SVPRO stands in solidarity with students at Western who are calling for prevention and institutional action related to sexual violence. We know that real prevention isn’t as easy as a module or an hour long intro to sexual violence at the start of the year. It occurs over time and begins long before sexual violence occurs. It is an everybody issue, not an issue between potential perpetrators and potential victims. The work to prevent sexual violence is not simple or easy, but it is necessary and it is not just Western that needs to take action. Sexual violence happens here at UBC and we at SVPRO are committed to undertaking this work, every single day.
Sexual violence is devastating and unjust, whether it happens at Western, at UBC, or anywhere around the globe. Our hearts are with survivors everywhere. It is for you, and for all of us that we work to end sexual violence. To that end, we want to talk about a phrase commonly used to describe the high rate of sexual violence experienced by young women in the first few weeks of their first year at university.
The Red Zone
We find this phrase problematic for a number of reasons:
The phrase sensationalizes sexual violence.
“The red zone” is intentionally reminiscent of the DANGER ZONE. It suggests that it is the time frame and the vulnerability of the victim that create this perfect storm of circumstance. It is intended to create fear on the part of people who are most likely to experience sexual assault. And fear is intended to control the behaviours of those same people. It implies that if somebody isn’t “responsible” during the red zone, then they are to blame if they are harmed.
The phrase renders the person causing the harm invisible. Sexual assault occurs ONLY because an individual (or individuals) choose(s) to commit sexual assault. When we place the focus anywhere else, we start thinking about prevention as a means of protecting some people from experiencing harm instead of STOPPING the people causing harm. YES, we want to stop people from experiencing harm, but with that as our sole intention, we have done nothing to interrupt the problematic attitudes and behaviour of the person causing the harm.
The phrase ignores what makes people vulnerable.
The energy around starting university (or returning to campus) and the subsequent parties are not why people are vulnerable in those first few weeks. Predatory behaviour that takes advantage of these environmental factors, THAT is what makes people unsafe. There is no vulnerability if there is no predatory behaviour. Ignoring this allows people to continue these behaviours and “the red zone” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The phrase begets victim blaming. Without the Subject (ie the person who caused harm) present in our phrasing, the person who experienced harm is the Object of our attention. We have a tendency to reject belief in our own vulnerability and for good reason- it’s scary to think we don’t have control over what might happen to us. It is easier to look at someone who has experienced harm and analyze their behaviours to identify what they did “wrong” than it is to accept that it was not their fault, but entirely the fault of the person who caused the harm. So again, we focus on the wrong person.
The phrase suggests vulnerability is temporal. The risk-factors associated with perpetration of sexual violence are not limited in place or time. Sexual violence occurs at massively high rates around the globe.This is because the socio-political factors that contribute to our learned values, attitudes and behaviours suggest the acceptability of our actions. We learn it is acceptable to evaluate people by their looks or desirability, to objectify, to comment, to grope, until it becomes acceptable to force penetration on someone who does not want it. The concept of the “red zone” further enables the acceptance of these ideas during this time of transition to campus and it becomes an excuse to cause harm.
Our laws and media dictate our social norms and mores. And they are based on a power dynamic that has been controlled by and privileges straight, white, cisgender men. To be very clear, the above statement is not a condemnation of straight, white, men. It is a factual description of the history of this country (and many other western colonial nations). It is a condemnation of the systemic, institutional, and personal actions that enable and encourage sexual violence to occur using various hierarchies to create tiered power. The gender-based power dynamic that was enforced at the time of colonization has continued to be reinforced throughout the years such that sexual violence continues to be inherently gendered. Yes, ALL genders can experience sexual violence. Yes, ALL genders can perpetrate sexual violence.
Still, the majority of cases involve cis women, trans, two-spirit, and nonbinary folks on the receiving end of harm. That matters. It means we have a responsibility, personally, professionally, ethically, to address power dynamics of gender. But to do this responsibly and ethically, we must also acknowledge that no one just has a gender. Our experiences of the world, and the way we are treated within the world are inextricably linked to our racial identities, disabilities, sexualities, our familial and individual capital. Addressing sexual violence exclusively as gender-based violence will best serve the folks with the most privilege- straight cisgender white women, and reinforce the oppression and forced vulnerability of people who have been denied power based on their race, class, disabilities, sexualities, and financial capital. We must address ALL forms of oppression simultaneously to begin to end sexual violence.
We’d like to be clear on this also- we are absolutely in favour of more education, at the start of the year and throughout the year, for each and every community member. We are also in favour of using our collective and individual drive to create and sustain communities of care. The University is not itself a person who can beheld accountable. But the people who make up the institution can and should be accountable. Whether we are the people who make, enforce or dis/obey the rules, we are the institution. And we have the power to make that good news. Because we CAN make a difference. Sexual violence is not inevitable and together we can stop it. This community is ours to change. We can do this.
Alicia, Ariana, Erin, Habi, Lauren, Ogake, and Sasha