Op-Ed: Sensitivities in survivor discourse

Oct. 19, 2011, 12:26 a.m.

At nine years old, Oprah Winfrey was sexually assaulted. When she was 13, she ran away from home. A year later, she gave birth to a child that died in infancy. Living in poverty, Winfrey wore clothes made of potato sacks. She was made fun of relentlessly at school. Her childhood was replete with tragedy. Despite this, Oprah advanced from crisis to crisis with unfettered resolve. She never stopped dancing. She never lost her soul…”

It is messages like these, sent by E2.0, the former entrepreneurship arm of the ASSU, which has now separated from the student government, to students affiliated with business/entrepreneurship on campus, that reiterate the fact that Stanford can still be plagued by insensitivity concerning sexual violence against both men and women.

For starters, the message fetishizes a deeply traumatic and violent event as nothing more than a stepping-stone for career and life success, as the E2.0 message indicates was the case for Oprah Winfrey. Secondly, it names the violence without analyzing its roots or its after-effects. In fact, the message assumes that survivors, like Oprah Winfrey, should shrug off the assault, pull themselves up from the bootstraps and aspire to entrepreneurial greatness.

However, those sensitized to sexual violence know that survivors of sexual assault and relationship abuse are likely to experience severe feelings of anxiety and fear, known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), withdrawal, guilt, nervousness and distrust of others. And while this says nothing of the fact that most survivors show an extraordinary degree of resiliency after their assault or abuse, it does indicate that the effects of sexual violence are pronounced, can last a considerable amount of time and catalyze a variety of emotional, psychological and physical effects. Moreover, because the message was written in the spirit of self-reliance and autonomy, it obscures the fact that many survivors do not adequately heal without wide community support from organizations, advocates and counseling services. As such, the message would suggest that survivors not exhibiting entrepreneurial self-sufficiency are undeserving of career and personal fulfillment or seen as lazy and somehow deficient.

Instead, Oprah Winfrey’s sexual abuse is normalized in the message, which one can posit as being an extension of the wider societal normalization of patriarchal norms. And while I don’t negate the fact that we are all subjects within a patriarchal and sexist society, and are thereby affected by ideals and policies that contribute to its continued existence, I am also deeply disappointed that the ASSU Executive team, led by Michael Cruz and Stewart Macgregor-Dennis, did not critically interrogate both the messaging of the email that was sent out on their administration’s behalf as well as the societal conceptions of victimhood, victim-blaming and the effects of sexual and intimate partner violence, on both men and women. And considering it is estimated that one in three women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime and one in four will experience domestic abuse, it is vital that all in the Stanford community take sexual and domestic violence seriously.

Lastly, the messaging of the E2.0 email reveals one of the follies of American entrepreneurship and the trailblazing spirit we at Stanford pride ourselves on. Rather than questioning the systemic and structural inequalities and barriers that had caused Winfrey’s poverty-stricken roots, the messaging instead celebrates that most capitalistic of notions: that we are all the masters of our destiny and any failure to achieve monetary success or significant social standing is only the result of individual inadequacy rather than social, political and economic barriers. It should come as no surprise, then, that those in localities of power continue to be primarily white, middle-class, middle-aged, cisgendered, able-bodied men (rather than women of color from impoverished backgrounds like Winfrey).

I hope that this experience, which did catch the attention of many students and led to a resulting apology from the ASSU Exec to those offended, will serve as nothing more than an example of the steps that have yet to be made in terms of changing Stanford’s cultural attitudes towards sexual and domestic violence. I recommend that students, staff and administration take advantage of the many educational and counseling resources already provided on campus relating to the issue, including Assistant Dean for Sexual Assault and Relationship Prevention & Response Angela Exson, the Women’s Community Center and the CAPS support group for female survivors. Most of all, I hope that we all become more conscious of the ways our own position and privileges within society can affect the way we view the world and how it can potentially invalidate the experiences of others.

Viviana Arcia ’13
President of the Women’s Coalition

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