“Rice students are apathetic.” We’ve heard this lamentable statement in a thousand different contexts, from social justice movements to Student Association elections. I disagree. I’ve seen incredibly passionate student-led dialogue and action. However, the examples that come to mind — Baker lunch restrictions, college president resignations or the changing Alcohol Policy — are immediate issues, with immediate consequences to members of the Rice campus. It’s much more difficult to incite a population of busy college students to address systemic racism in the criminal justice system than to limit a servery’s hours. Yet sexual assault is equally an immediate issue directly affecting all of us — the statistics from the Survey on Unwanted Sexual Experiences results represent real humans in our campus community. They are us, our roommates, our classmates and our peers.
From the moment Rice released the SUSE results, I’ve heard countless people remark that sexual assault is a huge problem, but Rice apathy will keep us from doing anything about it. Contrary to this assumption, I saw passionate students jump to action to discuss the root causes of sexual assault and brainstorm initiatives Rice can take to address it. As the current directors of the Rice Women’s Resource Center, Cristell Perez and I quickly organized a discussion two days after the SUSE results were released. Expecting a mere handful of people on such short notice and without any free food as bait, we were pleasantly surprised when around 30 students showed up, sat in a circle and had a meaningful, productive dialogue for over two hours. That discussion generated many new initiatives, including Jazz Silva’s “Critical Thinking in Sexuality” course.
Rice students cannot be written off as apathetic. We do care deeply about our peers and I have seen that repeatedly expressed. Yet at the “It’s Up to Us” SA meeting two weeks later, I felt like our campus took a step backward.
Free food is ubiquitous at Rice — it’s rare to find an event on campus without free food to lure attendees — but that does not mean food should be the event’s focus. The SA Facebook advertisement for the discussion insinuated otherwise, blaring, “IT’S UP TO US” in letters made out of pepperoni pizza. The Facebook event description reads, “Because we value your voice, the college with the highest turnout (based on college size) will receive a new 50” flat screen.” The SA automatically assumed that Rice students are apathetic and require huge prizes (a pizza party and a flatscreen TV competition) to attend a discussion over a serious issue deeply affecting our community. We should not (and do not) need to be bribed with pizza and a free TV to attend a campus discussion over sexual assault. At the end of the meeting, people started screaming for their college members to sign-in so they could win the TV. The message was clear: Rice students care more about pizza and a TV than the wellbeing of their friends and peers. I left the Grand Hall feeling immensely frustrated.
The SA meeting felt like a purely symbolic move, a political checkbox so we can marvel that over 300 students attended a discussion about sexual assault. The “discussion” was merely a string of seven or eight unrelated comments, not a productive space of reflection, dialogue and action. It is impossible to have meaningful and inclusive dialogue when 300 people sit facing the stage rather than one another. Considering the attendance of several leaders of student organizations, including the Queer Resource Center, the RWRC, the SA Wellbeing Committee and the STRIVE Coalition, all of whom have already been working to address sexual assault on campus, this event was a massive missed opportunity to break into smaller groups and have truly meaningful and productive discussion.
If “It’s Up To Us” accomplished anything, it served its symbolic purpose in keeping sexual assault in the campus consciousness. Residential colleges are beginning to have their own discussions. Students are unafraid to problematize and criticize other discussion formats and philosophies. Campus leaders are mobilizing and collaborating in truly remarkable ways. The Rice administration is also being incredibly supportive; we cannot take that for granted. Administrations at several other universities still refuse to acknowledge the prevalence of sexual assault or do not network with student leaders to implement meaningful initiatives.
Believing “Rice apathy” will prevent any real change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We must stop using food and prizes to bribe students to care, and instead foster a campus culture where we participate in discussions because we deeply care about our peers’ wellbeing. Ultimately, we must work together as a community to have the meaningful and productive dialogue that addressing the issue of campus sexual assault requires. It’s up to us.
Sam Love is a Rice Women’s Resource Center co-director and Lovett College senior.