Congratulations to the five NYC undergraduate college students whose compelling op-eds were selected as the winners of the Denim Day NYC 2013 writing contest, “Telling the Truth About Sexual Violence!” The Denim Day NYC Planning Committee received op-ed submissions from students attending colleges throughout the five boroughs, and one winning entry was selected to represent each borough. The winners, whose op-eds are included in full, below, will receive $500 for their winning submissions and will be honored at the Denim Day NYC Rally April 24, 2013.
The Alliance and the Denim Day Planning Committee thanks all of the participants of the Op-Ed Writing Contest and invites students, providers, advocates, policymakers and allies to join us at the Denim Day Rally on the steps of City Hall at noon on April 24, 2013. Wear your jeans in solidarity!
Please note that the opinions expressed in each winning op-ed are those of the author, and do not represent the opinions of the Denim Day NYC Planning Committee or its individual member organizations.
Brooklyn Winner: Kiran Sury, Brooklyn College
“The impact of sexual violence on college students”
Steubenville. It’s a nondescript name of a nondescript town. A few months ago you’d be hard-pressed to find someone outside of Ohio that knew where it was. Then something happened last summer in Steubenville, something that rocketed it to the forefront of the national consciousness. It wasn’t a terrorist attack, or another school shooting, or even a heartwarming sports story like the Bengals or Browns finally winning the Super Bowl. But it did have to do with football.
It was rape.
Two male high school students raped a female student after she passed out at a party. In a modern, sickening twist, they texted their friends and posted pictures and videos of their acts to the Internet. A New York Times article brought the rape to the national spotlight . Talk show hosts rushed to have their say. Was the community protecting the boys because they were football stars? Did the fact that it was only digital penetration lessen the crime? Was the girl lying? What was the role of social media?
Everyone cared. Everyone cared so much. An Ohio congressman took the time to issue a statement, writing “As the father of two daughters and grandfather of four granddaughters, had something like what is being alleged here have happened to one of my loved ones, I would be demanding justice to the fullest extent of the law.”  The rape even has its own Wikipedia page.
Two months ago a woman was raped near my apartment building, on the Brooklyn College campus between the dorms and the school.
And that was pretty much the end of the story as far as news outlets were concerned. There were the obligatory articles in the Daily News and the New York Post, and a three-minute segment on the local news channel. But there was no Times exposé. It didn’t become a national issue. Somehow Brooklyn wasn’t worth the attention. In fact, less than three weeks later Fox News commentator Bob Beckel asked, “When was the last time you heard about a rape on campus?” 
But it wasn’t the end of the story for Brooklyn College students.
Girls were scared to walk home alone. A friend of mine started to buy pepper spray for anyone who asked. Rape breeds a culture of fear and strains the relationship between the sexes. No one should feel unsafe in a learning environment, or anywhere else. My sister should not have to fear walking back to her car alone at night. As a male, it’s not fun being looked at as a potential rapist because of what one criminal did. I can only imagine it’s even worse for a female to feel like a potential victim.
It’s worth noting that sexual violence happens to men too. According to the latest information from the Center for Disease Control, 1 in 71 men reported experiencing rape in his lifetime. The ratio is about 13 times higher for women. When you factor in sexual violence other than rape, both sexes suffer approximately the same amount . I’m not trying to argue that male rape is a larger issue than female rape. My point is that any number larger than 0% for either gender is too high and deserves attention.
Unlike Steubenville, there is no ambiguity towards the rape that happened at the Brooklyn College campus. Any and all forms of sexual violence are clearly wrong. Sexual violence on a college campus has a large impact, but mostly in the lives of the students who have to come to be educated in an environment of fear. Every rape should generate the publicity of Steubenville until the Denim Day slogan is etched into the mind of every potential rapist: there is no excuse and never an invitation to rape.
2 – Congressman Statement:http://billjohnson.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=316474
4 – CDC study: http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/sv-datasheet-a.pdf
Bronx Winner: Shabel Castro, Lehman College
“If you dress provocatively, you are asking to be a target. If you want to be showing your body off then you have to be prepared to deal with the consequences.”
A fellow student said these words during an intro criminology class I took last semester. As always we began class by speaking about a current event.
On that class day, the hot topic ended up being sexual assault and the role the victim has in such crimes. I was excited to see how the conversation would develop being that my class was predominantly made up of women. I thought this would offer an interesting perspective. I expected the conversation to be one of female empowerment where the culture of rape would be challenged.
To my surprise, the class discussion would become extremely heated, filled with passion and strong declarations. What would be most shocking is that such declarations would shed light on victim blaming and how we as college students often further promote the idea that the victim is to blame.
Students expressed how while rape is always a terrifying, horrible, and disgusting act it is often somehow caused by the victim whether it is the way they dress, speak, or present themselves. One student in the class spoke about women that go to clubs and dress in a provocative manner. She expressed her anger about why these women get dressed the way they do and then get upset when a man touches them or tries to speak with them. Many of the other students in the class agreed and expressed how some women purposely seek attention and if this attention goes to an extreme where their rights are violated, this is unfortunate, but expected.
