Guest columnist Shaheen Pasha: We need to talk about sexual assault in the classroom

  • Shaheen Pasha. SUBMITTED PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 10/11/2018 8:17:29 AM


As a journalism educator, I often warn my students on the first day of class that I don’t provide trigger warnings. No topic of conversation is off limits. Journalism is a field fraught with trauma, I tell them. Reporters interact with victims of crimes, humanitarian crises, disasters and other calamities on a daily basis. To be a journalist is to be triggered on a constant basis.

But as I watched the emotional testimony of Christine Blasey Ford before the Senate Judiciary Committee two weeks ago with my journalism students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, for the first time I understood why some may call my stance harsh. 

According to RAINN, one in five college students will experience some form of sexual violence. Eighty percent of those female students will not report it to the authorities.

Those are statistics that I can relate to personally. I was a junior in college when one of the resident assistants at my alma mater pulled me into a dark stairwell as I returned to the dorms from an evening class. I can’t remember if he said anything to me before he pushed me up against a wall and started kissing me forcibly. 

I can remember, however, the utter terror I felt as I realized that it was so late and no one was around to help me. I can remember how heavy he was as I managed to shove him away. I remember the feel of his hands and the smell of his cologne. I can remember the shame I felt as I wondered why someone I considered a friend would try to do this to me and what I had done or said to make him think I was interested. 

These were the painful memories that came rushing back to me as I sat with my students watching Ford’s testimony. As they took notes on the hearing, I scanned their faces and wondered how many of them were being flooded with similar memories. I watched as they winced at the emotion in her voice and exchanged glances at the questions. I wondered how many of them were being triggered by the testimony as I was. Perhaps I should have given them another assignment.

Sexual assault is topic that remains taboo, even on college campuses. Whether it’s because of puritanical views on sexuality, concerns about reopening painful wounds or fear of being attacked for sharing an unpopular opinion, it’s often easier to avoid the discussion. But as the #MeToo movement has shown, sexual harassment and sexual assault are pandemic, across race, class and gender. To avoid the conversation is to perpetuate the culture.

Journalists don’t have the luxury of turning a blind eye to stories that cause us personal pain. Our job is to shine a light on issues facing society, particularly those sensitive topics that people don’t want to talk about. Sexual assault is certainly high on that list.

Now as a journalism professor, my job isn’t to coddle my students, as much as I may want to protect them on a personal level. My job is to prepare them for the traumas that they will not only cover but may experience personally. And that starts with exposing them to conversations and events that could be triggering.

The future journalists I’m training, particularly the women, will inevitably face some instances of sexual misconduct in their careers. In fact, a 2013 study by the International Women’s Media Foundation found that almost two-thirds of female journalists have been sexually harassed or abused on the job. And after experiencing such traumas, they may have to go out and cover stories relating to survivors.

So how do we prepare them to handle the topic of sexual assault? As college educators, we need to take the lead in discussing sexual assault in our classrooms. We need to discuss the prevalence of rape culture, particularly on college campuses, and allow for students to engage in respectful debate over what constitutes sexual assault, understanding that the conversations may make people uncomfortable and angry. Only through those painful and awkward conversations can we foster a more unified understanding of what is acceptable and what crosses the line. 

And as journalists, we need to teach our students how word choice can shape and bend a narrative. We need to teach student journalists to avoid words that minimize an assault by giving it the illusion of consensual sex. We need to be comfortable using strong and direct language such as “rape” and “groped” to truly illustrate the horror of the action. And we need to avoid trying to paint a picture that falsely equates true sexual assault claims with the handful of false accusations. Skepticism is a virtue in journalism but so are facts. And according to the Sexual Violence Resource Center, only roughly 2 to 10 percent of sexual violence cases are falsely reported. Such statistics should also be explained in our coverage to provide context. 

There is no magic bullet for approaching the topic of sexual assault in a classroom. It’s a conversation that will cause pain and discomfort to many. But to avoid these discussions is a disservice to students.

Shaheen Pasha teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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