Sulkowicz’s story: universities treat assault with contempt

Demonstration against sexual assault at Columbia University

No justice, no peace.

Emma Sulkowicz was not the first woman to be raped at a university in the United States. She is, unfortunately, far from the last. The epidemic of sexual assault in the college system, like the similar scourge in the military, comes from a fundamental lack of accountability. Internal justice systems in colleges do not incorporate best practices for victims of assault, and police departments around the country are still skeptical of both female and male victims.

A transcript of Emma’s interview at Democracy Now! is available here. The sea change in the past couple years has been driven exclusively by victims- not finding accountability at their own institutions, they began looking beyond to the Office of Civil rights and their powers using Title IX (PDF) to smash apart a conspiracy of silence.

My old credit union had copies of the Stanford Daily, so I have read the paper several times each school year. A recurring motif is the inadequacy of existing courts and boards to handle sexual assault cases. Victims are not given due consideration. They often have to meet their attacker several times as a case works through the system. No-contact orders and other paperwork issued by the university do not address two key issues: the alleged rapist is still on campus with little real separation from the victim, and anyone who has been accused of rape may be a threat to other people.

Orientation for the four-year university I will attend next month included much information on consent and where the sexual assault resource center is. But education is not nearly enough. Rapists will still exist, and the key question is what sanctions and legal action will be taken against those who are accused of a crime. As Columbia blog bwog states:

“In New York State, first-degree rape is punishable by a prison sentence of up to 25 years.  At Columbia, a student found responsible for rape, groping, or harassment could potentially receive the same punishment given to underage students found in possession of alcohol.”

Sexual assault is a violent felony. Keeping suspects on the same small campus as victims is a terrible idea. It is disturbing that elite institutions, that stress their advanced education and community, are just as backwards on this issue as lesser schools. And that a woman must carry a mattress around for weeks to get attention is horrible and degrading. Those that are harmed should get the respect and attention they deserve without resorting to high-profile stunts.

Even in 2014, it is clear that a woman’s body is not given the same legal protection as a man’s. Executive leaderships still can’t believe that what these people say is likely true, and that factors like alcohol and drug use are distractions from the core problem.

The university is losing authority by the week, as complaints now go both to the federal government and the police. Central to this discussion is the dilemma, that perhaps there are many crimes that should not be dealt with by a school. Perhaps one day these places will have a sexual assault policy as enlightened as their academics.

Perhaps not.

It’s disgusting.

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Moonlit lily pads

I skip across the night
on moonlit lily pads
the copse of willow trees
lithe, and twisting
urging forth each step

beyond this path
lies all else, ethereal
ten thousand moaning
terrors, which upon the dawn
dissolve, awaiting their own
inevitable return.

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Short laws don’t fit complex societies

Sen. McConnell next to his claimed mountain of ACA regulations. (Nicolas Kamm/AFP/Getty)

Every so often someone, somewhere proposes a constitutional amendment requiring laws to be as simple as possible, and as short as possible. It’s part of the long tradition of suspicion towards bureaucracy. Why is the budget the size of three phone books? Why can’t Congress just get down to the core of it? Tea Party groups and other small-government conservatives often take hardline stances towards making government more common sense, often by taking a howitzer to the various agencies that seem to make stuff complicated. Each Republican presidential primary is a smorgasbord of tax plans, each aimed at hacking the IRS down to a skeleton crew.

The issue is that government of any size is incredibly complex. Any large institution is- look at the metric tons of paperwork produced by a sizable corporation. Large bills like the Affordable Care Act are not the norm, but they are common. Over three hundred million people live in the United States, who then interact with everyone else on Earth. Even the simplest ideas, those common sense two page proposals, will gain weight as it is connected into the legal system.

Ultimately the task state and federal governments have is not to make their laws briefer or in much simpler language, but making the scope and purpose of a law coherent. Most of a long bill’s paperwork, or tax regulation, is the legal machine code created by a dedicated battalion of lawyers. The specifics of those U.S. code alterations are not important, rather the public needs to grasp what their practical effect will be, and what principle is guiding their use. Doing the paper stunt, where politicians show how giant a given bill can be, is just that- a stunt.

Many ideologies attempt to simplify society, but society refuses easy guidelines. It is monstrously complicated because people are different in a million tiny little ways. I expect solutions to societal problems will be complicated. They just need to be sufficiently graspable.

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Unequal progress: the case of LGBT homeless youth

September’s issue of Rolling Stone will include a magnificent feature on LGBT homeless youth. The personal stories are gripping; they may also be totally alien if your upbringing was not that religious. Above all, the key part of this story is how mainstream institutions misread LGBT progress. Carl Sicialiano, a former Benedictine monk turned homeless LGBT advocate, distills things:

“I feel like the LGBT movement has been asleep at the wheel when it comes to this,” he says, running his hands through his closely cropped hair and sighing. “We’ve been so focused on laws – changing the laws around marriage equality, changing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ getting adoption rights – that we haven’t been fighting for economic resources. How many tax dollars do gay people contribute? What percentage of tax dollars comes back to our gay kids? We haven’t matured enough as a movement yet that we’re looking at the economics of things.”

