Lessons From Steubenville

This piece was originally published on the Kenyon Observer blog, describing the importance of comprehensive sexual assault education and bystander intervention. 

Trigger Warning: The following includes descriptions and links to content that may serve as a trigger for victims of sexual violence.

For four consecutive years I’ve attended the training session necessary to host parties on this campus. Most often, when I’ve worked campus parties I have been assigned to serve as a door worker, or as a“floater.” A floater is technically someone assigned to keep their eyes and ears on the party and ensure a safe environment which complies with the regulations outlined in the Student Handbook, the College’s party policy, and the set of expectations outlined on the Event Registration forms one fills out before a party can be held.

What I can’t get over, in the wake of the recent conviction of two students in Steubenville, OH, is that sexual assault was never mentioned; neither in any of those training sessions I attended, to my memory, nor is it explicitly mentioned in the protocols governing party hosting.

Why is that a problem? The campus has a clearly written, (if at times controversial) sexual misconduct policy. Shouldn’t that be sufficient? Here’s why I beg to differ:

Every 21 hours someone is raped on an American college campus. Furthermore, 90% of all campus rapes occur under the influence of alcohol. If you’re in college or you’ve been in college, chances are you know someone who has been sexually assaulted or raped. The chances that they knew their perpetrator prior to the attack are at least as likely.

How many Jane Doe’s have you laughed at as they stumbled away from a party instead of seeing if they needed help? Has anyone you’ve known wondered, had regrets about if they should’ve followed through on a hook-up because of their partner’s level of intoxication? Have you? How many people, if assaulted, don’t tell anyone (let alone press charges), because they’re embarrassed or ashamed, because they think it’s their fault? Ever seen a couple dancing and wondered if they’re both actually “into it?”

If you’re shocked by the images that went viral across the internet, if you’re horrified and stunned that anyone could treat a peer that way, if you’re offended, outraged that the media would place more emphasis on the consequences for the accused than the trauma endured by their victim, you’re not paying attention.

But isn’t the DFMO and the drunken hookup just how college is these days? Here’s the issue: When we hear stories like those of the young woman in Steubenville, it’s easy to mark the case and the role alcohol played in it as exceptional. She was clearly passed out, so the morality of such an act can’t possibly be questioned, right? But what happens when s/he’s not passed out, when s/he’s black-out, when s/he’s brown-out, when s/he’s tipsy? The law is very clear; any decent code of conduct is clear: intoxication means non-consent. I think it’s safe to say that the overwhelming majority of people in our community agree that rape is a bad thing. But how many people truly recognize that jokes, comments, and song lyrics about sex, alcohol and partying necessarily contribute to a culture that tacitly or explicitly obfuscates the definition of rape?

The message to college students should be clear and be supported by educational programming and dialogue-fostering events made possible both through student activism and initiatives undertaken by the administration. This year’s performance of Real World Gambier during First Year Orientation was an excellent example of that sort of messaging. Of course, much simpler steps can be taken as well. The freshman hall cliche of the buddy system is neither as obsolete nor as childish as its reputation.

For Kenyon students, a major takeaway from the media-saturated rape trial in Steubenville may be this: our understanding of participating and engaging in a community must include stepping in if the safety of a peer is in question. To put it in the language of party training here, everyone can and should be a floater. See something? Say something. I’d much rather be a “cock-block” than stay silent, and I reserve my right, and recognize my duty to do so as long as Kenyon students don’t feel safe. If nothing else, hopefully Steubenville can serve as a wake-up call. Every single member of this community can contribute to a shift in the way sexuality, alcohol, and safe behavior interact on this campus. There are lots of questions to be raised surrounding this issue, but here are a simple few with which we may begin:

“Hey, want me to grab you some water?”

“Can I call SafeRides for you?”

“Are you ok?”



This piece was originally published under the title “Hope and Change From Election Night’s Results” http://kenyonobserver.com/2012/11/07/hope-and-change-from-election-nights-results/ on the Kenyon Observer blog on November 7, 2012 in reaction to elections in the United States the previous day.

In his acceptance speech last night, President Barack Obama said, “we know in our hearts that for the United States of America the best is yet to come.” Though there are plenty of policies I’ll be working to change in the next four years, a number of exciting measures and candidates were affirmed at the polls yesterday.

