard that can be applied to evaluating whether an anonymous statement is true is the community’s perception of the accusatory post. Members make the decision to up-vote or down-vote an accusation based on their personal evaluation of both the legitimacy of the accusation and the reputation of the accused person. The person accused has no ability to either face their accuser or mount a defense, and they may receive a punishment as unofficial as it is damning: the ruining of their reputation in the eyes of their community. Yet, even these consequences presuppose that the form of accusation is not being misused. The safety of anonymity could prompt people to make untrue accusations in search of revenge, or even facilitate a cruel joke. Anonymous forums have a long track record of attracting toxic, obscene and derogatory posts. Adding rape accusations to this destructive mix has the potential to devalue the accusations, reducing them to the level of hateful and vengeful insults. Moreover, the infamous comments sections on posts could attract hurtful remarks towards both the accused as well as the anonymous voice speaking out.

“The range of emotional and controversial content that anonymous forums handle suggests that this technology could and most likely will interact with the current silence surrounding sexual assault.”

This type of forum also holds the potential to damage the institution’s system for handling sexual assault. If students became accustomed to recognizing the community’s judgment of rape as the standard of recognition and punishment, even more students than already do would avoid the university’s justice system. While breaking the silence surrounding sexual assault on campus is important, having a fair and effective official procedure for hearing sexual assault cases remains a top priority in creating a safe campus environment. However, as the university continues to struggle to create such a system, perhaps this type of forum could be a necessary push. While the backlash and consequences of an anonymous system could be enormous, it could at least reveal for the first time the extent to which sexual assault pervades our campus.

As he enters Mary’s dorm room, the reporter immediately requests to move the conversation to a more public location. His motivation – fear of being in an intimate setting with a college student – was misguided, but his urge was correct: we need to move our conversations about rape into the public. While The Newsroom’s hypothetical forum based in accusations may not be the right approach for addressing Princeton’s sexual assault culture, what it does suggest is that Princeton needs to find a new, less restricted place to have this conversation. The danger that comes with using the internet as a platform is its lawlessness: the removal of inhibition that people experience through anonymity. However, if this freedom could be harnessed into a virtual space where women felt comfortable sharing their experiences with sexual assault at Princeton, technology could provide the first venue where the Princeton community is able to have an honest conversation about rape.

 

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