From the beginning of the #MeToo movement, many among us have felt that our stories of sexual assault and harassment were finally given legitimacy. Though never brave enough to formerly join the social media movement by telling my own story, I embraced it as a win for people who had experienced and survived sexual assault. Over time, a more nuanced perspective came to light about the movement regarding some of the institutional and embedded racial inequities of sexual assault.
While celebrities of all races and ethnicities joined the movement, the number of women from BIPOC groups was startlingly low compared to white women. In a recent analysis of the 600,000 tweets using the #MeToo hashtag, researchers found that women of color were underrepresented in general and when they did post, their posts tended to include emotional support for the movement and reflections about the racial inequities embedded in how the justice system handles sexual assault cases. In contrast, white posters were more likely to discuss the sexual assault allegations of well-known white men and to discuss how sexual assault impacts the larger political climate (Mueller, 2021). These trends correspond with the overall trends in sexual assault reports on campuses. While the Department of Education does not require colleges and universities to report the racial identities of reporters, a survey of Title IX administrators revealed that 70% of reports on Title IX violations are reported by white women (Brown, 2019).
The enormous task of protecting and defending survivors of sexual assault on campus must include tackling the complex web of intersectionality that students and campus communities face.
How the #MeToo movement has played out for men of color further reveals its complexities as related to race. I recently read an article in the Washington Post during my preparation for a work-based equity discussion group and was struck by a different aspect of the intersectionality of race and sexual assault on campuses across the US. In the article, a Black student at Columbia University, describes his account of a recent interaction with a white female student on campus. After meeting at a party, Carl reports flirting with the woman, but soon realized that the woman seemed to be very intoxicated – perhaps past the point where consent can reasonably be given. Given his life experiences, he suggested a walk on campus instead of retreating to his room. The two eventually did go to his room, but Carl waited until he felt she “could no longer reasonably claim to be drunk” before anything physical commenced. Even so, Carl felt so worried about a future assault allegation that he recorded the woman stating how happy she was about her decision. New York, as a one-party consent state, allows for such audio recordings.
According to the Washington Post article, Carl’s experience is just one of many examples of how race and sexual relationships and assault have become inextricably intertwined. This type of inequity long predates Carl’s experience on campus. Consider the drama between the fictional characters Tom Robinson, Mayella Ewing and Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird. Though I hope society would no longer sentence a man to death based only on the flimsy accusations of an ill-reputed white girl, I wonder if reputationally hanging someone with false accusations is just a modern interpretation of Harper Lee’s famous work.
Even at the most reputable and esteemed institutions, many even politically progressive, our racial biases, both conscious and unconscious, are at play in daily life on campuses and this extends to assumptions and protections within sexual assault. Women and men of color on campuses report that classmates tend to assume they are “hypersexual,” even in circumstances with little to no evidence to support this assumption. This hypersexuality has roots that date back to documents from the 18th century. Obviously, the ways in which misconstrued, hypersexualized, racial attitudes on campuses may manifest in different situations depends on the campus, the current culture, the socio-political moment and particularly the circumstances of the individuals involved. How Carl changed his behavior in interacting with white women at parties struck me because of how much planning, effort and care men of color would need to exhibit in so many different social and academic experiences. In an institutional example, college athletes, many of whom are men of color, are often advised to refrain from alcohol, parties, or casual dating in order to protect themselves against the threat of allegations. Is this a reasonable strategy meant to protect men of color or a predictable and therefore complicit accommodation to our history of systemic racism?
The enormous task of protecting and defending survivors of sexual assault on campus must include tackling the complex web of intersectionality that students and campus communities face. If nothing else, in the face of the number of lives being impacted on campuses across the country, shouldn’t we be asking these tough questions?