Breakthroughs for Women and GLBTQ
Last night was truly inspiring for those passionate about women’s and LGBTQ rights; there were a number of decisive and historic outcomes. Four states voted in support of marriage equality. In Maine, Washington, and Maryland, voters approved and affirmed equal marriage rights for their citizens. In Minnesota, voters rejected a measure which would have prohibited marriage rights for LGBTQ residents.

In addition, last night was a watershed for GLBTQ representation amongst elected officials: Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin was elected the first openly gay Senator. Votes are still being counted in a very tight race, but it looks like Kyrsten Sinema will win the seat for Arizona’s 9th district. If elected, Ms. Sinema will be the first openly bi-sexual member of the House of Representatives.

Slowly but surely, women are increasing their numbers in political offices. A record twenty women will become members of the 113th Congressional Senate, an increase of three from the current 112th Congress. My hometown hero, former employer, and the longest serving woman in the House of Representatives, Marcy Kaptur, successfully battled to claim her 16th term representing Ohio’s 9th district. She faced election absurdities which included gerrymandering that pitted her against famous leftist Dennis Kucinich, and a general election opponent in Joe the Plumber (remember him from ‘08? Yes, he actually ran for office). HuffPost has an interactive map where you can check out where women ran and won in the House and Senate.

The Public says A’ OK to Mary-J
For those whose policy concerns are a little hazier, momentous decisions wafted in from the polls last night. Voters in Colorado approved Amendment 64, which will amend the state constitution to legalize and regulate the production, possession, and distribution of marijuana for persons age 21 and older for recreational use. Washington State voters are hoping for major tax revenue by doing the same thing: they approved Initiative 502, which will also legalize and regulate the production, possession and distribution of cannabis for persons age 21 and older. The catch? A 25% tax rate will be imposed in all stages of the transaction process: “when the grower sells it to the processor, when the processor sells it to the retailer, and when the retailer sells it to the customer,” according to CNN. A similar measure in Oregon was defeated. Massachusetts and Montana passed referendums in favor of legalizing marijuana for medical use; a similar measure in Arkansas failed.

What Is “American?”
The ballot for voters in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico offered a two-part choice to votersregarding their relationship to the States. In the first section, 54% of voters say they did not favor their current commonwealth status. Following, given the choice of statehood, independence or “sovereign free association,” 61% chose statehood as the alternative, with 33% choosing the semi-autonomous “sovereign free association” and 6% voting for outright independence. The non-binding referendum is seen as a mark of popular opinion on the island. Significantly, one third of ballots cast left the question of status blank, prompting many to argue that results which favor statehood may be misleading. Barack Obama has previously stated that he will support the will of the Puerto Rican people on this issue.

In the midst of increasingly racialized political attacks, a rise in hate crimes and workplace discrimination, and a Census-projection which estimates that America’s demographics will no longer be majority white by as early as 2042, upcoming debate about Puerto Rico’s status will be an important indicator of America’s tolerance of diversity. America’s racial, linguistic, and religious diversity is expanding, and in many ways this election was characterized by these tensions and evolving attitudes.

On a personal note, I was pleased with the results of many of the races in the House of Representatives. One of my least favorite representatives, the always-Islamophobic Allen West (R-FL) was not re-elected. At least four out of the 5 Arab Americans in Congress won their reelection bids.


As the President reminded us yesterday,

“These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty. We can never forget that as we speak people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.”

When I cast my ballot for President Obama early last week, I did so cognizant of the reservations I hold about many of his policies over the last four years. Yet, I believe in the sincerity of his promise to move the country forward, and I am ready to speak up on how I believe we can do so. When I canvassed for Obama back in 2008, I wanted to help change the image and policies of America abroad. In 2012, I look at the radical expansion and militarization of the CIA, the dramatic increase in deportations here, and the tarnished image of “Made in the U.S.A.” stamped on tear gas canisters, thrown at peaceful protestors in places like Egypt and Kenya, and I want change.

It is time to move the country forward, and finally close Guantanamo Bay.
We cannot go backward; we must repeal sections of the NDAA which permit the indefinite detention of American citizens.

