The Chronicle of Higher Education reports (3-31-17) that Brandon E. Banks, a former Vanderbilt University student and football player charged in a rape case from June, 2013, has spoken at several universities to student-athletes about sexual assault. This subsequent Chronicle piece [4-2-17], titled “Victim in Vanderbilt Rape Case is Shocked That a Suspect Is Speaking on Campuses,” says that at least five universities have hosted Banks. Banks has visited these campuses in conjunction with Tyrone White, who is described in the earlier Chronicle piece as “a motivational speaker and former coach who organizes speaking events.”
White’s website underscores the main theme of “winning in life.” In addition, the website bills one of White’s speaking programs with the headline, “Say ‘NO!’ to Hook-Up Drama: Skills to wisely navigate intimate relationships.” One of the bulleted points on the side states that students will learn “how to get appropriate help if the ‘drama’ becomes violent.” The use of “drama” as a term for sexual assault or sexual violence is deeply problematic, as is the inclusion of a speaker who is currently facing sexual assault charges. I’m not saying that there isn’t something to learn about these situations and quite possibly from these individuals, but I am saying that the programming seems more than insensitive to victims’ rights in general and very specifically to the young woman who is alleged to have been the victim of “multiple counts of aggravated rape and other charges” (Chronicle, 3-31-17).
It wasn’t until this tour, targeted at student-athletes (described just as “athletes” in the 3-31-17 Chronicle piece), brought White and Banks to Louisiana State University that members of a university community raised objections. The e-mail invitation to the event reportedly featured Banks’ imminent sentencing as a reason to attend the talk. This seems to exploit both alleged perpetrator and victim. The 3-31 Chronicle piece appropriately signals that the e-mail invitation assured potential attendees that the session would be over before the start of the NCAA national championship game for men’s basketball. (You can learn about sexual assault, guys, but we won’t take up too much of your valuable time.)
According to the Chronicle, Tyrone White billed Brandon Banks as “not [the victim’s] hero” and highlighted the increased difficulties in Banks’s life since the incident. Faculty at LSU perceived this whole invitation as “a tone-deaf mistake by the athletics department” (Chronicle, 3-31-17). This is certainly true, but the invitation is more than just tone-deaf. It reveals a continued desire to focus on the alleged perpetrator’s changed life, instead of that of the victim’s, to give the alleged perpetrator a microphone and public mode of reconciliation at the cost of the victim, and to reinforce old gender scripts that cast woman as victim and man as her savior. Let me put it bluntly: Imagine you were raped by four men, some of whom photographed the assaults, and then you saw reputable universities inviting one of those men, his sentencing for felony charges imminent, to share his wisdom about sexual assault cases. I believe you would be retraumatized by the original incident and the lightness with which it was considered by several universities (don’t worry—you’ll make it on time to the Final Four, folks!). I believe you might think you might have a little more to offer in the realm of sexual assault prevention training.
The Chronicle (3-31-17) reports that faculty members were concerned about the following related issues: the University was booking an “untutored, ungraduated athlete who is on the brink of standing trial for a felony”; the University didn’t go to the root of the problem; the presentation seemed to lack scholarly grounding; faculty members would like more collaboration on these issues between athletics and academics. These faculty concerns, echoed by many LSU students, are valid and should be considered an important part of prevention programs. The “hero” and “winning” rhetoric touted by White reinforces hypermasculinist behaviors and casts women as victims.
Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, issued a statement on 3-14-17 that called his “team” to solve the problems of “disrespecting women by crude jokes, wisecracks, sexual harassment, and in its worst manifestations, sexual assault—a serious violent crime.” Richardson says that “in teams, there are no bystanders. We are all in.” While on the face of it, these might seem like noble or appropriate words, they again reinforce gender scripts (the “respect” model, or the woman-on-the-pedestal model). More importantly, these words are accompanied by a fierce us-versus-them rhetoric, exemplified in these statements: “We definitely don’t allow anybody to disrespect another teammate—we close ranks and protect”; “…to remain the world’s most powerful Navy we must be 100% focused on staying ahead of our competition…”; “There is no room in our Navy for toxic behavior. It makes us weaker, and cedes advantage to the enemy.” The “fighting words” model of sexual assault prevention might not be the best way to get people talking about actual violence. In addition, as I say throughout Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, in the current climate, statements that invoke zero-tolerance policies tend to be full of bluster and bravado and hypocrisy. We continue to tolerate sexual discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and assault—all the time.
In fact, these issues and their emphasis on bystander intervention underscore some of the shortcomings of current approaches to sexual assault prevention. Bystander intervention is of fundamental importance, but it cannot be the only approach to solving the problem of sexual violence on campuses. Some programs based on bystander intervention ignore root causes of gender-based violence and neglect to link sexual assault to patterns of sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.
Women’s and gender studies scholars and students have a lot to offer to organizations seeking to provide sexual assault prevention training, staring with undoing gender binaries and age-old gender scripts. For example, see the AAUW’s tool kit for sexual assault prevention.