Social movements tend toward an optimistic framing of their struggle. It’s empowering to talk about the slew of pro-marriage equality court decisions made in the past year. Although legal equality is making strides, the issue of gay youth being expelled from their homes is worse now than at any point in the past. The pro-equality environment for adults in loving relationships, who may also want children, does not transfer down to youth. As Alex Morris writes in the feature, openness about sexuality has driven average age of coming out into the high school years. When people come out as gay, lesbian, or trans* they are more economically and emotionally vulnerable than ever before. The social support system for the homeless is deficient, it’s even more deficient for youth (very little funding is earmarked for youth in particular), and a complete mess for LGBT youth.

As with many issues, solutions will come from two corners: lessening the spread of the problem and improving the structure to deal with it. Religious intolerance, activist Mitchell Gold says, is not addressed by major advocacy groups; he states “they don’t want to come across as anti-religion . . . But the number-one hurdle to LGBT equality is religious­-based bigotry.” The social system needs to pivot away from middle and upper-middle class gay politics to the survival struggle of hundreds of thousands at the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

Leaps forward do not benefit all members of a given social group or social movement. While one section of my friends rejoiced at the Supreme Court decision on the Defense of Marriage Act, another mentioned that a large population of LGBT people do not aspire to be married, and may view marriage as rooted in patriarchal power relations. It is a mistake to neglect the economic inequity, both between the LGBT and straight, as well as within the LGBT community as a whole. Mainstream media outlets will, as they usually do, paint a very bourgeoise conflict. However, that misses the key conflict as it exists today.

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Purgatory, proverbial

A thousand tapping feet
in purgatory, proverbial
color and tone familiar
to a small-town
Amtrak station

waiting for
resolution, crisp
like drawing-room
mysteries, the kind
that clutter up old women’s
shelves, whip-smart
despite the gathering dust.

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Obstruction by design


One of the great tropes of American politics is the ineptitude of Congress. In particular, great amounts of journalistic ink have been devoted to gridlock in the U.S. Senate. The headline is always correct- the Senate is dysfunctional and no expertise is needed to see that. But I think there are some poor assumptions made when people talk about the Senate. Here are two:

  • Senate legislative gridlock is new. It’s really not. Important legislation has passed the House only to die in the Senate since the birth of the Republic. In particular, the first half of the 19th century went from crisis to crisis, as while the South had a much lower population than the North, they were given an equal number of senators.
  • Senate rejection of treaties is new. The US has signed many treaties but often does not ratify them. UN treaties are some of the most well-known, such as the Kyoto Protocol and more recently the UN  Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which failed two years ago. This predates the UN, as the United States, who proposed the League of Nations but did not become a member due to Senate opposition.

Both segue into my main point- the Senate is an inherently obstructive institution. That is why it exists. Its flaws are not borne of modern political culture but just the latest decoration. Not only is the Senate by nature obstructive, I would say that almost all upper houses in parliaments and congresses are obstructive. By nature the elections for the upper body are not rooted in proportionality- many bodies like the German Budesrat have an artificially small gap between tiny regions and huge ones. In cases like the United Kingdom’s House of Lords, the members aren’t elected at all, and their modern power is purely to delay and obstruct legislation.

The deification of the Founding Fathers, and the subsequent Framers, needs an injection of the political reality they crafted. The Connecticut Compromise gets applause as a brilliant piece of union-saving policy work, but it dictated a system where the rights of the minority could hold up nearly every vital government function. This ‘minority’ is often abstract, usually given a very virtuous portrait. Currently that minority is often a group of small-minded politicians, who by virtue of the Senate system do not need to explain their actions or defend their conduct. In the past that minority was representatives of slave power, who killed actions to limit the spread of slavery using the power given to them, even when they were strongly outnumbered by free-state residents.

Media outlets and individuals bemoan terrible Congressional approval ratings, and how little is done in the Senate in particular. This should not be surprising. American government is a blueprint for obstruction.

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Money I didn’t ask for: a UU Sunday quandary


Sunday I received a Presidential Dollar coin. Andrew Johnson, one of the most incompetent and ineffectual executives in American history. Everyone else in the congregation received their own coin- Washington, Adams, Jackson, Lincoln, Grant. Some of the older Sacagawea designs as well.

This was an attempt to drive home the sermon’s main point on money- that money is just another name for power. And in the current economic system, using money is exerting power. It buys goods and services. It influences people’s emotions, ideals, and motivations. It separates groups of people into classes and castes.

So I still have this coin, despite having options to use it. I’ve paid for transactions in cash, passed tip jars and fountains. But it’s still here. Even as just one dollar, there is something profoundly unsettling about being given money you did not earn or ask for. Since the coins were provided by the lay member giving the sermon and not the church, I can’t view it as a rebate or credit for my church giving.

How do you deal with random money? Randomly, I suppose. It’ll end up with the first homeless individual I encounter. This dollar is not only unearned and unasked for, but unneeded. Money gains its greatest value when it’s used to meet clear needs for people. And there are always those in need.

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