We need to move forward and bring an end to the quagmire in Afghanistan.
We cannot go backward: a decade of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia has endangered innocent civilians, radicalized our enemies and fomented anti-American sentiments abroad, as well as jeopardized the safety of our troops, and has not made our country safer.

We need to move forward: members of Congress can no longer find endless funding to send my friends to war without supporting them adequately when they return.
We can not move backward by slurring and discriminating against minority communities in this country. America’s religious freedom means that all communities should be safe to practice their religion without the threat of violence, as Sikh and Muslim Americans have endured in recent months.

We can no longer selectively buy off illegitimate and unjust rulers in the Middle East in the name of stability; apartheid, destruction of religious sites, and the tyranny of the minority can no longer be accepted if we are to move forward. The politics of fear and segregation are stagnant, and will not bring peace to the region. As a religiously and ethnically diverse nation, America can assist by brainstorming creatively, promoting democratic solutions which simultaneously allow for self-determination of all citizens while ensuring the safety and participation of minority communities.

Last night was a good start, but we need to keep moving forward. I remain full of hope, and ready for change.

Politics, Love, Religion, and Hip Hop

This piece was originally published on the Kenyon Observer blog on October 15, 2012. In the wake of the ongoing Supreme Court hearing regarding Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, and a lively debate about attacking oppression within those marginalized communities advocating repeal of these laws, Macklemore’s message of inclusion remains as timely as ever. 

Many Kenyon students are familiar with the Seattle-based hip-hop team of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (who played a show at the Horn Gallery a while back). When the independently released track for their newest song, “Same Love” (featuring Mary Lambert) hit YouTube two weeks ago, social media sites flared up as many reacted to the song’s powerful messaging. The video is part of a larger project, Music for Marriage Equality, whose list of supporters includes the Sasquatch! Music Festival, numerous record label executives, and bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam. In the video description section for “Same Love,” Ryan Lewis writes,

We support civil rights, and hope WA State voters will APPROVE REF 74 and legalize marriage equality.

The song provides a split attack on cultural conservatives and the “Religious Right” and the hip-hop industry’s persistent homophobia. The lyrics calls to task those who use religious justifications for bigotry, and invert oft-invoked Scriptural defenses for queer-rights positions by looping a famous quote from 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, Love is kind.” Kenyon graduate and current seminarian at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Jared Ruark ‘11,  recently wrote,

“When your personal beliefs are the justification for a system of laws that has direct bearing on the day to day lives of people completely removed from your personal sphere of influence, that’s no longer a matter of personal belief. That’s a public policy position. So you’ll have to excuse those of us who don’t buy it even a little bit when people who bring their views into the public sphere cry personal religious persecution at the first sign of significant pushback. Religious freedom doesn’t mean you have the right to dictate public policy according to your own personal religious convictions.”

The lyrics of “Same Love” reflect Ruark’s sentiments, and the song’s affiliation with the campaign to pass Washington State Referendum 74 this November further demonstrates them. Macklemore rhymes, “If you preach hate at a service, those words aren’t anointed,” emphasizing that gay rights are a civil rights issue, not one of morality.

The song also calls out the hip hop community for its stagnation and persistent use of derogatory language. This reflection by rapper Brother Ali on homophobia in the hip hop community sheds light on what is too often an overlooked issue in the musical genre. In the song, Ryan Lewis is more explicit:

“If I was gay
I would think hip-hop hates me
Have you read the YouTube comments lately
“Man that’s gay”
Gets dropped on the daily
We’ve become so numb to what we’re sayin’
Our culture founded from oppression
Yeah, we don’t have acceptance for ‘em
Call each other faggots
Behind the keys of a message board
A word routed in hate
Yet our genre still ignores it”

Though calling to task two large communities, the ultimate message of “Same Love” is of unity and empowerment. The battle for LGBTQQ equality will be won through the changing of hearts and minds, a tuning of the conscience and a framing of the question as one dedicated to justice and equality for all. Macklemore, Ryan Lewis and Mary Lambert say it best:

“And a certificate on paper
Isn’t gonna solve it all
But it’s a damn good place to start
No law’s gonna change us
We have to change us.”