Listening to all of these comments I became extremely upset. It was then when I realized how powerful victim blaming could be.
Why is it that when we hear about a sexual assault case the first thing we ask is how was the victim dressed? How did they present themselves? What did they say?
It appears that in many cases, focusing on these factors makes it easier for us to understand and cope with rape and sexual assault. It is scary to think that anyone can be a target, that even if you dress in a way that you believe is appropriate you can be abused. That somehow, no matter how you represent yourself, your personal human rights can be violated.
This is hard for us to accept because it forces us to think about rape beyond an individual level and more on a social level. It challenges us to think about other factors that somehow influence the way we think about sex, rape, consent, and abuse.
So we take the easy route. We try to view these horrific cases on an individual level and ask ourselves what did that individual do to provoke the situation. We refuse to acknowledge that perhaps the victim is not to blame but rather the society we are in and the way we handle these cases are.
Having this conversation in my class with other college students made me reflect on the role we have as students in reframing the conversation about sexual assault and victimization.
Sexual assault continues to be one of the most underreported crimes. As I walk on campus everyday I realize that among the thousands of students, faculty members, and staff members, there are many who have experienced some type of sexual abuse in their lives.
This is why it is crucial that we no longer take the easy route. We should engage in more discussions where we challenge the whole victim blaming belief and truly begin to discuss how we can prevent sexual assault from happening.
We need to refrain from asking what did the victim do, to rather, why did the oppressor commit such act. We must understand that making changes in the way we think about sexual assault will only help us tackle this issue more effectively. We must use our college campus as a medium to reframe victim blaming and truly begin to discuss the underlying issues behind sexual assault.
Manhattan Winner: Lauren Peterson, The New School
“Challenging the Norms of Rape Culture”
Welcome to The New School. Our lively campus is quietly nestled in the trendy area of Greenwich Village, NY. Upon entering the hallways of our school, visitors are welcomed with one of the University’s most prized attributes—diversity. The New School houses students from all over the world who come to New York City to live out their dream in dance, drama, art and other liberal arts entities. Our University buildings line the streets of 5th and 6th Ave but ideally, New York City is our indigenous campus. The local coffee shop and Leo’s Bagels is where you’ll catch most New School students studying or grabbing a bite to eat. We don’t have Fraternities or Sororities, and there is definitely no evidence of Frat houses. We simply find our solstice in the boisterous streets of New York City.
At The New School, we pride ourselves in gender neutrality. Throughout our campus we have “All Gender Restrooms” scattered throughout the buildings. When the restrooms were first installed, there was quite a bit of scrutiny surrounding the implementation. Women felt as though their privacy was violated and rape culture was still an evident issue on University campuses. Hearing these conversations fluster our halls, I began to think about the issue of sexual violence within our particular University. I’ve concluded that in order for us to understand rape culture, we must first eliminate the stigma associated with gender. What about men? What about those who classify themselves as Trans? Is the idea of sexual violence only applicable to women? These questions started to furiously pump through my head.
Sexual violence is a daunting issue that haunts ANY gender. We can’t expect to educate our youth and campus about it until we begin thinking outside the box. Are the International students at our University aware of the laws and regulations regarding sexual violence and rape in New York State? As a native Floridian, I was given a Student Handbook and was told to sit down and read all 50 million pages of it. Even if I briefly skimmed through it, was I able to grasp the concept? These International students barely speak English! How can anyone expect them understand a bunch of U.S. laws? Let’s take awareness to the next level. I propose that all colleges and Universities execute a mandatory introduction course to sexual violence not only on campus but in the city as well. Universities can’t expect to hand a college student a pamphlet the size of a textbook and tell them to explore the policies and missions of their campus. It simply doesn’t work like that. Now what? Let’s talk consent.
YES! Yes? Yes. Do you know the difference between the three? How far does your “yes” really travel? Does “yes” mean “yes” to everything? NO! Consent is one of the most controversial issues surrounding sexual violence on college campuses. Saying yes to one thing, does that mean you’ve said yes to everything. I therefore declare a recall on the definition of the term “consent”. The dictionary defines consent as “permission for something to happen or agreement to do something”. (Dictionary.com). If I agree to kiss you, does that mean I agree to take it to the next level? Absolutely NOT! We can recall statistics detailing sexual violence against individuals who knew each other. We must train our students and society about the limitations of the word “yes”. Let’s hang consent posters in popular college bars and around our campuses. Make our International students aware of what the concept of consent means within the United States. We see “Don’t Text and Drive” warning signs all over the roads these days. Why not throw up a sign saying “How far will YES take you tonight?” NYC is our campus and we must fight to protect our students (man, woman, Trans, etc.) on and OFF school premises.
Queens Winner: Jacob Zhang, Macaulay Honors College at Queens College
I have a cheerful, gregarious, and ambitious thirteen-year-old sister who is a year away from entering high school. Watching her grow up has been one of the most fulfilling and eye-opening experiences I’ve ever had. I want nothing more than for her to continue loving every minute of life and to remain safe from harm. Since it’s a few years before she heads off to college by herself, I’ve tried my best to prepare her for any sort of danger by reminding her to always have her phone on her, to stay around public areas with lots of people, and to surround herself with friends and folks she trusts.
