Two years ago, I wrote an opinion piece in the Thresher to shed light on what I saw as systemic issues within the Rice community that enabled acts of sexual assault and violence to occur. Since then, the Thresher has reported on the administration’s numerous efforts to curb sexual assault and to increase dialogue on campus. However, the statement released by Rice after the Marching Owl Band’s halftime performance at the Baylor game is a disappointing reminder of our university’s failure to elevate the discourse surrounding sexual assault.
Shattering the culture of silence and dismantling the institutions that perpetuate sexual violence require acts of boldness that speak truth to power. Rice’s half-hearted equivocating excuse of an apology to any potentially offended Baylor fans only perpetuates the notion that discussions surrounding sexual assault have to be limited to a gentle discourse to ensure those in power do not feel threatened.
Rice’s statement expressed concern that the MOB’s performance “may have gone too far,” and one of my many takeaways from this statement was, “It’s important to speak up about sexual assault … but don’t step on any toes while you’re at it!”
Well, you can sure as hell bet that calling out abuses of power and the institutions that prop up said abuses is going to offend some sensibilities. So. Damn. What. Some detractors of the MOB performance have argued that this was not the appropriate venue to bring up the sensitive topic of sexual assault. But when, pray tell, will there be an “appropriate time” to discuss the violent abuse of human dignity? The truth is, there never will be a suitable or convenient time to discuss sexual violence; these issues will always be deeply disturbing and saddening, but we must not recoil from addressing them.
It’s not as if Baylor’s cover-up of rape “may have gone too far.” It’s not as if Baylor fans shaking hands or taking selfies with the ex-coach involved in said cover-up “may have gone too far.” The MOB didn’t trivialize Title IX. Baylor University trivialized Title IX when it decided to prioritize its athletic reputation over the dignity and deserved justice of sexual assault survivors.
What did you expect, Rice? Did you expect that bringing light to the issue of sexual violence was going to be a polite, charming affair? Did you expect that hosting Project SAFE talks during Orientation Week and frowning on racy party themes and strippers was going to absolve you from your responsibility in addressing an institutionalized system of abuse? Your efforts to address assault on campus are admirable if sometimes flawed, but your failure to acknowledge the broader nationwide context of silence and cover-ups is abhorrent.
When I was six years old, I was forcibly kissed on the mouth by a man who claimed to be a family friend. Other adults were present; no one said a thing. While it is true that this incident occurred in Iran, where some physical contact is customary in greetings, what this man did was beyond socially unacceptable. My parents were horrified when I told them about it a full 10 years later.
The ordeal that the women at Baylor underwent is far more horrific than what I experienced, but it is the common thread of silence within communities that leads to an implicit acceptance and enabling of sexual violence in its many forms. It is far too easy for each of us to be complicit in acts of violence through our well-meaning efforts to remain neutral or conciliatory.
In the spirit of a broken clock being right twice a day, I’ll conclude with a quote from Rice’s statement: “All of us have an obligation to address the matter [of sexual assault] with all the tools at our disposal.”
The Marching Owl Band fulfilled that obligation by using its platform to shed light on a serious miscarriage of justice. Perhaps Rice University can take a page out of its book.