On Wednesday, April 3, the three co-chairs of the Retriever Courage Student Advisory Committee, Aliya Webermann, Nadia BenAissa and Lorraine Dell’Acqua, along with Women’s Center Director Jess Myers, who all serve on the Retriever Courage Implementation Team, met with Retriever Editor-in-Chief Julia Arbutus and News Editor Johanna Alonso. The purpose was to discuss the “calendar of events” which advertised “free breast exams” by fraternity members, and an encouragement to “eat pussy, baby!” that ran in the Retriever’s annual April Fools’ Day issue, The Deceiver, and to provide feedback about the harms and impact of their piece.
Our conversation with Arbutus and Alonso was very productive. We were able to share our different perspectives on the impact of the piece while also acknowledging mutual interest in preventing sexual assault and supporting survivors. Indeed, one reason we were taken aback by this piece was because The Retriever has been at the forefront of crucial reporting this year as our university has had a very public reckoning with how we address sexual assault and the reporting and response process for survivors.
Arbutus and Alonso shared that their intention had been to satirize rape culture (that is, the normalization of sexual violence, more often experienced by women, people of color, folks with disabilities, and the LGBTQ community) and rapists. At the same time, as Lindy West has written, the difference between satirizing rapists and rape culture and making light of rape and creating hypothetical victims in a joke is often unclear. In response to an all-campus email sent out by the Retriever Courage Implementation Team on Monday, some students pointed to the fact that the “calendar of events” was satire not meant to be taken seriously, and while it was perhaps offensive or in poor taste, all is fair in love and humor.
Some people did find this “calendar of events” funny, and they may not have been upset by it. But, what was the cost to the people who did not find it funny? What about those who were reminded of trauma and violence they have experienced? At UMBC alone, approximately 20% of our student body (at a minimum) has survived sexual violence in their lifetime, which is around 1200 undergraduate students (not counting faculty, staff, and graduate students). What about those who remember or experienced a very real event from several years ago, similar to the “free breast exams” in the “calendar of events,” wherein some students planned an event which involved non-consensual groping and kissing? The “calendar of event” jokes normalizes groping and makes light of sexual trauma. When sexual assault and rape victims are the butt of a joke, the joke becomes unacceptable.
The costs of sexual violence on individuals, relationships, communities, and societies is profound, lifelong, and devastating. Healing is not linear, and hearing a rape joke or seeing rape and sexual assault minimized can be triggering and re-traumatizing to survivors. In addition, survivors too often witness those who perpetrate sexual violence behave with relative impunity given the low rates of survivor reporting and few cases which lead to arrests, prosecutions, and convictions, and as a society we have witnessed the many examples of #MeToo offenders who have returned to the spotlight with little to no repercussions.
Retriever Courage was framed around two terms coined by University of Oregon’s Jennifer Freyd: institutional betrayal and institutional courage. Institutional betrayal refers to the wrongdoings perpetrated by an institution upon individuals who depend upon it. In contrast, institutional courage thrives when an institution is transparent and accountable. It takes courage to speak out, to listen, to learn, and to take action. It is our collective responsibility do this work.
In the launch of Retriever Courage, the university community committed to “taking action on what we learn together, developing a productive dialogue, and creating a coordinated campus response to incidents of sex discrimination and sexual violence/misconduct—a response that is proactive, caring, and transparent.” Our conversation with Arbutus and Alonso allowed us to model the courage to say something when we see something. It is one step that moves us closer to making UMBC a safer, more caring, learning and working environment for all.
The Student Advisory Committee, Retriever Courage Team, and the Women’s Center will continue to work on improving how our university responds to sexual violence and supports survivors. We appreciate that The Retriever took the opportunity to apologize for the real pain that their piece has caused. In the spirit of The Retriever’s first edition from the fall that made a commitment to truth, community, and UMBC students, we join with The Retriever in these important efforts. We hope this can be an opportunity for us all to continue engaging in difficult dialogues with one another about the complicated work of dismantling rape culture.
Aliya Webermann Ph.D. ‘21
Lorraine Dell’Acqua ‘19
Nadia BenAissa ‘20
on behalf of Retriever Courage
Correction: The print version of this op-ed published on April 10, 2019 refers to Johanna Alonso as the Student Life editor. She is the News editor.