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Anna Biakel. Photo by Hannah Weissmann '17.

Anna Bialek Lecture Challenges Community Attitudes Towards Sexual Assault

Anna Biakel. Photo by Hannah Weissmann '17.
Anna Bialek. Photo by Hannah Weissmann ’17.

During the month of November, students have been thinking about sexuality on campus through the month-long Sexvember event hosted by the Women*s Center. Sexvember has mostly focused on sex positivity, but students have also grappled with the more troubling side of sexual relationships.

Last week, Anna Bialek, a professor of Religion at Washington University, came to speak to Haverford students about seuxal assualt education on college campuses in a talk co-sponsored by the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights department and the Religion department. She gave a talk entitled, “Doubting Thomas, ‘A Rape on Campus,’ and the False Choice Between Inquiry and Care.”

“Bialek shows that you don’t have to be a Christian theologian, or even a Christian, to learn from this way of thinking about the ethics of vulnerability,” said Molly Farneth, a professor of Religion at Haverford, who organized Bialek’s visit. “Especially in her work on anti-sexual assault curricula and as a sexual assault victims’ advocate, she’s concerned with how we care for one another when we recognize dependence and vulnerability as central to ethical human life together.”

Bialek’s thesis was that inquiry into victims’ stories and care for those victims are artificially juxtaposed, and that they do not have to be so. She pointed out that victims of most crimes are believed unless evidence emerges to prove them untrustworthy—yet, this is often not the case with victims of sexual assault. Bialek used examples of the 2014 Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus” and Caravaggio’s depiction of “Doubting Thomas” in The Incredulity of Saint Thomas to investigate how bodily assault is depicted, and advocated an ethic of care to investigate victims’ accounts, rather than hostile doubt.

Prior to her talk, Bialek also visited religion classes such as Theoretical Perspectives in the Study of Religion and Gender and Power in Recent Jewish and Christian Thought to lead discussions about sexual assault awareness in college orientation programs. Students considered several different college orientation curricula, as well as reflecting on their own experiences with sexual assault response education.

According to Bialek, there are three primary types of sexual assault education. The first model, an older curriculum which is no longer used, focused mostly on the laws around punishing those who committed sexual assault. This model was problematic because it put people in the position of the attacker, and caused the students to become defensive and push back against those leading the training. By concentrating on what not to do, the curriculum felt to students like preemptive blame on those who might someday commit assault, and made students fear that they might be punished for unwittingly breaking the rules surrounding assault.

The second model, which currently is the most popular among colleges, is the so-called “bystander approach,” which places students in the position of a bystander to a potential assault. The model claims to be effective because it does not put students immediately on the defensive, taking them out of the position of either the potential victim or the potential attacker. This is the model that Haverford and Bryn Mawr currently use during their respective orientation weeks, and although it is often useful for incoming college students, there are drawbacks to this model as well. The bystander approach seeks to spread responsibility for assault to every member of a community, but it does not empower potential victims, and leaves them to rely on the help of a bystander – in a way rendering them doubly vulnerable. It is also unclear how much a bystander should help in a given situation, and when, if at all, they should intervene. The bystander approach also does not address how to confront sexual assaults in established relationships, or that happen in private spaces. Finally, it does not give positive examples of how a situation might play out with the consent of both parties.

Bialek introduced a third model, which ostensibly focused on how to help a loved one who has been the victim of assault, but in practice works to create a community that confirms its values of protecting potential victims. Like the bystander model, this third model takes a student out of the shoes of a victim or attacker, but immediately assumes the victim to be someone that the student cares about. This model still does not provide a potential victim with strategies to get themselves out of a situation in which they might be attacked, but it creates, according to Bialek, a community that affirms its opposition to sexual assault.

Emily Chazen ‘18, who attended Bialek’s lecture and visit to Gender and Power, found Bialek’s lecture useful for thinking about how to create a community that supported individuals involved in sexual assault.

“I thought Professor Bialek’s visit was really helpful for understanding individual and communal responsibilities about vulnerability,” said Chazen. “As someone who has been a part of Customs since my first year, I’ve seen Haverford’s sexual assault training three times. Professor Bialek’s insight really allowed me to think more about how the tactics we take in approaching sexual assault education and how we might be able to better foster communities of vulnerability, rather than casting culpability and susceptibility onto individuals alone.”

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