They are the most public private places that exist — the only locales that catch students, teachers and staff members sitting alone, staring receptively at the panel in front of them.
At Colorado College, where I’m a senior, stalls are well tapped as ad spaces. Reports from activist clubs pile on top of recruitment pleas from psychology thesis writers, internship opportunities from local newspapers and announcements from the campus activities office. Printed flyers all vie for the space’s most critical real estate – the center of the panel, directly opposite the toilet.
I entered a women’s room on the main floor of the library — one of the school’s most frequented — on a Wednesday afternoon two weeks ago. I sat down and unconsciously began reading the flyer in front of me, headlined: “HAVE YOU SEEN THIS MISOGYNISTIC PERPETRATOR?”
Below the headline was an enlarged, high-quality photograph of a man in a suit donning what appears to be an ironically serious facial expression. Further down were details about his alleged sexual assault infractions. The accusations were formatted similarly to campus safety warnings, which are initiated by Colorado College’s administration and circulate through school-wide email. The poster’s maker, who may or may not also be a victim, goes unidentified.
This was not the only flyer posted – the accused’s picture graced many women’s restrooms in the gym, the campus center, and even some academic buildings.
The flyers were taken down within two hours, but the perpetrator’s image lives — if not on taped-up printer paper then in the form of digital effigy, by way of smartphones, email, and the infamous nude picture-sharing app, Snapchat.
We’re now buried in an epidemic of assaults. Eighty-five college campuses are under federal investigation, and studies indicate that one-in-five female college students will be assaulted before graduation.
The Colorado College bathroom flyers can be viewed as a reaction to the flawed traditional system of sexual assault prosecution on college campuses. Again and again cases have bred shortcomings and controversial outcomes. In many cases, victims leave school with physical injuries and PTSD, while their perpetrators graduate with degrees, unscathed.
The system as it is doesn’t work, but it’s not for lack of trying. Obama has made combatting sexual assault on college campuses a priority. Colleges have unveiled revamped response programs. Student protests, not unlike this one, aimed at upending injustice have made national news headlines. These are issues that our country cares about – we’re just trying to figure out the best way to deal with them.
The problems here have remained unsolved for a while now, and the factors at play are increasingly complicated. In most cases, drugs and alcohol influence behaviors and crimes unfold behind closed doors, without witnesses. The result — murky he-said-she-said confrontations — is inevitably messy.
Questions of reliability also present new complexities. Feminist writer Rebecca Solnit likened public skepticism in the face of assault victim allegations to skepticism described in the Greek myth of Cassandra — a woman who repeatedly told the truth but was never believed. Solnit has a point. I want reports of female victims to be trusted by the public, but the Rolling Stone UVA scandal and the depiction of crazy men-hating women in the media only impugn that cause. Think Gone Girl.
Given all of these complications, and assuming the flyer-maker at my campus is a reliable source (she better be), I’m in support of the bathroom-poster approach. Though not an official claim, the posters serve as anonymous watch-out warnings to all women who, just by nature of their sex, risk rape and its terrifying derivatives.
At this point, sexual assault is as much a peoples’ issue as a legislative one. Change can happen with the help of social reform, through the shaming of perpetrators, through collective intolerance.
In this vein, the underground anti-rape coalition living in the stalls of Colorado College’s restrooms is a step in the right direction. My hope is that sexual harassment on this campus and all campuses stops. Until then, we should keep the posters coming.[Photo by Wolfram Burner: Flags for each of the potential 3,000 women that will be assaulted on a campus the size of the University of Oregon, based on national averages. Via the UO Women’s Center.]