At the same time, I still have lingering worries. You can never prepare for everything, and I’m only kept at peace by the leap of faith that she’ll be smart enough to take care of herself. However, part of my concern stems from the fact that I—and my generation of men—may be perpetuating to the fears of female college students and their loved ones.
See, in college I joined a fraternity, and in the few years that I’ve been in Alpha Chi Rho I’ve built some of the strongest bonds with my brothers that I’ve ever had. I truly love these guys like family and, as Scholarship Chair, part of my responsibility is to ensure that my brothers maintain professionalism and a high moral standard. For the most part, we follow our motto of “be men” to the best of our ability—but at parties and social events, it’s often a different story. What begins as just a night out looking for attractive members of the opposite sex can quickly turn into statistics: 1 in 4 college women are survivors of sexual violence, 41% of college women who are raped were virgins at the time, and 55% of gang rapes on college campuses are committed by fraternities.
I joined my fraternity because it has a unique distinction; while other Greek organizations pride themselves on throwing the best parties or pursuing hedonism, Alpha Chi Rho stands for a nobler pursuit: positive masculinity. I truly believe this needs to be extended to the belief systems of all young adult males—that to be a man should be, and truly means, more than drinking copious amounts of alcohol and sleeping with as many women possible. It is this mentality that creates an atmosphere of danger, where there is no limit to consumption of a poison and where young men are deemed losers if they aren’t overeagerly pursuing the women around them. Overhauling this definition of masculinity—transforming it into a gallant pursuit of self-growth and achievement—will lead to positive changes, not only in the sexual culture of college, but also to the level of success that my male colleagues will attain on a daily basis.
I also notice another danger with college nightlife: male sexual entitlement. The words “slut” and “easy” are often freely used to describe my female colleagues with no fear of consequence—but if this same vocabulary were bestowed on my sister, the anger I’d experience would be unparalleled. I’m sure the same goes for all my fraternity brothers, and all men in society. We as men are far too quick to believe that these women are removed from our shared humanity—that they are objects solely for pleasure, and undeserving of the decency we give our fellow man. Unless this changes, we cannot improve the conditions of the institutions that our younger sisters will one day enter.
Growing up in a lower-income neighborhood in Queens, my mother wanted us to be tough and would often take my sister and I to run errands, in places ranging from Jamaica to Chinatown, in the effort to show us that there was nothing to be scared of. Standing just four foot eleven, my mother proved to both of us at a young age that there was little to fear. If my sister and my mother—the two females I hold closest to my heart—have the courage to brave the ruthless dangers of male-dominated society, the least us men can do is have the guts to face our own demons and end sexual violence, one belief at a time.
Staten Island Winner: Madeline McKnight, Wagner College
“Telling the Truth about Sexual Violence”
Truth be told, I don’t know all that much about sexual violence. I know the basics: what it is, how it most often occurs, and the repercussions of it, but I’ve never been a victim myself. Truth be told, I don’t know much else. Perhaps that is the biggest problem: no one else does either. It’s hard to admit that we’re all ignorant. It’s hard to admit that some of the things we say regarding sexual violence, we don’t fully understand or even partially understand for that matter. The truth hurts sometimes and even more times, it’s terrifying. It’s extremely challenging to admit that we are the ones who are being oblivious to something so devastating.
One in five. This is such a staggering statistic for something so few people care to recognize as a huge issue in our world. One in five college women have been forced into sex against their will. One in five is only the reported number of cases. Excuses are made for why things like rape happen, which makes this statistic even more frightening. For that 20 percent, people choose to turn a blind eye. That 20 percent gets blamed for why such a horrible thing happened to them. That is completely unacceptable.
That’s why the knowledge of sexual violence is so powerful; the more we know, the more we can recognize when we see things that are incorrect and make efforts to prevent it so that that 20 percent—and the cases gone unreported—will vanish. On the other hand, if we choose to continue to keep a blind eye, that makes it so much harder to stop acts of sexual violence from occurring.
Education is key here. People need to know just how heart breaking a thing like sexual violence is. The more people know, the more they will understand that rape is in no way brought on by the victim themselves and that it is also not a joke. No one, regardless of gender, should be forced into sex against his or her will.
As far as starting this education, it’s not just about putting the facts out there for people to see; it’s about giving people the incentive to want to learn more. Even though no one can fully understand what a victim of sexual violence goes through, in order to educate people, they need to see a connection to themselves. Sexual violence is an immense invasion of privacy. People understand how violated they feel when someone goes through their phone or when their parents go through their Internet browser history. That’s how their attention is caught. Examples people can relate to get them to see that sexual violence really isn’t something to joke about. It affects a woman’s—or a man’s—mental health, as well as their physical health. People just need to start thinking. As soon as the ideas are put in their heads, they’ll start to understand the gravity of the repercussions of sexual violence.
Truth be told, it doesn’t take an army to start this revolution, it can begin within the power of our own minds.