When one comes forward about being a victim of sexual assault one question that goes without asking, among other absurd questions, is “what were you wearing?” It is one of the many ways people place blame on those who have experienced assault, and it represents how ignorant many of us are about the issue. As I looked at the clothes on display at the What Were You Wearing Exhibit on campus early last month, I couldn’t help but wonder how many more ideas about sexual assault I had to unlearn. I was terrified enough when I found out that one in five students on campus had experienced a form of sexual assault, but nothing terrified me more than my preconceived notions of assault and harassment. Worse than all the above was learning that people watched their friends become bystanders or heard them say “you’re overreacting” as they consoled those accused of sexual assault. What is sexual assault? What fosters an environment that tolerates it, and why are victims made to believe that it is their fault?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines sexual assault as illegal sexual contact that usually involves force upon a person without consent or is inflicted upon a person who is incapable of giving consent (as because of age or physical or mental incapacity) or who places the assailant (such as a doctor) in a position of trust or authority. In other words, if person A refuses to engage in any sexual contact, or is not in a state to say yes or no, but person B goes ahead to touch them inappropriately, kiss, or have sexual intercourse with them, then person A has been sexually assaulted. (Yes, it was worth repeating). What, then, creates an environment where such unlawful acts seem licit?

To begin with, gender roles and stereotypes play a big part in allowing for sexual assault and harassment. From an early age, boys and girls are taught to approach situations differently. Boys are brought up to believe that they are go getters. They are strong, brave, and courageous. Girls are vulnerable, shy, and needy; in need of protection, attention, and affection. Girls are taught shame and submission; cover yourself, sit like this, and don’t forget to lower your tone when you speak. When a person [man in many cases] with a significant role in community is accused of rape, it is untrue because he simply could not have done this. When a girl speaks up about being touched inappropriately, she is overreacting. And, when a third party refuses to be just another bystander, they are labeled just another angry feminist. It is no wonder, therefore, that when one feels a sense of pride after having fulfilled one’s pleasures, knowing well that it is something they can easily get away with, the other feels ashamed and blames herself for someone else’s actions.

Secondly, while it is important to acknowledge and celebrate the fact that more and more people are having conversations on sexual assault, it is worth mentioning that people know little about the issue and the weight it holds. The hashtag #MeToo is an example of something worth celebrating. Conversations that belittle one’s story or question the intensity or definition of cases such as rape, however, are not. It is hard to put a label on it. Understable. But when one accuses another of rape, a situation where no consent has been given, and is then alienated by their community, I wonder how much we know about the ideas we believe. We need to educate ourselves and others about an issue such as this before we lose members of our communities to being slaves of the bliss in ignorance. Ignorance is not bliss in this case.

Last, but certainly not least, in case of rape for example, reporting is not necessarily the best response. Many victims are pressured to report their cases as soon as possible. While this may be important for justice to be served, it adds to their burden and responsibility. It makes them even more vulnerable as they fear not being fully supported. Some even need more time to bring themselves to the fact that such an incident would happen to them. All of them need to heal, and the pace at which everyone does so is different. Whether it is reported immediately, or two years after, however, they deserve to be heard, supported, and acted upon by the law. The onus to convict, punish rapists, and hold them accountable for their actions should not only be on victims.

Let us not teach girls shame. Let us also not yield an unforgiving amount of pride in boys. Let us teach boys and girls alike to respect one another, to stand up for each other, and speak up about issues that concern them both. Let us teach them that “No.” is a sentence, but also a statement that holds great value and reflects one’s wishes, and, therefore, should not be refuted or taken with offense. Let us teach boys not to tolerate conversations that demean and objectify girls. Let us teach girls the same. Let us not teach girls hate. Let us teach them to stand not by one another, but for and with each other. Finally, let us not place children in boxes of socially constructed ideas of who and what they should be. It is true, we are built differently, but no one is less able, deserving, or worthy. Our manners could be the same and we could both approach each other with mutual respect.

And, for those who experience sexual assault, it is not their fault. Let us, therefore, build and encourage our communities to be more accepting and supportive, and have enough courage and zeal to speak up in situations where it is clear that one is being harassed.

Let us foster an environment that victimizes victims less, and punishes culprits more.

Uwera often refers to herself as art and artist. She believes that people are not only works of art, but that they are also innately artists - capable of creating & doing beautiful things to make the world a better place. When she’s not thinking about the power of storytelling, or studying (Hi, Mom and Dad), she reads, writes, learns code stuff from her cousin, Dave, and watches This Is Us. Uwera is also almost always down for a hearty, genuine conversation about faith, storytelling, the tech world, women empowerment, and mental health.