Trigger warning: references to sexual assault
The mornings at Oxford are so clear and crisp that every breath of air shocks my lungs. I listen to the changing sound of my own footsteps on the sidewalk, up stairs, and into a classroom. I have new professors this semester, new subjects to study, new places to bring my thoughts into. In all these beginnings, sometimes it’s easy to forget the heaviness of the last few months. Memories of claustrophobic nights and jarring days recede into the static of sequencing everyday life around an academic schedule. Yet even these beginnings are not enough to nail down a past that still threatens to erase parts of my identity into fragmented reality.
Since the beginning of last semester, multiple initiatives brought awareness and reform to Oxford College’s policies surrounding sexual assault. With the anticipated arrival of an advocate for survivors drawing near, the effects of these initiatives may finally catalyze a new leaf of Oxford’s history. As our community undergoes a transition from reaction to actual change in regards to how sexual assault is managed, it is hopeful that Oxford continues to uphold its strengthened stance against any sort of sexual harassment. Even though it is truly time for new beginnings, these changes in policy must be reinforced by an underlying shift in Oxford’s culture.
As a survivor of sexual assault at Oxford, I think it’s important as a community to understand that change is not the end of the story. Though change is indeed a vital process in addressing sexual assault on a college campus, it does little to mitigate the fact that students on this campus have had life-altering choices thrust upon them in terms of navigating a new identity as a “survivor.” It does not change the assumption that sexual assault is, at its core, too “grey” an issue to earn a clear-cut definition as wrong or right. Why does an Oxford student potentially face greater condemnation for being caught with alcohol than for physically, mentally, and emotionally damaging another person?
Further dialogue concerning sexual assault must accompany policy changes. In order to challenge the culture of Oxford, awareness of sexual assault needs to cross the many barriers between facets of student life. Once Haven is over, knowledge about sexual assault should not be in the form of an email that is optionally opened, or centralized in the showcases and initiatives orchestrated by Revision, SGA, or OxSAPA. When there is reaction, there is change. Yet change does not always guarantee that an issue has priority.
Survivors are taught that we have two options: to destroy someone else’s life, or to struggle to make sense of a choking, crippling silence. After we are forced to learn this lesson, reality is shattered by an overwhelming duality offered by these two options. In order to deconstruct the implementation of this duality, culture needs to exist that strips away the anomie of how we perceive ourselves. Along with policy that prevents and protects, survivors need the reassurance of living in a community that already recognizes sexual assault as concretely wrong. When the “greyness” is taken away, perhaps our new realities will become easier to construct. Perhaps we will not be splintered away under the burden of two choices which drain dimensionality from identity.
New policies cannot stand without the support of a student culture that recognizes the gravity of sexual harassment, assault, or objectification in any shape or form. As long as circumstances, morals, and reality of sexual assault are tolerated and defined as a “grey” zone, there will not be enough student awareness to legitimately turn change into priority. Our realities as survivors will remain hidden until they are gone, just as the changing colors of leaves are unnoticed until they fall, soon to be replaced in a never-ending cycle.